Mar 6


By translator and writer Jamie Graves (Saitama-Ken 2002-2003)

If you studied Japanese at the college level, your first exposure to the language most likely came from the red and black circles of Eleanor Harz Jorden’s seminal textbook “Japanese: The Spoken Language.” Jorden recently passed away at the age of 89, having spent her entire adult life studying and teaching Japanese linguistics to English speakers. Jorden was part of the generation of Japanese scholars that became active and influential just after World War II, and whose work laid the foundations for modern study and understanding of Japan in the English speaking world. When the translations of Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker inspired many to study Japanese language and literature, it was often the system Jorden developed that they used to learn it.

As a linguist, Jorden was extremely concerned with accuracy and precision. Switching to Japanese in the middle of my junior year, I moved from the copiously illustrated “Genki” series of textbooks, with its illustrated storyline of Mary-san the exchange student slowly learning Japanese language and culture, to Jorden’s blocky and forbidding introduction. There were no photos, illustrations or cultural asides in Jorden’s book, just rows of text and the occasional explanatory table. Instead of hellos and introductions the book begins like a science text, defining its most basic terms. “Mora is the term we will use to refer to the syllable-like unit of Japanese: each mora represents one beat and occupies roughly the same unit of time (a 3-mora word takes three times as long to pronounce as a 1-mora word).”

On top of the crackling prose, the Japanese words in the book looked strange and unpronounceable. In an attempt to root out inconsistencies in the commonly used Hepburn system, Jorden had invented her own way of writing Japanese using the roman alphabet. In her JSL romanization system the Japanese capital would be written as “Tookyoo” to better reflect the drawn out vowels. Emphasis within words were indicated by a new series of accent marks. 日本 “Japan” would be written as nihôn and 二本 “two bottles” as nîhon.

The books were dry as dirt, but the plodding and methodical program cut through any early confusion on the language. This wasn’t about picking up helpful phrases or fun cultural quirks, it was like studying principles of physics. I didn’t particularly enjoy using Jorden’s books, and her JSL system is bewildering when familiar words are mangled into spellings like “tunami,” but there was something comforting in the exactness of her explanations. Languages are fluid and messy, but Jorden did her best to pin down the grammar points and accents until they lay there wriggling on the table, clearly defined in all their peculiarities.

When asked, I always recommend standard illustrated books like “Genki” and “Japanese for Busy People” for people just starting to study Japanese. Instead of a treatise on the indication of subject and object using “wa” and “ga” they just tell you how to find your way to the damn train station. But for all its mind numbing complexity, Jorden’s system is an honest attempt to rip out conventional thinking or shortcuts on Japanese, and to confront it just as it is, slippery syllables and all.

4 comments so far...

  • Kirsten Said on March 8th, 2009 at 8:43 pm:

    I like this article a lot! Thank you, Jamie!

  • Jamie Said on March 9th, 2009 at 4:04 pm:

    Thanks! I hope to be posting semi-regularly from now on.

  • Joel Said on March 10th, 2009 at 2:59 pm:

    RIP Dr Jorden and thank you!

    I was a linguistics major. These textbooks kicked ass and I was probably the only one in class who thought so. The only problem was that the intensive curriculum left little time for writing practice. But then again, Japanese kids spend 12 years copying kanji zillions of times into notebooks so I don’t feel so bad.

  • Octavia Wiedmann Said on December 22nd, 2009 at 5:05 pm:

    While this topic can be very difficult for most people, my impression is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do value that you’ve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Very much thanks to you!

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