Do not get Caught up in Asking Why
Have you ever asked any of the following questions to a Japanese teacher, a Japanese person, or yourself?
1. Why use this word, instead of another?
2. Why is this word pronounced this way?
3. Why use this reading for this kanji?
4. Why isn’t there a word for this in Japanese?
5. Why does this Japanese version of an English word mean nothing like the original English word?
“Why” is usually one of the most important questions in learning pretty much anything. The answer to why deepens our understanding of life and allows us to move foward. However, “why” does not belong in your Japanese studies.
Language doesn’t need a why. Unless you are looking at the language for purely linguistic purposes, and don’t plan to actually learn Japanese itself, you don’t need to know why. “Why” is a waste of time, and you should avoid it at all costs.
When I think of all the whyers out there who are trying to learn Japanese, I am reminded of this famous poem by anonymous:
We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese,
You may find a lone mouse or a whole nest of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But a bow if repeated is never called bine,
And the plural of vow is vows, never vine.
If I speak of a foot and you show me your feet,
And I give you a boot would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth, and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular’s this and the plural is these,
Should the plural of kiss ever be nicknamed keese?
Then one may be that and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren,
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis and shim,
So the English, I think, you all will agree,
Is the queerest language you ever did see.
You need to turn all your “whys” into “whats”. Turn the above five questions into the following:
1. What word do I say here?
2. What is the pronunciation of this word?
3. What is the kanji reading?
4. What do Japanese use to express what they want to say in this situation?
5. What is the meaning of this Japanese version of an English word?
Have I convinced you to stop whying?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
Laughed at that poem. That guy anonymous is really smart. He’s written so much. Or maybe there is more than one anonymous? Anonymi?
Ha. Guess he should’ve given his name.
But why should we stop asking why?
This post is funny, and wise at the same time. Actually, in learning about life and behavior, it is also much better to ask “What?” instead of “Why?” It’s unproductive to ask, “Why doesn’t he love me?” and better to ask, “What do I want to do about it?” Or instead of asking someone why they did something, better to ask what were they hoping to accomplish. Wonderful post!
On the other hand, an etymological explanation to a “Why?” gives your brain new connections (a story even, if you’re lucky) that help you store the meaning of the word or phrase in your long-term memory. I’m always interested in the origin of words, and studying kanji provides a lot of hints for that – which in turn helps me remember details about the individual kanji.
When I ask myself ‘why’ I’m not looking for an answer to any of the 5 ‘why’ examples mentioned.
I am usually just looking for the set of rules or grammatical explanation of ‘how’ it is supposed to be used.
“Oh, thats like that because you always use a X with Y in that situation.”
Thats all I need. I don’t care about nitty gritty ‘why’, I do feel there is a difference.
Particularly for grammar, asking ‘why’ has really helped me to remember *how* it works. Imabi is great for this. An extensive explanation about a grammar point, its etymological significance and a bunch of other less important tangents all revolving around that grammar point help you to remember *the grammar point itself*, while most of the other stuff fades away; like the scaffolding on a house.
Tae Kim doesn’t work for me precisely because his explanations tend to be far shallower than I can handle. I have to read it multiple times to even understand what he’s trying to get at, and I’ve recently discovered that some of his information is (and continues to be) flat-out incorrect.
Learning ‘why’ is more time-consuming — but actually it isn’t, because you don’t have to re-learn grammar points when you forget them because there isn’t enough scaffolding to latch onto — but it really helps.