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A dose of dumb: "Japanese has no words"

Japanese dictionary

Should I ever need to hire a translation firm, I know one I won't be considering. A strange pang of kindness holds me back from giving out the befuddled firm's name here, but the FAQ page of these "Japanese translators of the highest quality" contains this goofiness:

[T]here are no such things as words in Japanese.

Apparently, the firm's "experienced Japanese translators" have never come across a Japanese dictionary. For the curious, here's a dispatch from reality: Japanese has words.

Distinct words of the same sort – nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on – that you'll find in every other human language. People in Japan play games involving concrete, discrete words, anything from free association-type games to the popular kids' game shiritori (which involves taking the last syllable of the previous person's word to start a new word). There are countless books and products that supply lists of words for study, whether for schoolkids, persons engaged in specific industries, foreign learners of Japanese, or just Japanese adults wanting to expand their vocabulary. Documentaries and TV quiz shows delve into word associations, word origins, and proper usage of words. And a Japanese dictionary catalogs those words, in exactly the same way as does an English dictionary or Latin dictionary or what have you. (Needless to say, that dictionary will even offer a word meaning "word", kotoba.)

Japanese has no words? The only lack of words lies is my inability to express how uterly bizarre that claim is. Why in the world would the translation firm say such a wacky thing?

The apparent point of confusion is this: It is a fact that, like Chinese, written Japanese text typically doesn't place spaces between words. That's certainly a difference from written English, and it does mean there's no quick way to count the number of words in a Japanese text (which was the context of the discussion containing the quote above).

Yet no sane mind should draw a bizarre claim of "no words" from that. In fact, it's not even an odd feature. Ancient languages were typically written without interword separation (as the cool linguists call it). Korean was traditionally written without spaces, and as noted above, Chinese still is. More telling, we have to note that no tongue uses distinct spaces or other interword separators in spoken language! If "no spaces" is a marker of "no words", then no spoken languages have words!

(And since I'm on a roll, I'll add one more lump to the head of anyone sputtering "OMG Japanese has no spaces between words". It's this: Japanese can be – and often is – written with spaces between words! Beginning readers for children or other learners of Japanese often space words for easy reading. Now, how would that even be possible if there were "no words"?) 

So that's that – but wait, there's more! These same linguistic geniuses inform us that "There are no possessive forms of nouns or pronouns in Japanese". This couldn't be more wrong; not only are there possessives in Japanese, they're ridiculously easy to work with! (Just add "-no" to any noun or pronoun. Done. None of English's confusing "John -> John's", "it -> its", "she -> her (or hers)", "he -> his", "I -> my (or mine)", etc.)

The clever wordsmiths go on to describe a lack of "a/an/the", and a lack of plurals, as additional creators of complexity, when in fact these again make Japanese simpler.

And, of course, there's that beloved chestnut about number of alphabets: "There is only one English alphabet. The Japanese use three, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji." Putting aside the quibble that the latter three are not alphabets, an accurate description acknowledges that English has two alphabets, not one: upper case and lower case. If you want to argue that those are just two versions of the same set, and thus one alphabet, that's fine – but the same then applies equally to hiragana and katakana.

The addition of Chinese characters, on the other hand, is a notable point of departure from the English writing system, and that alone adds considerable difficulty. No argument there. But with that very real difficulty to point to, why do the culturologists so love that "one alphabet vs three" exaggeration?

In any case, the reason behind this translation firm's embellishments isn't hard to see. Like people who want to sell a book on an "exotic" land, or gain the speaker's podium with insights into a "totally opposite" culture, or just command a cocktail party conversation with tales of learning an "incredibly complex" language, these translators have a motive to crank the exoticism up to 11. In their own words:

Given that Japanese is such a complex language, would you really want to trust your translation assignment to a company who does not use experienced translators?

No... but nor would I want to trust my assignment to a company which makes things up to sell the pitch "it's so complex, you need our special skills"!


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