Eating sideways, writing sideways


Foreign languages offer interesting, useful words, like gambari, with nuances and shades we sometimes cannot find in our own language, and it is not surprising that we end up borrowing them. Gambari has not entered English yet, but it should and probably will.

William Safire, our friendly NYT columnist whose ignorance of multilingual computing we pointed out in a recent post, recently took up this topic in his weekly column in the New York Times Magazine.

Introducing a Japanese example, he starts off with an astonishing assertion:

Many foreign languages are difficult for the Japanese to learn because their language is written vertically.

Now, I have heard many theories as to why Japanese should be so poor at learning foreign languages, but this one is brand new! For one thing, it’s based on a false assumption, that Japanese is written vertically. In fact, vertical Japanese is found only in novels, a few literary magazines, school textbooks, and station nameplates hanging vertically on pillars in train stations.

It’s true that Japanese was originally written vertically, as was Chinese of course, and I’ve been unable to find any information on why this might have been the case. What is known is that horizontal writing first appeared around the beginning of the Meiji period, and became widespread (in left-to-right form) after the war. The most common theory is that this is another example of the well-known Japanese inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West. Psychologists have found no evidence that either horizontal or vertical writing is superior from the cognitive standpoint.

Off topic, but there may be cognitive differences between left-to-right and right-to-left writing. One researcher points out that since most humans are right-handed, left-to-right is a more natural direction, but in that case, why were the first written languages apparently right-to-left? One possibility is that writing was originally localized in the right hemisphere of the brain, and the shift to left-to-right writing (around the time of Greeks) coincided with a shift in hemispheric dominance for the literacy task (which is a huge topic in itself).

This would be consistent with the timing of the emergence of Chinese characters and the fact that the vertical columns in which they were written also went from right to left. Of course, writing with a brush instead of a quill eliminated some of the logistical problems with right-to-left writing, like dragging your sleeve through the ink you just put down on the paper.

Returning to our friend William Safire, he seems to be getting more and confused as time goes on. The example he trots out for a Japanese word describing a concept not in English is:

They have come up with the phrase yoko (‘’horizontal’‘) meshi (‘’boiled rice’‘), meaning ‘’a meal eaten sideways.’’ Yoko meshi evokes the stress that comes from trying to make oneself understood in a foreign language.

Unfortunately, neither myself nor any native Japanese informant I consulted has ever heard of this word. It gets only 51 Google hits. From the references on the web, the tiny number of Japanese who have used this term do not themselves seem to agree on its meaning, and none of them think it means Safire’s “stress coming from trying to speak a foreign language”. The dominant nuance is of trying to talk with foreigners while eating, while another meaning is apparently simply “Western food”.

Where did you come up with this word anyway, Bill?

3 Responses to “Eating sideways, writing sideways”

  1. Vincent Henderson Says:

    Note that LanguageHat has pointed out that another of the words, the russian example, that Safire bases his argument on doesn’t exist either.

  2. Bathrobe Says:

    Sorry, you’re dead wrong. Yoko-meshi exists and is used. I lived in Japan, I speak Japanese, and I’ve heard it from native Japanese speakers.

    ‘The dominant nuance is of trying to talk with foreigners while eating, while another meaning is apparently simply “Western foodâ€?.’

    Well, it’s both! Because when you go out with those foreign clients and have Western food, you have to deal with unfamiliar language, unfamiliar food, and unfamiliar customs all at the same time. It really is an horribly uncomfortable situation that you hope will end as soon as possible!

  3. Japanese Says:

    You are both right. I’m a Japanese and have never heard of the word “Yoko Meshi”. Well, I probably have but at least never knew the meaning. Whatever it is, it’s not included in the “Kojien” dictionary (3rd ed.) and this business jargon may never make it. Similar to the term “Ita meshi” – “dine out at an Italian restaurant”. My theory for Japanese being a poor learner of foreign languages is that we have been taught by Japanese teachers who are themselves poor speakers of foreign languages (Hopefully it will change in the future). Thank you for reading my poor English.

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