[Haskell-cafe] [OT] Japanese (was: Re: about Haskell code written to be "too smart")

wren ng thornton wren at freegeek.org
Wed Mar 25 18:44:18 EDT 2009

Zachary Turner wrote:
> On Tue, Mar 24, 2009 at 10:32 PM, wren ng thornton <wren at freegeek.org>wrote:
>> Both of these conclusions seem quite natural to me, even from before
>> learning Haskell. It seems, therefore, that "naturality" is not the proper
>> metric to discuss. It's oft overlooked, but the fact is that expressivity
>> comes not from more formal power, but from _less_.
>> * Natural language has a limited range of words and syntactic constructs,
>> but gives the larger-enough building blocks to enable unconstrained
>> communication; whereas a language with a unique word for every utterance
>> (arguably simpler) is impossible to learn.
> On the other hand, -certain- languages are more expressive than others.  As
> an example, I personally find English far more expressive than both
> Vietnamese and Japanese, yet English is far more complicated.

That's funny, I find Japanese to be far more expressive than English. 
(The language itself. Due to familiarity, I myself am more expressive in 

Japanese has sophisticated forms of address that indicate the distance, 
degree, and style of the speaker's relationship with the listener. In 
English we can get the point across but we don't have the formalism and 
so it's all a lot more handwaving. Japanese can indicate topic and focus 
directly; whereas English must resort to bold/italics or syntactic 
contortions to be precise. Japanese has a wide assortment of pronouns 
which imply measures of respect, arrogance, disdain, abashment, etc; 
whereas English is limited to a small number that are only deictic. 
Japanese has many postpositions which capture abstract comparative 
relations that are difficult to express concisely in English. Japanese 
sentential particles can express a wide range of affect; whereas English 
must rely on intonation and context to determine whether something 
should be interpreted as compassionate, bonding, insulting, ironic, etc.

Of course it all depends on what exactly you care to express. Japanese 
has restricted phonology, as you mentioned, though this is only as 
meaningful as the character set used for variable names in a programming 
language. Japanese also lacks certain sophisticated distinctions in 
English like definite vs indefinite articles, and singular vs plural vs 
mass-count nouns.

> Words that are spelled the same in Japanese are
> pronounced the same 100% of the time.

False. There are numerous words which have the same spelling and 
different pronunciations. For example 今日 can be either /kyou/ "today" 
or /kon'niti/ "every day; daily". This is one reason why learning to 
read Japanese is so difficult for westerners. An even bigger reason is 
that countless words can be spelled in a number of different ways, with 
each spelling having different nuances and implications (sometimes to 
the point where the spellings are not interchangeable).

> Anyway the point of all this is that in English you have more freedom and
> more power, and hence you use (abuse?) the syntax of the language to create
> words, sentences, and phrases that express very powerful things.
> Furthermore, they are things that almost all English speakers would be able
> to grasp the full meaning of what you've said.

All natural languages are Thinking-complete. Just like with 
Turing-complete programming languages, the only difference is where they 
hide the bodies. There are plenty of things that I as a native speaker 
of English could say which other natives would grasp but which would 
confuse many of my non-native yet fluent coworkers. The Japanese abuse 
their syntax just as badly as we abuse English, or far far worse if we 
include the slang of youth culture. The Japanese have long thought of 
their language as a toy box ripe for experimentation, and you can see 
the effects of this everywhere.

Live well,

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