Japan/America Society of Kentucky

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You Call Them Dialects

27 Oct 2010 1:02 PM | Anonymous member

                In the spring semester of 2009, I went for a study abroad in Akita, Japan.  I had studied Japanese language for four years prior to my trip, but when I stepped off the bullet train and into Akita Station, I was thrown into a new world.  In Tokyo, I could understand a lot of the words people were saying around me--what wasn’t lost in the din of a bustling crowd.  However, once in the Tohoku prefecture of Akita, I couldn’t understand a thing.  At first I thought, “Oh, this is just your nerves, because you need sleep”, but even after a night’s sleep in my hotel, and returning to the station to await pickup, I was lost.  This was what I learned of as “Akiben” or Akita dialect.  What I thought of as an entire other language was nothing more than a Southern accent and colloquialisms here in America.  It was a way of speaking and an accent that transformed regular Japanese into a mystery. 

                The mystery had enthralled me.  I was so curious about this “Akiben” that I started to ask my fellow students, from Akita and Miyagi prefectures, especially, just what it was.  Through a long history, of which I sadly don’t remember much, I learned how it came to be and I learned many phrases.  I was soon able to charm my host family, from Akita Prefecture themselves, with such idioms as “hara ippei” (“I’m full) and “kaeranebananne” (“I’ve gotta go home”) among others.  This certain intonation and vowel changes that I studied in “Akiben” seemed so much like the “hey y’all” and lengthened vowels of the Southern states.  I loved studying it and talking in my own code of sorts with my Japanese friends. 

                However, not long after I had gained mastery of a few “Akiben” phrases, a new phenomenon of sound broke upon my ears--“Kansaiben.”  I had been overjoyed at comparing my own state and regions accents to “Akiben” and how happy do you think I was now!  My poor friend from Minnesota had a thick Minnesotan accent, where the vowels seem to be almost sung from their length.  This made him and the rest of Minnesotans everywhere my targets.  So, once I figured out just what it was that my friends from Osaka were saying I started a new comparison.  I’m no linguistics scholar--I merely have an interest--but it seemed that phrases such as “ikana akan” (I’ve gotta go) and “ya” (is/am verb) were similar to the notes of Minnesotan accents.  I loved to compare them, and to try to get them to use their accents as much as possible--sometimes, I was probably quite annoying about it.  Eventually, I mastered a few phrases, mostly because they would put a smile on my friends’ faces. 

                Which brings me to my point; in the history of Japan dialects have always been seen as a separation of peoples.  However, it is my belief that dialects bring people together.  If two people, speaking two dialects meet and talk, they will find such similarities in the differences that they could talk forever.  If they were to talk about it, they’d certainly never run out of conversation.  Though understanding them at first can be trying, I think that dialects are a unique aspect of a unified Japan; which, having a standard language, yet has these dialects.  So, you may call them dialects, but I will call them bonds--bonds of friendship and bonds of understanding, though they don't seem so at first.

Sarah Newman

Japan/America Society of Kentucky
464 Chenault Rd.
Frankfort, KY 40601
(502) 209-9630

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