Monday, March 23, 2009

On Apologies

I've been thinking about apologies. I've always known, but hadn't thought about for a while, the fact it's built into the Japanese language. And false modesty, except they are ritual sayings and not exactly thought of as false modesty by the speaker.

"Sumimasen" or "Suimasen"(casual) is most often used in place of "Excuse me" or even "Hello", but it's also one of the most formal of apologies; "Dohmo sumimasen deshita." The even "higher" apology, "Moushiwake arimasen" can also be used as "Excuse me" when you are trying to get someone's attention, or just to start an inquiry with a stranger.

If you gets a crate of, say, apples from your home town known for good apples, you might want to share some with your friends or neighbors. You start by apologizing, "O Hitotsu desuga..." (There's only one, but...) or "Tsumaranai mono desuga..." (It's really uninteresting, but...), even if you think they are darned good apples and they should love you for them. Not completing the sentence is just as important as that gives your givee a chance to thank you, or for you to "switch the subject" and go into explaining how you got the apples. This one really bothered me, and I never shared my loot with my neightbours.

At the start of the meal, everybody thanks the cook by saying, often in unison, "Itadaki masu," (We will now receive the food,) acknowledging not only the cook's work but also signing to other diners dinner has commenced. At the end of the meal, everybody thanks the cook, saying, "Gochisoh sama deshita," (It was truly a feast,) to which the cook responds, "Osomatsu sama deshita," (Sorry, it was only a frugal meal.)

Except in my family. Dad and brother always started the meal by saying loudly and cheerfully, "Osomatsu sama" whenever I cooked.

Geez, guys, sooooo-reeeeeeeee!!!

14 comments:

  1. I'm laughing my head off.

    It also sounds like my family. My (not particularly tall) father once loomed over me and said, pointedly looking down, "You may have a Ph.D., but I'll never look up to you".

    Hm....you've just given me an idea for a post.

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  2. Before I got married, but after everything was set, Dad took me out drinking, just the two of us... He got quite "happy" and was talking rather loudly on the train. After a while he just kept repeating one thing: "Meg, I'm sorry you're so short. Meg, I'm sorry you're so short..." The entire car heard it over and over and over and I was beyond embarrassed - and everybody in the same car were giggling...

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  3. I found myself in wholehearted sympathy with James Runcie in Saturday's Guardian - as he says, 'Archbishop of Canterbury is a bit of a "Beat that!" job' - but even without that trump card my parents managed just fine. The article is here.

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  4. My mom told me, when I was around 27, that it was her right to tell me whatever she wanted to, "Because no matter how old you are, I am your mother and if I would like you to wear another layer on a cool morning, I will say so, and you will do so! Even if you are 97 and I am however old I will be then!"

    And she has done so... AS has Dad... But now that my sister and brother both have kids, they do it to me, too. I've always been IT in my family. (Perhaps that's why I live so far away?)

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  5. Cally, nice article by the way.
    Thank you for the link.

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  6. It seems like you speak both English and Japanese fluently (ah, very lucky!) - my dad seems to say "gosoumatsu sama deshita."

    Do you know the kanji for this phrase? Thanks.

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  7. That would be "Osomatsu sama deshita", and I' not sure if you can see these on your screen, but it would be:

    御粗末様でした。

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  8. Thank you very much for your quick response!

    Google Translate says the romaji is:

    "go somatsu sama deshi ta"

    So:

    御 (ご) 粗末 (そまつ) 様 (さま) でした。

    Interesting that you pronounce (or at least transliterate into romaji) as "o" and not "go" ... ?

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  9. Most Kanji have multiple pronunciation, most often that/those close to the original Chinese pronunciation and the more Japanese sounding version/s used for Yamato Kotoba. 御 is an honorific prefix, and is pronounced GO when followed by a Japanese words with our facsimile Chinese pronunciation, O when followed by Yamato Kotoba, which 粗末 definitely is.

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  10. Best not to give too much weight on automatic translations, particularly where Japanese is are concerned. In Japan, laughing at translations coming out of these, in either direction, is a great pastime.

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  11. Even though some businesses use it unashamedly!

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  12. You also helped solve a mystery we've had ... why we say "moshi moshi" when answering the phone. I suspect it's a shortened form of "moushiwake arimasen" then repeated as a form of redundancy.

    In the older days of telephony where just confirming that the party on the other end answered at all was important, folks probably answered the phone with "moushiwake arimasen" as a very polite form of "hello" as you didn't know who was on the other end calling you. Over time, it probably gotten shortened to "moshi" as it become commonplace and doubled to "moshi moshi" in case the first "moshi" was "lost in transmission" ...

    I'm just guessing, but we've always kinda wondered where the phrase "moshi moshi" came from and why it was said when answering a phone. Do you know of an actual explanation? ;-)

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  13. Speaking of laughing at bad translations, you've heard of http://www.engrish.com/ right? :-)

    Thanks for the education in Japanese. Unfortunately, I was born and raised in the US, my father is Japanese and my mother is Korean, so they mostly spoke broken English in the home and I didn't really learn much of either language well.

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  14. I found two explanations, Dossy.

    When telephones first started being used, in the late 1800s, the caller first said, "Oi, Oi," which, ask you know, is not very polite. Around 1890, telephone switchboard operates started to say "Moushi agemasu" which is a very polite way to say, "I'm going to tell you (the following)." That got shortened to "Moshi moshi."

    Before telephones, we sometimes got people's attention by calling out, "Mohshi", and that got shortened to "Moshi moshi".

    There are more post citing the first, but I like the second better.

    A bit more on the subject.

    You know Japanese and Korean languages borrowed Kanji/Hanji Chinese characters.

    In Japan, we pretty much kept the characters as they were, simplifying only a few. China, trying to speed up their writing, simplified a lot of theirs, so now we see their texts and sometimes they don't make much sense, whereas until, oh, the 70's and 80's, we could read a Chinese texts and get the gist of it, even though we couldn't read them out loud.

    Japanese and Korean had their own alphabets and borrowed Kanji/Hanji. But I believe in Korea they got rid of them and started using only their own alphabets, which in themselves are interesting logical sets of sounds, I understand.

    With Korean people my age and older, I can communicate using Kanji/Hanji, but not with the younger people. In the old days, we could decipher Korean texts, too, but not all all lately.

    We tend to stick to our system once we develop them, it appears. So we use two sets of our own alphabets, and the old Chinese letters.

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