Normally I don’t bother reposting stuff from the Log because I assume most people who are interested in language blogs frequent both venues, but this post by Victor Mair is so full of goodies I can’t resist. First he quotes General MacArthur’s translator, George Kisaki, on the difficulty of interpreting for the emperor:
The emperor spoke a whole different other kind of Japanese—a royal dialect, something that only the Imperial Family and the court really used. I had to study up on it to understand what he was saying. It was like learning a second language.
After discussing a couple of his own royal encounters, Mair goes on to Javanese shadow plays (wayang):
In all types of wayang, the dalang (performer) employs an extraordinary range of linguistic registers, from low, earthy colloquial to language that is heavily imbued with Sanskritic and Old Javanese forms, while the very highest register is reserved only for royal personages. When I attended performances of wayang by Indonesian dalangs, I could tell when they shifted from one register to another because they had a noticeably different sound and cadence, but I didn’t understand any of it.
Once, however, in the mid-70s, I attended an extraordinary wayang kulit performance in Paine Hall at Harvard University. Everything that the American dalang said and sang was in translated English, and when he delivered his lines in middle register, I could understand everything. However, when he shifted into lower and higher registers, his voice was electronically manipulated and modulated in such a fashion that it became more and more difficult to comprehend the higher and lower he went on the scale of politeness versus vulgarity. The effect was uncanny. I still remember straining to pick out bits and pieces of the lower and higher registers, and could manage with effort when the dalang was using what would have been mid-levels on the politeness scale of Javanese. But when he adopted the highest and lowest levels of speech and song, I could comprehend virtually nothing of what he was saying and singing.
It’s a brilliant idea in its way, but it would infuriate me — I hate being deliberately kept from understanding! Also, I agree with Mair when he says “I much prefer American English, where we don’t have elaborate honorific language.”