あぶない abunai—watch out!

One little difference between Japanese and English is that when we urgently need to warn someone of danger, we call out something like “Careful!” or “Watch out!”, whereas they say “Dangerous!” (危ない abunai). (I’m talking about the spoken language here, rather than warning signs.)

Similarly, where in English we say “Be quiet”, or “Shut up”, the Japanese will say “Loud!” (うるさい urusai). A Japanese person might exclaim 邪魔 jama, meaning “in the way” or “nuisance” (for example if the dog is under our feet) where an English-speaker would say “move over” or “out of the way!”. On one occasion I heard the boss at work telling a subordinate to speak up by saying “small voice”.

In other words, the Japanese tend to say a word that describes the unwanted situation, whereas in English we tend to prescribe the remedy.

This minor language difference caught me out once on an early visit to Japan. I was at the barber, getting my hair cut, and I wanted him to cut it very short. My Japanese was not good enough at that time to be able to say “Please make it shorter”, nor did I know the word 丸刈り marugari to describe the hairstyle I wanted, but I did know the Japanese word for “short”: 短い mijikai. I thought, wrongly, that this would be enough to make my intentions known, so while the barber was cutting, I repeatedly called out “mijikai”, trying to encourage him to cut it shorter. What I didn’t realise was that a Japanese-speaking person would interpret this as “too short!” The poor man became increasingly distressed as he tried to tidy up my hair without making it any shorter, and I kept yelling (as he thought) “too short! too short!”

Advertisements