Dyslexic in Japanese

in this column, Cecil wrote:

I don’t read or write Japanese, but I’ve had enough exposure to see that this passage can’t be correct. There are indeed different Japanese scripts, however at least two of them, katakana and hiragana, are phonetic. Kanji is the widely used Japanese ideographic script, but I’m told that katakana also sees every day use in Japan. The authors probably meant that Alan was dyslexic in Katakana, and fluent in Kanji. If they were trying to say Alan is fluent in Japanese because Japanese isn’t written phonetically, they’re mistaken.

I believe I’ve found the original article that Cecil was referring to here (PDF!)

I’m not going to call into question what these neuroscientists found about phonetic analysis, but either the Guardian mis-edited what they’d said, or they’re misinformed about the types of written Japanese.

I hope a Japanese speaker/writer can stop by to clarify some of this. In the meantime, I’ve found an example of mixed-script Japanese writing which may illustrate that Japanese writing commonly has phonetic elements.

Here is a review of the work of violinist, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, written in Japanese. I have no idea what it says, but I can pick out the mixed Katakana and Kanji scripts; you probably can, too: the Kata are the simple groups characters consisting of 1-3(?) pen strokes. The Kanji are the more dense groups characters consisting of 2-10(?) strokes, and look quite dense compared to the katakama. Note how the writing tends to alternate between around 10 kanji symbols, then 3-20 kata symbols, and then back to kanji.

Again, I’m not an expert or even speaker of Japanese (I learned this little bit about Japanese script fixing software language bugs), but I’m using this to illustrate that katakana, a phonetic script, is probably fairly widespread in Japanese writing.

On review, I may have over-estimated how much of the script on the previous page is Kata v Kanji, but I’m pretty sure there are more than a few instances interspersed in the text. I hope a reader of Japanese can clarify.

Well I know Japanese but not phonemics…but will do my best.

In general, nouns and verb roots will be in kanji, with the various little guys in hiragana. If it is in katakana, then it will probably be a noun from a foreign language (a review of a foreign violinist will have more katakana than general as modern musicology in Japan and concert instruments will be derived from English or Italian.)

So to subsititute font styles for characters sets, a general sentence might be like:

I walked my dog in the park.

Where bolding is kanji and italics hiragana. A verb will often be a mixture of the two, with the verb being in kanji and the tense in hiragana, following.

So for one thing, if all of the verbs and nouns are kanji, you’ve pretty much got everything you need to know of the sentence there (like skimming for key words)–you would just be missing all of the little details. Seeing then that I can read a Japanese sentence perfectly fine, when I probably don’t know a third of the words, my guess would be that someone who did know all the words but was phoenetically dyslexic, would be the same as me and his brain would just skip over the fuzzy bits and fill them in logically based on context and deduction.

Also, I would point out the bit “matches one symbol to one syllable” in the article. English matches one symbol to one sound, not one syllable–so this may also be an entirely different section of the brain, and thus a third type of potential dyslexia.

Thanks for jumping in, Sage Rat, and for filling in the blanks.

Yes, I was thinking the same thing, but wasn’t sure. Thanks for clarifying. However, aren’t there many, many instances of borrowed words (and therefore written in katakana) in everyday use of written Japanese? E.g., newspaper stories mentioning other countries, discussions of technology (I’d bet there’s not an ideogram for CD-ROM, right?). According to this, even everyday words like “curtain”, “supermarket” and “kilometer” are borrowed words. I’d think it’d be difficult to get along in some situations if you could read kanji and not kata. No?

A question: how much of the passage I cited was katakana “borrowed” words v. Kanji (yes, I agree it wouldn’t be a typical ratio). It’s hard for me to make out which are which sometimes. And the characters seem to vary from the cites I have very slightly; are there different styles of katakana where the “ornamentation” might be more or less elaborate?

They are talking about phonemic analysis in particular. i.e. classifying the individual sounds and then assembling those into larger units like syllables. As far as I can tell, their argument is that in Japanese written symbols (including kana) already correspond to larger structures - in the case of the kana those are syllables, more or less. Supposedly this helps dyslexic people because you skip part of the low level processing - in their opinion exactly the problematic part.

So, if english were written phonetically, rather than alphabetically, then english speaking dyslexics would have a less difficult time? Or am I missing your point?

To rephrase:

if inglush wer riten funeticly, razhur then alfubeticly, then inglush speekeen disleksuks wud hav a les diffikult tim?

I think they argue that it would be easier for English-speaking dyslexics if English also used symbols for larger units like syllables or words, because those could be treated as a whole, avoiding some difficulties related to their internal structures.

No. Not pho.ne.ti.cal.ly, syl.la.bi.li.cal.ly. A syl.la.ble is where you have (es.sen.tial.ly) a con.so.nant and a vo.wel pai.ring. So for ins.tance, in Ja.pa.nese there is no way to write a sym.bol for the sound “k”*, which is just a con.so.nant. The clo.sest they can come are:


Each of which is a sin.gle sym.bol in.stead of two. The only non-syl.la.ble in Ja.pa.nese is the let.ter “n.” And since “n” is.n’t a syl.la.ble, for in.stance, you can.not be.gin a word with that cha.rac.ter, or you would end up with some.thing like:


Which would be a pain to pro.nounce. They have an in.di.vi.du.al cha.rac.ter for each vo.wel sound they have:

a (rhymes with paw)
i (rhymes with pee)
u (rhymes with poo)
e (rhymes with pay)
o (rhymes with Poe)

The cha.ra.cters for “n” and “a” placed to.ge.ther would.n’t cre.ate “na” in Ja.pa.nese, but “n.a” each sound pro.noun.ced in.di.vi.du.al.ly.

  • With.out re.sor.ting to u.sing a fo.reign al.pha.bet of course :wink:
    ** Please apologise what may be attrocious syllable splitting–haven’t done it since grade school (where I was awful.)

Most isn’t. Once they get past the introduction to the topic, most of the specific words are dropped and subsituted with more generic ones. Similar as how you might say “Patricia” every once in a while in English, but generally you will just say “her” or “she.”

Katakana words---------------

Title: All Beethoven Program
1st Paragraph: point, Scrovachevski (?), violinist, Kopatchinskaja, Beethoven, program, Santori Hall (Santori is katanacised, but a Japanese word)
2nd Paragraph: Kopatchinskaja, Berun (?), temperament, modern
3rd Paragraph: Beethoven, violin, trill, violin
4th Paragraph: ensemble, pianissimo, solist, Scrovachevski
5th Paragraph: Skrovachevski, block, block
6th Paragraph:
7th Paragraph: Clenpella (?), catch-phrase

I would say that at least 85% is Japanese. But generally you would be looking closer to 95%. If for no other reason than that generally Japanese words will be easier to say for Japanese (darn those foreigners and their non-syllabilicised words!) so they’ll hold them back.

No. Probably just different fonts. Over the last hundred years or so, various kanji have lost some extraneous lines though, so there are alternate versions of some of them but you usually only see the old style on personal insignia stamps.