The Emperor’s “courtly language”

New Yorker Letter from Japan (3/28/11, p. 73), “Aftershocks” by Evan Osnos, with a reference to a “courtly language”:

When Emperor Akihito appeared on television Wednesday — silver-haired, immaculate in a charcoal suit, speaking in a courtly language that most of his listeners do not understand — he expressed his “heartfelt hope that the people will continue to work hand in hand, treating each other with compassion, in order to overcome these trying times.”

This immediately struck me as very unlikely. I assumed that by “language” Osnos meant, as most people do in ordinary speech, ‘language variety’, in this case possibly a register or style of Japanese used in the Imperial court. But I was deeply suspicious of the idea that the Emperor would use, on such a grave occasion, while delivering a heartfelt message to his entire nation on television, a variety of Japanese that most of his audience would not understand.I do not lack for colleagues knowledgeable in matters Japanese, so I appealed to two that I thought would reply quickly – Lawrence Schourup, who teaches at Osaka Prefecture University (and lives in Kyoto, well south of the disasters), and my Stanford colleague Yoshiko Matsumoto – and was gratified to get helpful and informative responses from them yesterday and the day before yesterday, respectively, along with their permission to quote from these responses.

Larry had a first-hand report, plus a fascinating side comment:

I was listening to Emperor Akihito’s speech when he delivered it — the first televised speech to the nation by a Japanese emperor. The speech seemed to me to be formal but simply worded and easily understandable. I checked this with several Japanese colleagues at a pragmatics meeting this morning. They all agreed that the speech was simple, clear, heartfelt, and easy to follow. The Emperor spoke very carefully in teinei-go (‘polite language’), widely used in many relatively formal situations in daily life.  He seemed to be doing his utmost to be sure he was understood. Far from speaking in ‘courtly language’  [which is what the Classical Japanese language is sometimes called], he even used an English borrowing (magunichuudo ‘magnitude’).

What’s interesting in this is that Osnos’s comment does apply to Akihito’s father’s “Jewel Voice Broadcast” of 8/15/45 in which Hirohito read out the “Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War”. That earlier speech (seemingly the only other case in which a Japanese emperor addressed the nation) was felt by many to be hard to follow, partly because of the poor audio quality, but also because it was spoken in a variety of classical Japanese. It’s said that many people listening at the time couldn’t make out whether Japan was surrendering or preparing to fight on.

From the Wikipedia page on Classical Japanese:

The Classical Japanese language … is the literary form [note: “literary form”, that is, a variety used in certain written texts] of the Japanese language that was the standard until the early Shōwa period (1926–89). It is based on Early Middle Japanese, the language as spoken during the Heian era (794–1185), but exhibits some later influences. Its use started to decline during the late Meiji period (1868–1912) when novelists started writing their works in the spoken form. Eventually, the spoken style came into widespread use, including in major newspapers, but many official documents were still written in the old style. After World War II, most documents switched to the spoken style, although the classical style continues to be used in traditional genres such as haiku. Old laws are also left in the classical style unless fully revised.

Meanwhile, Yoshiko checked the speech out. She writes:

I found a video of the Emperor’s speech on YouTube and listened to it.  His speech was delivered in what might be called as “regular educated Japanese.” There was a noticeable absence of “courtly language,” such as could have been found in the Showa Emperor’s speeches around the time of WWII. Evan Osnos, I suspect, knows very little about the language.

If there was anything courtly about the Emperor’s speech, it was that he spoke (or, rather, read his speech with relatively frequent eye contact) at a very slow speed. The delivery was far from an oratorical style, so it is different in that sense, but the speed was similar to what you hear in “The King’s Speech”.

The Emperor’s speech sounded more in the style of written rather than spoken language, with complex sentences and more literary than colloquial words. Anyone who reads newspapers or listens to news would be able to understand it with no trouble. It was an old-fashioned speech (the Emperor is reaching 80 years of age). If a listener were not used to reading and listening to educated (high school or above) language, it is possible that it might have been hard to follow. But, any difficulty would not be because of the “courtly language”.

and appended a fascinating side note of her own:

Emperors used to use a special first person pronoun in public speech and the Imperial family members were reportedly expected to use different kinship terms as well as some different verbs. The Emperor was not expected to use any honorifics toward the public, but that changed, I think, about 40-50 years ago, and the previous Emperor stopped using the special “Imperial” first person pronoun (more correctly, a referential expression denoting the speaker) and started to follow regular speakers in using an expression that was originally used as a humble referential term. In this particular speech …, the current Emperor used performative (addressee) honorifics and the humble form of referent honorifics — very much in the style of regular (educated) speakers.

From these comments, we can paste together a speculation about what led Osnos to his “courtly language” characterization: possibly he had heard about the courtly language of earlier times and even stories about the former Emperor’s use of it 60 or so years ago; but he didn’t know enough about stylistic variation in current Japanese to recognize that the Emperor was simply using a register educated speakers employ in formal contexts, though in a somewhat old-fashioned version appropriate to his age.

And we can be dismayed that the legendary New Yorker fact-checkers didn’t catch the error.

4 Responses to “The Emperor’s “courtly language””

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Maybe Osnos felt that most of the Emperor’s listeners weren’t Japanese? (I know, just reaching for a reason he’d write something that easily disproven.)

  2. Tim Harding Says:

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. TJJ Says:

    …”the previous Emperor stopped using the special “Imperial” first person pronoun (more correctly, a referential expression denoting the speaker)”

    I would like to know what this expression is, if anyone knows…

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The original comment was from my Stanford colleague Yoshiko Matsumoto, who has now (8 years after the posting!) e-mailed me the answer to your query:

      The term is 朕( pronounced ‘chin’).

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