Language and Communication

That night, lying in his bunk, Manjiro couldn't help trying the new words. "Buttons," he whispered. "Pockets. Shoes. Bread." Bread was hard to say. He tried again and again. "Captain," he said. "Whitfield."

"What are you doing?" Goemon said.

"Maybe if I learn some words, I can ask questions."

Goemon groaned. "More questions!"

"If we don't learn their language, how will we know what they intend to do to us?" (2.3.70-74)

Manjiro makes it seem like learning English is all about survival when he talks to Goemon, but he "couldn't help trying the new words." Hrm… doesn't sound like learning English is just for practicality—it sounds like Manjiro's actually intrigued by the language.

Denzo was the only one with enough authority to talk to the captain. (2.4.7)

Sometimes it's not a person's lack of language skills that prevents him from communicating; it's his culture. In this case, 19th-century Japan's strict social hierarchy and code of honor make the Japanese fishermen unwilling to speak to the Captain. (Except for Manjiro of course.)

Denzo was the leader of their group, and he should be the one who spoke to the captain. But Denzo, like the others, didn't want anything to do with the barbarians, including learning their language, so it had fallen to Manjiro to interpret what the others said. (2.6.18)

Manjiro has a serious burden on his shoulders. To be the sole interpreter and communicator with a bunch of strangers in a language you barely know is not easy. It's a good thing Manjiro has the openness and willingness to learn a new language quickly.

[Manjiro] learned how to scrub the deck with soft sandstone tools known as "holy stones." The main deck was scrubbed with a "bible" and the hard-to-reach corners with a "prayer book."

"They aren't really those things," Itch said. "A bible is a holy book, see, and a prayer book is, too. You wouldn't really scrub a deck with them." (2.7.1-2)

Uh… yeah, we don't envy Manjiro trying to learn English. Itch's attempt to define the different ways "bible" and "prayer book" are used isn't exactly helpful, not that it's his fault or anything. Chalk it up to the irregularities and multiple meanings in English.

Manjiro spent the day puzzling over that and over all the words he'd learned that had more than one meaning: The bow was the front of the vessel. But it was also what he did when he bent from the waist when meeting someone. The fins on a whale's tail were called its fluke. But a fluke also meant a stroke of luck—like the fact that Captain Whitfield had sent a boat to fetch turtles on Bird Island that day. That was a stroke of luck—a fluke. Or was it fruke? R's and L's were impossible. What was the difference between grass and glass, for instance? (2.7.3)

Sometimes when you know a language well, it's hard to understand how a new language learner might have a hard time differentiating between sounds—and thus meanings—of different words. We know the difference between Rs and Ls, but since Japanese doesn't necessarily distinguish between those sounds, Manjiro can't easily hear these differences.

"The chart is like… invitation," Manjiro said, staring at the unfamiliar letters that he knew formed words. "I cannot read the words, but I imagine they say, 'Come and see!'"

The captain patted him on the back. "That isn't what the words say," he said, "but I think that is always what a chart means. When I see a place on a chart where I haven't been, I wonder, 'What is that place like?' I look at that place again and again, wondering if something more might be revealed. But there's nothing to be done but to go and see it for myself." (2.9.28-29)

Manjiro's a visual learner. Makes sense since he's an artist and English is his second language.

"The night afore we was to ship out," Biscuit began conspiratorially, "Jolly took a dickey run and met his oppose. He was already half seas over by the time he looked up with them and very shortly they was all three sheets in the wind."

What are they talking about? Manjiro wondered.

"That Jolly, he used to bleed the monkey, all right."

Isaiah nodded. "He was a shonkey, too."

Manjiro sighed. He would never understand English! (2.12.28-32)

Slang: the downfall for any foreign language learner. Hey, even we have to admit that the phrase "bleed the monkey" has us scratching our heads a little… a reminder that slang changes over time, too.

"That is interesting," Captain Whitfield said, "because we call this two-hour period of time the 'dog watch.'" He nodded to the sky, where the first stars were appearing. "Maybe we call it that because of that star." He pointed to a brilliant star and said, "That's Sirius, the dog star. Do you call it that?"

"No," said Manjiro. "We call that Aoboshi, blue star." (2.14.26-27)

Captain Whitfield's trying to find some common linguistic ground with Manjiro, but it's not working out. No biggie, though—languages (and names) are different because cultures are different. The captain is chill about that (he even goes on to agree that the "dog star" is indeed very blue).

"So you overheard our conversation, did you? I hope you know that it is impolite to eavesdrop."

Manjiro hung his head. "I am sorry to eaves drip."

"Eavesdrop," the captain corrected. (3.15.61-63)

To be honest, we think "eaves drip" is just too cool as far as mistakes go. Why is it "eavesdrop" and not "eaves drip"? Ever think about that?

"Plum Duff—it is best food on whale ship," Manjiro said.

"Oh, you mean plum duff."

"That's what I said."

"No, you said 'prumuduffu.'" (3.16.11-14)

Manjiro's telling Terry, his new white friend, the name of his horse, Plum Duff. It's a testament to Manjiro's patience that he's able to deal with Terry's mimicry of Manjiro's Japanese accent. But maybe it's also because Terry isn't exactly making fun of Manjiro—he's just open and blunt. He does hear an accent and he can't quite understand it and he isn't afraid to point it out. So maybe Manjiro's just cool with Terry's honesty.

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