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A sixth grader asked me during class, "Why is Ohayo 'Good morning' in English?" I answered, "That's because, in the English-speaking world, they greet each other saying 'Yoi asa' (good morning) in the morning. And we say 'Ohayo' in the morning in Japan. So 'Ohayo' can be translated as 'Good morning'."

It's interesting that, even though the literal meaning of the two expressions is different, they must be regarded as being of the same meaning in translation. What to say in a certain situation is different from language to language. Also, we aren't usually aware of the true meaning of such expressions when uttering them (you are?).

So "Good morning" is originally "I wish you a good morning"? That, I'm not sure. "Ohayo" in the full form is "Ohayo gozaimasu," which is a super polite way of saying "It's early." The counterpart of "Good afternoon" is "Konnichiwa." When I think about the meaning of "Konnichiwa," it is something like "Today is..." Yes, it's only the subject of a sentence. So, today is what? I dunno. Perhaps it could be "Today is a good day, isn't it?" But you don't have to be inquisitive. You "feel" the unspoken words. The pause speaks. Things go well that way in Japan, uh, kind of.


Kids have the amazing ability to ask the hardest questions! I admire the ease in your reply.
Now if only I could come up with as good a response to the curly questions my 6 year old.

Literal equivalence is a subtle concept. The French have a concept 'le mot juste' i.e. 'the right word'. They believe that in a particular context, to achieve a specific meaning, only one word will do. English speakers are more relaxed about this as they have so many very close synonyms, often one from each of the major roots of English - Latin/French and Anglo-Saxon. The words 'language' and 'tongue' illustrate this, although there are undoubtedly many other and better examples.

We had the same question, but in reverse, in our Japanese class. One guy wanted to know how to say "Hello." He wanted a greeting word that could be used at any time of day.

Students new to learning language want word by word equivalents. In time they learn that they should learn the situational translations--what does someone say in this situation.

This has been very difficult for me in my study of Japanese. I know I can't just look up the words in a dictionary. But it is also the most interesting...because language, the way a people express themselves or describe the world, becomes a window into the way they think.

As for Japanese, I think it is a lot like music. The space between the notes, (what is left unsaid) is as important as the notes themselves.

Rae, yes, their questions sometimes get to the heart of language. Oh, I'm not confident enough to respond well to 6-year olds either. ;)

steve, the "only one word" concept of the French language would terrify non-native speakers. I'm glad I'm into the English language.

M, I agree. Learning a foreign language, you can also learn the way native speakers think. It's hard, but very much fun.