Saturday, August 1, 2009

Drinking-party English

Today there was a going away party for some departing summer associates at my firm. One of the Japanese attorneys sitting nearby commented that it's difficult to understand drinking-party English (飲み会英語 nomikai eigo). And I can see what he means.

One particular utterance that came directly from my own mouth demonstrates the point neatly. Some of my more-or-less inebriated non-Japanese colleagues were chugging ramen. Slurping vigorously would be a more accurate description, but we settled on "chugging" to describe the action. When a bowl of ramen was passed my way, I declined, saying, "I ain't chuggin' no noodles!"

The linguistic dissection, after the jump.

Oh how "wrong" is that sentence, let me count the ways. First there's the sort-of-not-quite-right use of the word "chugging", described above. Then I swallowed the "g" at the end of "chugging", so that's one step farther from linguistic purity. Then there's the contraction "am not" to "ain't", which grammatical sticklers the world over frown upon (and which doesn't seemed to be covered in many English classes in Japan). And I bring it all together with the dreaded double negative, an even bigger grammatical faux pas in English.

Rather than being ungrammatical, what we really have here is an example of something that's only grammatically correct in a given kind of language (more on that here); in this case, very informal language. That, together with the somewhat creative word usage (more on that here) make it pretty tough to parse out the meaning for many English learners, even though native speakers would have no trouble (and even though some of those English learners can breeze through contracts and legalese in English that some native speakers might have trouble with).

The attorney in particular that made the comment is actually bolstering his English by watching U.S. television shows, among other things, and with enough of that I expect he'll sooner or later be able to tackle drinking-party English with ease. Now if we can just figure out how to get all English learners in Japan to get the same kind of exposure, we'll be making real headway.


  1. ya, i think this is more like a dialect. In the prestige dialect of english, like on the evening news, you have to keep all the Gs on the -ing endings, but in various informal urban dialects you never say those.

    I had fun a few times by guiding my japanese friends through several american movies, featuring african-american actors playing gangsters and whatever (typical action movies, etc). Some of the japanese were quite fluent in the day-to-day english they encountered normally, but understood nothing in some parts of these movies because they hadn't been exposed to it. At some points they even asked if the actors were truly speaking english.

  2. One Japanese friend of mine is constantly trying to speak African-American English and is often unintentionally hilarious when he tries to do so. He learned some of it from the African-Americans around him while he lived in Philly, but he seems to try to sound more like the gangsta rap he listened to than the average Philly African-American. Denzel Washington in Training Day is another favorite source of imitation of his.

    Some Americans even seem to have difficulty understanding African-American English, although that seems kind of odd to me, given how much exposure there is to it in the media (not to mention, of course, encountering it directly). The case in point that always comes to mind is a roommate of mine in college. Like me, he grew up in the Philly burbs, but about 40 minutes farther away from Philly than me. He claimed that he couldn't understand some of the African-American people who worked in our college cafeteria at George Washington University in Washington DC. It never even occurred to me that a fellow native speaker might not be able to understand them, so I was always kind of puzzled as to why he had trouble.