I think a lot about the nuances of words these days. Someone on a forum I go to (a Japanese speaker) was asking about how to use “for crying out loud.” He linked to a Japanese dictionary where “Be quiet, for crying out loud” was translated as something like 静かにして下さい, which is basically “please be quiet.” I tried to explain that “for crying out loud” wasn’t polite…but then the question was “So it’s rude?” And I was like…um…it’s not polite, but it depends on the situation and who you’re talking too and what voice you’re using…My default in this situation is to say “I wouldn’t say it to my grandmother but I’d say it to my kid (if I had one.)” I realize that’s not a very concrete answer.
It’s not like similar situations and phrases don’t exist in Japanese, but as an English speaker I am much more attuned to the difficulty of explaining nuances in English.
I really like the phrase そんなことないよ。I don’t know why, probably because it’s easy to remember and every school idol Jdrama features it being said about 400 times. I looked it up in a Japanese-English dictionary (one in Japanese mostly meant for Japanese people to look up English) and I saw it translated as “That’s not true.” While I know that’s what it means, I wondered why “There’s no such thing” wasn’t in the list of definitions. That’s close to the literal translation, right? And isn’t that closer to the meaning? And then I started wondering how “That’s not true” and “there’s no such thing” are different in my mind. Perhaps in one there’s a greater sense of annoyance at what the person has said? Which lead to me thinking of the difference between 違うよ and そんなことないよ. Wondering about the nuances of Japanese is much more comfortable for me, though, since I don’t speak Japanese and don’t have to struggle through my brain shrugging and saying “that’s just how it is.”
Contradiction and agreement are also difficult. I was chatting with another Japanese internet friend in English, and he wrote something like “High-school wasn’t interesting.” I responded “Nope.” His response was, “Oh, you think it was interesting?” And I answered that if someone says a negative you agree with in English, you answer in a negative. (While I was writing this, I was praying that he wouldn’t ask me why, ’cause I have no effing idea.) But I realize I also could have said “Yeah, high school was lame” or if I disagreed, “No, I thought it was fine.” I also could have said “No, high school was lame,” which if you think about it is just weird. Why can you put a negative or a positive in the same sentence in the same position and mean the exact same thing? My fiance’s answer to this question was “because English.” This confusion mostly comes up when a negative was used. But, theoretically, if someone said “Highschool was great!” and you agreed, you could even say “No, no, for real, high school was wonderful,” but you’d be using no in a different way.
I often conclude that English makes no sense, which is fine, but doesn’t really help me. I know modern English is a hodgepodge of borrowed words and remnants of obsolete grammar (I and me, he and his, she and hers, for instance, are refugees from when English had cases.)
I do wonder, though, how much of my language study in the future is going to involve tricky nuances in other languages and figuring out the implications behind the English words I use.