light vessel automatic

skip to navigation

the suffering passive

September 15, 2004

Japanese has a special passive voice reserved for talking about bad things that happen to you. It’s sometimes called the ‘suffering passive’, and this weekend gave me an excellent opportunity to use it…

We had another taiko concert on Saturday, and because it was a less important one none of the real ninja members (who mostly live in Naha City on the mainland) played, which meant that I got the opportunity to play the O-daiko – the big drum, which sits on a big stand, and which you play at head-height. So that was exciting and good, and something new, and afterwards, as we loaded the taikos into the van, I was feeling quite pleased that I’d managed not to mess up. I reached up to take a drum that was being passed down to me by one of the Junior High School kids who plays in the group. I was leaning out slightly over the waist-high concrete platform she was standing on, and I realised as I grasped the drum that it was too far back for me to get any leverage on it, and I’d just about had time to say “forwards a bit, forwards a bit…”, when she let go and I experienced the blindingly painful sensation of a 25 kilo drum crushing the ring finger of my left hand against concrete from a height of several centimetres.

The immediate consequence of this was that everyone in the near vicinity received a spontaneous lesson in Advanced English Swearing – directed at my hand and the world in general: I do have enough self-control not to swear at my pupils, even when they drop large heavy objects onto my soft, fragile fingers. Now I think about it, I probably did some sort of hopping dance as well.

My finger immediately swelled to very strange shape and took on a steadily-deepening purple colour. Once I’d sat down and waited for the pain to subside from ‘agonising’ to merely ‘really bad’, I decided that it probably, despite its strange shape, wasn’t broken. The reason I decided this was that although it hurt a lot, whenever I’ve seen someone break a bone they turn a horrible grey colour and look like they’re about to be sick, and although I’ve never broken a bone, I suspect that to produce that effect it would need to hurt an almost unimaginable amount – a lot more than the merely large amount of pain I was experiencing. Which was lucky, because when my neighbour (who runs the taiko group) drove me to the clinic to get it checked, the doctor was neither there nor answering his phone.

Anyway, determined to get something positive out of this experience, I realised that this was the ideal opportunity to practice using the ‘suffering passive’, which I’ve previously never used. So now, five days later, my finger is almost back to its normal colour and only hurts very slightly, and in the process I’ve mastered a new grammar point.

In case you’re interested, the way it works, grammatically, is this: a sentence that could otherwise be expressed actively (for example, “A drum fell on my finger”) is expressed as a passive sentence, but instead of making it passive by turning (in this case) ‘my finger’ into the subject – ie. “My finger was fallen on by a drum” – you leave it as an object, which gives you a subjectless passive sentence, the implication of which is that you, the speaker, are the subject, and that the sentence as a whole is something that happened or was done to you, and which you couldn’t do anything about. You can do this in Japanese because the object is explicitly marked (you say ‘o’ after it), whereas in English you can’t because the whole subject / object thing is specified by word order. Is any of this interesting? I have no idea. Oh well, I’ll leave it in, if only to remind myself how it works in a week’s time, when I’ve forgotten again.

Remember: Only 4 days left till National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day. (yeah, it’s a silly link, ok…)

posted in Okinawano comments

No comments