日本語はやばい Japanese is Awesome!

日本語はやばい Japanese is Awesome!

By Akilah Bel



日本語はやばい!(Nihongo wa yabai!)  Japanese is awesome!  Waita minute. Does that mean awesome, or did I just say that Japanese was crap?”

As a person who loves any and all languages, one aspect of language learning that intrigues me is the way words sound as they are spoken.  I have always had an ear for sounds, whether musical or linguistic, and without paying attention, I can find myself simply repeating and mimicking what others say simply because I like how it sounds.  I tend to learn how to pronounce things quite easily without actually knowing what they mean.  This can have both positive and negative results, but for the most part I have found it to be mostly positive.  Especially when your co-workers realise this is a habit and start saying things for you to absent-mindedly repeat.  The laughs that erupt in the office are definitely worth it.

With regards to my Japanese study, I have found that the sounds of Japanese dialects and slang are truly fascinating.  In most languages, dialects evolve based on combinations of different cultures and environments while slang tends to be rooted in words that are popular with the younger generation, and it consists of what is cool and popular at the moment. Regardless of how they start dialects and slang often overlap.

As a senior high school teacher, I am exposed to a lot of Japanese slang and Hiroshima-ben (the dialect of Hiroshima prefecture).  Students talk casually and easily with friends as they walk through the halls and it is all very entertaining to hear.  I often repeat and mimic what they say, but when I try to make sense of what I am hearing it is sometimes very confusing.

Before moving to Japan, I had never formally studied any Japanese, and most of the Japanese I learnt the first time I lived here came from television dramas.  Since dramas are based on standard Japanese I never really heard regional dialects and didn’t really realise what was slang until much later.  Now that I am focusing more on developing my Japanese grammar and vocabulary, I am paying greater attention to what I hear, especially to the words my students say at school.

I’ve noticed that there are situations where the same word can be used to mean something good or mean something bad, but it is the situation that makes it different.  I know that this is not only limited to the Japanese language, but since I am accustomed to it in English, I never really pay much attention to it.  I tried to look for examples in English and one of the easiest ones I found was the word “bad.”   Of course, in its original form, “bad” refers to something that’s not good and has a negative connotation, but a few decades ago younger people started using it to mean something “cool.”  As a result, “bad” suddenly had another meaning attached to it.  In order to differentiate between the positive and negative meanings of the word, stress and intonation play key roles.  A longer stress tends to be added to the ‘ah’ sound when talking about something cool, while it is shorter when talking about something negative.  “You’re a bad boy.” and “You’re a bad (baad) boy.” can be written the same way, but mean different things.

Similarly, there are quite a few words in Japanese that have dual meanings, and I decided to see if I could distinguish when and how the words were used differently.  Initially, I wondered if it was based on intonation and stress like it is in English.  Borrowing another example of homophones from English, we have the words “minute” for time and “minute” meaning small.  The spelling is exactly the same, but the intonation and pronunciation change the meaning drastically.

However, this was not always the case in Japanese.  Some words like 橋(hashi) bridge and箸(hashi) chopsticks clearly used differences in stress and intonation to show differences in spoken Japanese, but then some words like 本当に(hontoni) had differences in intonation and inflection to express feeling, but no change in meaning. 本当に (hontoni) which means “really” in English is a word you will hear quite often in Japan.  It is used in pretty much the same way as its English counterpart to express surprise, query something, etc.  It is versatile and intriguing, but no matter the change in inflection or intonation, the meaning remains the same.

Yet, if you venture to Hiroshima prefecture, you will probably seldom hear 本当に(hontoni).  Instead, you will probably hear ほまに(homani).  It is used in exactly the same way as 本当に(hontoni), but it is Hiroshima-ben.    Then again, if your students are super cool, you might also hear まじで(majide).  This also means “really,” but it is slang used by the younger generation.  Here in Hiroshima (at my schools at least), ほまに(homani) seems to be more popular among girls, while まじで(majide) among the boys.  I’ve asked if they are gender specific, but have been told that anyone can use either word.   No one could give me a clear reason, why one gender seemed to prefer one so much more than the other. People would simply use what was most comfortable for them.  So, in one day, I could talk to three different people about the same thing and hear本当に(hontoni), ほまに(homani) and まじで(majide) in response.  If I didn’t love languages so much I might consider it a headache.

At the same time, the variations of the word “really” have not been the most confusing word that I have encountered.  This honour I’ve given to the Japanese word やばい (yabai).  The original meaning of this word is closer the Japanese word 危ない(abunai), which is used as an exclamation to mean “Be careful!”, “Look out!” or “Dangerous!”  However, it’s not limited to those three.  やばい (yabai) can also function as a warning or to demonstrate irritation with possible English translations including things like “crap” or “risky.”  Primarily, it is used to show a negative sentiment.  However, among the younger generation, this is not always the case.

やばい (yabai) often has a double connotation for younger Japanese.  For example, if a student is late for school or class, you might hear him or her say, 時間やばい! (Jikan yabai!) which translates to something like “Oh crap, I’m late!”  On the other hand, you might hearこのチョコやばい!(Kono choco yabai!), which means “This chocolate is delicious,” clearly a positive meaning.  Initially, I thought that there was a difference in intonation, pronunciation or stress to help in differentiating between a positive meaning and a negative one, but after speaking to multiple native speakers, they all confirmed that it was simply the situation that mattered and the age of the speaker.

It is rare for a person over 40 to use やばい (yabai) to mean something positive.  If they do, it is usually someone trying to be hip and cool.  Since most of my staff was older, I’d only ever heard them useやばい(yabai) in a negative context.  For example, they said これはやばい (Kore wa yabai), when talking about something bad they read in the newspaper or saw on television.  Then I would hear parents in my apartment building telling their children これはやばい (Kore wa yabai) when they were playing in the road meaning “That’s dangerous.” After I started talking more with students outside in club activities, it became clear that やばい(yabai) was also a popular form of joyful exclamation.  I heard the same phrase これはやばい (Kore wa yabai) when one of the students did something well and I felt completely lost.  I finally realised their meaning was more along the lines of “That’s awesome.”   After I heard it once, it seemed to be everywhere.  My students were やばい(yabai) this and やばい(yabai) that. Sometimes it was bad, but more often than not it was a good thing.  Regardless of how positive the words seemed to be, my initial reaction to hearing the word is always the negative connotation, but then people are smiling and looking happy and I am often left utterly confused.  One such situation occurred quite recently.

I usually cycle to work in the morning, which is a nasty business in the humidity of Japanese summer.  Therefore, I shower and change at work.  One morning, I was fixing my hair in the bathroom when some girls came in.  I had just finished spraying body mist and the aroma was still floating around I guess, so when they entered the bathroom they immediately said, 香りはやばい! (kaori wa yabai). Call it being self-consciousness from cycling to work all gross and sweaty, but I thought they meant something smelt badly. (Plus we were in a bathroom after all, not exactly the most pleasant smelling place.)  I was all ready to go and hide my face in shame, when I noticed that they were actively sniffing and searching for the smell excitedly.  It was odd behaviour if something smelt badly, so I was confused.  Then, they realised the smell was emanating from me and instantly yelled, アキーラ!やばい!(Akilah! Yabai!)  After which they asked in English, “What smell good?”  I realised it was the body mist and showed them the bottle and they eagerly looked at it and kept talking about “香り。。。やばい (kaori …yabai).” It finally was abundantly clear that they loved the smell and therefore thought I was awesome because I was the one wearing it.

I find these kinds of situations intriguing because context becomes so important.  My initial thought was a negative one, but the context in which they used the word was a positive one.  Of course, upon further study, I discovered that the word 香り(kaori) is not used to mean anything bad.  A better English translation of it would be “aroma” rather than simply “smell.”  So other than situational context, the word usage can also help in determining whether やばい(yabai) has a positive or negative meaning.

All of these aspects really make language learning an intriguing process.  Several factors are very important, from knowing the age group and demographic you are speaking to or simply knowing the meanings of words.  The transitive nature of words like やばい(yabai) demonstrate how language isn’t stagnant, but a growing and active entity.  These kinds of situations continue to make my Japanese language learning fun and exciting.  Although my language learning is still at a beginner level, I feel great excitement every time I am able make another breakthrough on the path of language learning.   These kinds of situation and interactions are what help to move Japanese language learning off the page and into my heart.  It is fantastic and completely rewarding.  Not to mention, there’s the added bonus of scoring major cool and awesome points with students when you say words like やばい (yabai) and ほまに (homani), and let’s not kid ourselves, folks, being a cool teacher feels great.