Monthly Archives: November 2015

Text-to-speech: a useful tool for the foreign language self-studier

Thanks to the Internet, a person studying a foreign language without a formal study program can look up answers to the many questions they will surely have along the way. One place where your typical internet searching doesn’t work too well is matters of pronunciation, since it’s hard to convey sounds using just text. There are of course many YouTube videos out there, but it can be difficult to find someone speaking the exact word or phrase you are looking for. One option is to buy a digital dictionary which contains recordings of many common words, but this doesn’t work for phrases.

I recently discovered this site, which allows you experiment with Oddcast’s text-to-speech logic. I checked a few words in Japanese, and it sounded surprisingly realistic. For the samples I tried, even the pitch intonation was roughly correct. It accepts single words or entire phrases, and for Japanese has three different voices you can use (some of the other languages English have many more).

I am not claiming the spoken Japanese generated is indistinguishable from a human, since it clear is not. It’s always best to spend as much time as possible around those who are natives of the language you are studying.

But for times when you can’t ask someone, I think this is a great tool to add to your arsenal, especially since it’s completely free. The only ad on the site is an unobstrusive one for that company’s technology itself.

The tool will even read Kanji, so you can just cut and paste whole sentences into this site from somewhere else.

An interesting use of “wakaranai” (分からない)

In a Japanese novel I am reading I recently came across the following phrase where 分からない was used in a strange way that caught me off guard. The dialog went something like this:

  • 探したんだけど、わからない。[Sagashita n da kedo, wakaranai]

The context here the person speaking was searching for a friend who had been lost in the forest.

Based on what was said after this, I was able to figure out this meant that he didn’t find her. But why was “wakaranai” used to mean this? I would have understood better if “shiranai” (don’t know) was used, since then he might have been talking about where she went.

I checked with a Japanese person who said that this was short for “行方が分からない” (yukue ga wakaranai), where “yukue” means the location or whereabouts of a person. For example, the expression 行方不明 (yukue fumei) means someone is lost.

This highlights an important difference between わかる and English “understand”, which is that sometimes わかる it can be used in a sense closer to “know”.

In case you are curious, saying “行方を知らない” would also be correct in Japanese.


The real origin of “arigatou” (ありがとう), Japanese for “Thank you”.

I have an interest in learning the origins of various Japanese words, which is funny since I couldn’t care less for the origins of words in my native language, English. I don’t think it’s for the sake of history, since memorizing arbitrary facts puts me to sleep, and it’s not for utility since the origin of a word doesn’t necessarily help you use it any better.

I think one of the reasons is that understanding where a word or phrase comes from helps me learn more about Japanese grammar, and this in turn helps me make connections in my head between words and ideas. Hopefully, as a result of this I can gain better understanding of the language of a whole.

Though it’s true that there is a strong arbitrary component to languages, there is also a great amount of logic and reasoning holding things together, and this is something I actively seek out.

Recently, I became curious about the origin of the common Japanese word “ありがとう” (arigatou), which is used in modern Japanese to express gratitude or simply say “Thank you”. I had heard from several people that it originally meant something like “It is hard for me to exist”, and for some time I accepted this explanation. After all, one way to write this word is “有り難う”, which contains a form of “aru” (to exist), and a form of “gatai” which can be used to mean the previous verb is difficult to do.

But for some reason I had began to doubt this interpretation, was it really the origin of this phrase?

I decided to do a little research on this word, using mostly sites in Japanese, and discovered there was more to this story than I had been told. The description on this site was concise and well-written, and since that site specializes in word origins (由来/yurai or 語源/gogen in Japanese) I think it’s relatively trustworthy.

Rather than just giving a brief summary of the explanation, I’ve decided to translate the entire entry on “arigatou”, both as a translation exercise for myself and as a way to give you the full story.

=== (This text is copywritten by 語原由来辞書) ===


The origin of the word “arigatou” comes from the adjective “arigatashi”, made into it’s conjunctional form “arigataku” and further transformed via a euphonic change into “arigatou”.


“arigatashi” comes from from the words “aru” (to exist) and “katai” (difficult), and originally was used to express meanings such as “extremely uncommon” and “rare and precious”.

In the classic work “The Pillow Book”, a similar phrase “arigataki mono” is used to mean “It is difficult to exist in this world”, or put more simply as “It is hard to live”.


In the middle ages, “arigatou” began to be used to express feelings of religious gratitude, stemming from the idea that one possess things which are precious and hard to acquire, such as the compassion of Buddha. In modern times this has evolved to express gratitude in a more general sense.

There is a theory that “arigatou” came from the Portuguese term “obrigado”, however due to the fact “arigatou” was used before the Portuguese came to Japan it is impossible that “obrigado” is the source of that word. As such, besides the fact that these two words have similar pronunciations, there isn’t much to this theory.


Even though this entry wasn’t too long, the inclusion of some linguistic terms and other words I don’t come across too often made it tricky to translate, but I think I managed to get across the meaning for the most part.

Is there any Japanese word whose origin you are curious to learn? If so, please let me know.

Anime movie review: Hal (ハル)

Hal, an animated Japanese film from 2013 directed by Ryōtarō Makihara, is the second of two movies we recently purchased. The first was Patema Inverted, which I reviewed here. These movies were so totally different in almost every way.

This movie begins with a terrible plane accident that results in the death of Hal (more properly written as Haru) who is Kurumi one true love. She has trouble recovering from the terrible shock of losing the person who had become nearly a part of herself, and shuts up herself in her home. A friend of hers hears of her situation and sends her a robot in Haru’s perfect likeness, hoping to somehow ease her return to the outside world.

Although both this film and Patema Inverted can be considered Science Fiction works revolving around a young boy and girl, their approach to storytelling is drastically different. Whereas Patema Inverted’s scale is large and encompasses several worlds, Hal focuses purely on the character’s relationship (and their past) without too much extra stuff going on at the same time. It is much shorter, though I feel the length is perfect for what the movie tries to achieve.

The visuals in Hal are very beautiful, even artistic, though in a few scenes the extreme color palettes can become a bit tiring on the eyes. The CG used is very well integrated and complements the hand-drawn portions without becoming too showy. In particular, one scene with animated water stood as being particularly well animated. My only minor nitpick is I don’t like the way the character’s faces are are drawn, they are a little too generic (this is one of the few things it shares with Patema Inverted).

The soundtrack was also quite good, with a few moments where music, rather than dialog, was skillfully used to great effect.

This movie is good practice for those looking to practice their Japanese listening skills, since there is very little technical talk or advanced vocabulary used despite the fact it is Science Fiction. In that respect it closer to a TV drama than a typical anime movie.

The result of all this is wonderful and touching, and totally worth watching. This is one of the rare Anime movies that doesn’t require you to be an Anime otaku to fully appreciate it, since the director focuses more on trying to tell a great story as opposed to crazy antics and over-showy gestures. Not to say there is drama in this film, it’s there all right, but I feel everything in this movie is there for a purpose.

You’ve probably noticed by this point I’ve said very little about the story except the introduction. Thats because I want you to go out and see it yourself! If you do decide to go out and watch this, I’d recommend not reading any more reviews of it and just taking the plunge. You’ll appreciate the movie that way, I think.

Note: In case the cheesily done cover image turns you off, don’t pay any attention to that. This work is much deeper than that suggests.