Osakaben

An Irish friend took over as teacher of an English language class in Kobe and was immediately accused by of “talking funny” by a student. This in itself would be unusually impolite, but as it was delivered in  broad West Midlands dialect was hilarious. It is not unusual to pick up the accent of your language teacher or of the area that you studied in. A Japanese acquaintance, who studied in Bristol or Brissle as he calls it, has a great West Country accent.

Japan has a rich variety of dialects and whilst everyone understands standard Japanese, the variation in local language between Tohoku and Kyushu is enormous. I learned Japanese in Osaka and Kobe and the local “hogen” made an obvious mark on the way I speak the language.

The major difference between Osakaben and standard Japanese is that the intonation is more up and down. Also most verb endings are different. Wakarimasen becomes wakarahen, shimaimashita is shimota and the long wided shinakereba narimasen meaning must do becomes a compact sen akan. Contractions are common chigau or different becomes chau, omoshiroi (interesting) is omoroi  There are also a whole list of vocabulary that is uniquely Kansai; an idiot is aho, tired is shindoi, so-so is bochi-bochi and lots more.

Some of the phrases for which Osaka is famous have fallen out of use. The tourist guides tell you that all Osakans greet each other with mokarimakka to enquire about the state of business.I have never actually heard this expression outside of self deprecating jokes. Maido, a sort of all round greeting, like the standard domo-domo is still around, but not used as frequently as the pundits would have you believe. Ookini for thank you can still be heard, but much less frequently than in Kyoto, where you can’t escape it. In Kyoto you will also often be welcomed into drinking establishments with the very feminine greeting of oide yasu. Call me a cynic, but this and other pretty Kyoto expressions seem to have made a revival after the success of the film Memoirs of a Geisha, or Saiyuri as it was titled locally.

Gaijin who learn Japanese in Osaka.face a potential linguistic minefield. Foreigners speaking with a kansai accent and using local expressions are typically considered cute in Kansai, but raise eyebrows in Tokyo, where Osakaben is viewed as the language of small traders and manzai comedy. If Rodney and Delboy from Only Fools and Horses spoke Japanese, they would use Osakaben.

Local slang fits the culture it belongs to. It is easy to ask for a discount in Osakaben, but not in standard Japanese. This is simply because you don’t ask for discounts in Tokyo, whereas it is considered sensible to try your luck in Osaka.

Slang also dates you, as younger friends and the children of older friends regularly point out. Gotsu as an expression of magnitude, gave way to mecha a long time ago and mecha has probably since been replaced by something more edgy. 

For foreigners in Japan, the golden rule is to keep to polite speech in standard Japanese, unless you are with people whom you know really well. Phrases which would earn a drink on the house in Dotonbori or Namba, may lead to scratched heads and wry smiles in Shinjuku.

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