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Language of Disaster

Written By: seo on March 13, 2011 2 Comments

I was online and on Facebook when the first news about the earthquake in Japan was posted. I hurriedly went to check English language news sites and found next to nothing on them. I switched over to the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri, and Mainichi and spent half the night reading, refreshing, watching, and checking in on friends (who thankfully were all mostly quite a ways away), waking up early to do it all over again.

If disasters are one of the moments when we’re most aware that language fails, they are also moments that generate their own specific vocabulary. In trying to keep up on the news of earthquake, tsunami, and then problems at nuclear power plants, I’ve encountered more words than I can count that I never have encountered before. The first one that caught my eye was this 「帰宅困難者」きたくこんなんしゃ (“kitakukonnansha”), meaning: a person (usually commuter) who has trouble returning home after a disaster like a large earthquake.

Embedded in every definition, including the variant 帰宅難民, whether English or Japanese, came the connotation of difficulty returning after an earthquake. The word itself, as far as I can tell, is a neologism, although I’ve yet to be able to pin down an exact date for it. Japan is, after all, not a stranger to catastrophic earthquakes — the 1995 Kobe earthquake and 1923 Tokyo earthquake easily spring to mind. So it makes sense that the language used to describe and talk about disasters and those affected would bear the marks of the events from which they sprung.

My experience of witnessing the events unfolding on the other side of the Pacific have been largely in writing on the computer. Almost silent save for a few videos where I hear people asking each other if they’re okay, hear the roar of the rumble of the earthquake, and the words of marvel at the oncoming rush of water. That’s all I can stand — I quickly retreat into the printed or typed word. But for my friends in Japan, their experience has been one of watching or listening to NHK broadcasts nonstop, hearing the language of disaster, the mechanical droning of the warning system listing every single seaside area under tsunami watch, the quiet determination of a three hour walk home after the trains have been stopped, and all of the other sounds that accompany it.

The language of disaster is both intensely personal and profoundly public. Sometimes those languages cross, sometimes not. And the language used and connotations of the language used, of course, differ greatly between Japanese language sources and English language. For the public vocabulary being used in Japanese newspapers and news broadcasts, the blog JapanNewbie has a good and growing list.

I’ve spent the weekend watching and reading. Slowly, in one or two articles amongst seventy five or more on Asahi, a world beyond and a world after the totalizing one of disaster has begun to reappear. A story about Libya and the Arab League here, and a story about local elections in the south there. The language of disaster and a kind of “normality” existing side by side. I look forward to the moment when the news does not have to be filled by hours and hours of earthquake coverage because finally the moment of disaster is over. But what the language of recovery is, I don’t know yet.


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2 Responses to “Language of Disaster”

  1. daveski on: 21 March 2011 at 9:41 am

    I really appreciated this post on a number of levels–at a very basic one it reminded me that disasters and other major events are a time that entire new areas of language are learned and developed. This seems somehow like it’s easier to be conscious of in a second or foreign language, so I was interested to see this list put together by the folks at the Global Language Monitor for (apparently?) already proficient English readers. Although the thought occurred to me that it’d be great for teaching English.

    It also says a lot, as does your post, about how much of language learning (and interpretation and translation, especially) is about developing knowledge.

  2. alex on: 3 September 2011 at 9:48 am

    it seems earthquakes and hurricanes have been showing up everywhere lately. let’s hope it cools down.


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