The Right Way Is The Wrong Way, A Journey in Language

Written by Robbie Tyler, (Maryland Institute College of Art) Student Correspondent AICAD in Japan, Spring 2017

Take a moment in your day, to look around and appreciate the sayings, logical leaps, and moments in the language of the culture around you.

“The scales will fall from your eyes.” I’ve read this saying on a train through Kyoto while absorbing a murder mystery manga.

“I will press my eyes to the window!” my mother said to me over Skype about the coming rains.

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” I informed my friend when I was asked to look for a specific clothing item in a street market.

These are only a few examples of sayings that I’ve come across in a month or two in Japan. A day spent together in our little program in Osaka includes explanations of slang from a dozen different regions in several different countries, creating a fun accent of our own designs, heavy discussions on the merits of different uses of terms in different places, and just a fun study of language and people.

Studying, not only with Japanese students, but students from different countries who have all converged in a single building on a college campus. Spanish, Chinese, English, Japanese, Hindi, all coming together to share their quirks and laugh at their inconsistencies or strange sayings.

Language is a fickle, strange creation of humanity. When you think about language, you will most likely come across the thought that all the words you are using to write, read, speak, even think, come from words that are only given meaning because we, as a society, a culture, a country, decided that it does.

However, my most interesting moment of language arose when my roommate, her boyfriend, and myself were walking up the mountain path of the Fushimi Inari shrine together. Filled up on warm soba, we were marveling at the beautiful gates which were lined up in front of us. Though, spotting something, I stopped.

There were two paths of gates that followed the way up and, on the right path of gates, a sign had been hung up. This sign read, “Please go the right way.”

I laughed a little and my fellow sightseers looked at me in confusion.

“Well, the sentence is correct but it’s also sort of not?” I explained to them. “I mean, in English, right doesn’t just mean right or left, it means correct. So, the sign is saying go the correct way, instead of take the path on the right.”

They were both, understandably confused. I decided to make it worse.

“You could say,” I continued, “The wrong way is right. The left way is right. The right way is right, the wrong way is left.”

I’m not making an understatement when I said the rest of the trip was spent with all three of us, in utter confusion, trying to say the maddening sentence structure I had come up with.

Language is funny and maddening with unspoken rules you grow up hearing. Like the right way is the right way.

You wouldn’t say the green, big dragon. Try it. It sounds weird to a native English speaker. You would say the big, green dragon. But where was it ever taught to a child that green comes before big?

Of course, I’ve had my own funny moments where I struggled to conjugate a past-short form noun with my roommate patiently giggling on her side. Language is funny, strange, and wonderful. Learning it is an amazing, terrifying experience but it’s worth it. Everyone struggles, trips up, confuses sayings or meanings. Best way to do it is to laugh, make it a memory, make it something worthy of remembering.

Now, to this day, if I slyly bring up my little saying, that I came up with between the red gates, my roommate gives me an enormous, playful frown and shakes her head firmly at me.

But, you know, at least we went the right way.