Another interesting Cultural Conundrums column from Kate Elwood on the ending particle "yo" in Japanese:
When embarking on a foreign language, learners are frequently confronted with modes of expression unlike the languages they already understand. In making sense of new communicative forms, our starting point is necessarily what we already know about how language works, building upon and adding to this knowledge as our understanding increases. But these initial associations may often be flawed, resulting in perception malfunctions.
Many years ago, a few months into my freshman year of college, I got a job on campus working at the student cafeteria. I was the "dessert girl," a title so precise that when a friend jokingly sent a letter to me so addressed, care of the college, it arrived promptly and without any hesitation on the part of the mail deliverer. Being the dessert girl seemed like a cushy job. The cakes, pies, and puddings were already on individual serving plates, and students just reached out and took what they wanted as I stood on the other side of the glass cabinet and watched. What could be simpler?
I found out that there was a reason why the other students who had been working at the cafeteria longer preferred to dish up the main dishes, a tougher job on the face of it. The supervisor, a severe woman who I'll call Beth, had a bee in her bonnet when it came to desserts. The plates had to be lined up in perfect diagonals continuously even though they were constantly jostled as students reached for their preferred item. Beth stood behind me endlessly hissing, "No, not like that! Keep the plates orderly! They should look tidy and tempting at all times!" After some weeks I was relegated to bussing trays, which felt like the sweet taste of freedom.
When I began studying Japanese and learned about the affective particle yo, I immediately associated it with Beth's bossy admonishments. As I understood it, yo was what you stuck on at the end of the sentence in Japanese to add the nuance, "Don't you get it, dummy?" It was elegant in its brevity, acerbic in its impact. My notion of yo's function was derived from the examples provided by my textbook, like the standard Chigaimasu yo ("That's incorrect, yo"), along with various other model sentences showing how yo could draw attention to a mistake or careless lack of information.
After I arrived in Japan it soon became clear that there was more going on with yo. Either that, or Japan was a country chockfull of Beths, as yo could be heard everywhere, popping up in apparently any type of conversation. An easy-going acquaintance passed me a leaflet to an event, explaining, Sugoi desu yo ("It's great, yo.") I hadn't shown any reluctance to attend and couldn't see why she needed to add an emphatic yo. Giving as good as I got, responded Wakarimashita yo ("I get it, yo."). At least to me, it seemed we were both getting a bit agitated and I was happy when the conversation moved on to non-yo terrain.
Understanding yo as imperiousness was the equivalent of grabbing one part of an elephant--and an obstruction in the process of meaningful social interaction. Linguist Christopher Davis emphasizes yo's role as a "guide to action" in declaring the "optimality" of one way of proceeding. Use of the particle makes it plain that a statement is not just providing information but is additionally pointing out what to do based on the knowledge imparted, a crucial linguistic task in Japanese.
Davis refers to an example from the language philosopher Paul Grice in which one speaker standing by a car says to a person who approaches, "I am out of petrol." The other says, "There is a garage around the corner." Grice notes that the implication of the second speaker is obvious in English--the first speaker can get some petrol at the garage and solve his problem. But Davis points out that in natural Japanese, yo must be added to the end of the garage statement. Yo-less, the sentence can appear to be a statement of fact with no bearing upon the issue at hand.
Learning to connect the dots for the listener by tacking on yo can be tricky for non-native speakers of Japanese. They may view the implication as obvious and therefore feel that marking it plainly is aggressive. But without it, communication can flounder, as shown by the analysis of Japanese language researcher Hideki Saigo. Saigo examined conversations between native and non-native speakers, focusing on the use of sentence-final particles including yo. When non-native speakers fail to use yo when it might be expected, the native speakers do not know how to respond, waiting awkwardly, assuming that something more will be added, and the conversations falter.
It is often observed that Japanese communication is ambiguous, while English makes things explicit. In the case of yo, the reverse is true. It is these surprising divergences and the challenge of mastering them that makes Japanese so interesting, yo.