Can we?

That Obama's "Yes, we can" slogan has been appropriated by various parties here in Japan (and, I expect, elsewhere) for unrelated purposes is not a new observation. What I want to note is an interesting variant on the slogan I have noticed recently.

For example: the Japanese Red Cross's spring blood drive is using "We can" and "I can" as slogans on their own, without the "Yes." If you look at the "We can" commercial in particular, you'll note the emphasis on dekiru, a Japanese verb meaning "to be able to", i.e. "can."

In my dialect, just saying "we can" with no pre-existing context is quite odd. You can say "We can do it," or you can respond to questions like "Who can do it?"/"Can you do it?" with "We can," but you can't just start an exchange with "We can." Can being an auxiliary verb, it needs a main verb on the table too or it just doesn't work.

Part of the genius of "Yes, we can" as a slogan was that the "Yes" conjured up an illusory context enabling the punchy brevity of the rest. Meaning-wise, "Yes, we can" is technically just as vague as "we can do it," but because it sounds like the answer to a question, it has the ring of directness and determination even though the question itself is left unsaid. "Can!" is also a stronger ending than a limp tail of placceholders.

I want to argue that the Japanese Red Cross and similar naked "We can" sloganeers do not get this. They think that "we can" is analogous to dekiru, which can be used to open an exchange because it is not functionally an auxiliary verb. The logical conclusion is that cutting off the "Yes" will make the slogan even punchier—more closely analogous to a simple "Dekiru!"

And in fact, let it be noted that they are probably right. Native English speakers are only an insignificant fraction of the audience that the Japanese Red Cross is targeting here. It doesn't matter what we think. All that matters is how the slogan sounds to native Japanese speakers who are familiar with the "(Yes,) X can" construction thanks to Obamania.

Addendum 1: I had another example of the awkward "We can": a series of English textbooks for kids called We Can!, published by McGraw-Hill apparently starting in October 2008. However, in this this blog post, co-author MATSUKA Yōko 松香洋子 seems to be claiming that she chose the title long before Obama started campaigning. (Either way, We Can! still sounds weird to me, but maybe that's why McGraw-Hill aren't knocking on my door with a book contract right now.)

Addendum 2: Obviously, "[X] can!" existed as a construction in Japanese English before Obama. Prime example: U-Can, an educational outfit that's been around for years. But I do think that Obama's campaign has given it a new popularity.

Popularity factor: 16


As a former JET, what I found most troubling was translating できた as "could". "I could enjoy my summer vacation." Because "could" without a context sounds like a subjunctive, those sentences just do not work. On the other hand, "I was able to enjoy my summer vacation," is a bit stiff, but at least not glaringly wrong.


Carl, yes, everyone gets taught that "could" = the past tense of "can," no more and no less. Eep. Trying to teach the difference between "I was able to save enough money for a great hotel in Cancun" and "We could see the ocean from our balcony" is great fun, too.

The McGraw-Hill books remind me of a kids' song or game--"Who can (xyz)?" "We can! We can!"


Oh, and yes, I'm seeing everyone from carpet cleaners to major automobile manufacturers to health insurance companies using "Yes, We Can" in their ads here in California. I doubt they all supported Obama, either.


Nothing wrong with "We can!" in my dialect. More to the point, this is Japanese copy, not English (even though it resembles English on many levels) so please think of it in the same category as "I feel Coke". Any resemblance to the language I use to speak with my parents is coincidental.


Give it a few months - people will start talking about a ウィーキャンな性格 or something like that


Grammatical arguments aside, I am more annoyed that Japanese cannot find a middle ground between キャン "kyan" and カン "kahn". The sound to me is closer to "ken" anyway.


I have to second the feeling that "we can" sounds fairly natural, at least in American English, where we don't use the pro-verb: "I can do" doesn't sound as idiomatic as "I can." The bare "we can" doesn't bother me as much as dangling adjectives do, like in the Hitachi slogan "Inspire the next."


Hypothesis 2: Americans talk funny. Seriously, you guys are down with the new Red Cross sogan? This comes as a shock to me.


I'm down with the Red Cross.

It's not really clear to me from what you've written if you'd use the pro-verb or not. "We can do" sounds unspeakably wrong to me. Worse, I find myself accidentally using it now-- whenever I say it I always get the impression my very American family think I'm being ungrammatical. Dialect accommodation is sometimes fail.


"We can" sounds almost as wrong to me as "I hit," which is a classic example in linguistics of a verb requiring an object, ungrammatical except as "I hit habitually." You can almost make it work when you set it up beforehand (speaking to children: "Which of you hit him?" response "I hit.") but not quite.

Of course, since the Japanese are not native speakers of English, this does not give them pause.


Oh, right. Ya, I would not say "We can do" either. "We can do it" is the minimum acceptable structure if "do" comes after "can". "We can help" etc. would be acceptable.


Right. So in some conversational/pragmatic contexts where the object is obvious in a certain way ("the meteorite hit") it is acceptable, but hard generally, and even when the object is earlier in the discourse it sometimes doesn't work ("Who hit Jonathon?" "*I* hit").

The genius of the Obama slogan is that it calls up a prior pragmatic context in which not only was there some question as to whether we could, but in which another speaker (say, McCain) was just saying that we couldn't, necessitating a forceful affirmation that "yes, we can."


Slightly OT, but what's this about the "genius" of this extremely bland slogan? He got lucky, and only because his tin-eared opponent had an offensive slogan: "Country first", which contradicted the popular phrase "God, family, country" (implication: in that order).


No one's mentioned "Si, se puede"?


OK, not genius -- the "hook."

Not a native speaker of Spanish but I am guessing that "se puede" is just fine without the "si."


Thanks, LS, you put it better than me there.

Re genius: I'm still comfortable with that word. The slogan sets up and demolishes a hypothetical counterargument in just three words, without making any specific promises. In terms of its effects, not only did it contribute to the guy's election as President of the United States, it became a popular catchphrase even in wildly different contexts and countries. I'm not saying it was genius in the sense of a T.S. Eliot poem, just in the sense of being precisely the right words to capitalize on the situation the campaign found itself in.

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