Japanese Language

Language spoken in JapanCountry?.

Westerners tend to view Japanese as similar to other Asian languages such as Chinese, but this view deeply misunderstands the language; in many respects Japanese is much more similar to English than it is to Chinese, and Japanese tends to be easier than is Chinese for Westerners to learn fluently.

Japanese is nominally SOV (grammatical order Subject-Object-Verb), where e.g. English is nominally SVO. Japanese is also a "topic-comment" language, a different kind of categorization than subject/object/verb order, where the topic of a sentence is marked by "-wa" and the rest of the sentence comments on that topic (English does this primarily in less typical "label: description" sentences; prominently topic-comment languages differ markedly in syntax from most e.g. English syntactic constructs).

Japanese is a language isolate: there is no well-evidenced evolutionary relationship with any other living (nor well-known dead) language; most languages are known to have evolved quite directly from previously-known ancient languages (e.g. Romance Languages such as French, Italian, Spanish evolved from Latin), but not so in the case of Japanese. This attribute is shared with only a few other widely known languages (Hungarian, Basque, Finnish). (maybe - see IsolateLanguages for discussion.)

Japanese historically borrowed the Chinese writing system (heightening the Western misunderstanding of the similarity of the two languages); the writing glyphs that were thus borrowed from Chinese are called "kanji", and are used to write Japanese words similar in meaning to that of the borrowed Chinese character. Nonetheless, the pronunciation and grammar of the written Japanese words are unrelated to that of the Chinese words written with the same symbol.

As noted below, written Japanese also uses two additional syllabic written glyph-systems (Hiragana and Katakana) as well as borrowing the Western Latin "Romaji": roman/latin alphabet.

One of the more popular non-Western languages on the Internet, so it would make a good basis of comparison with Western languages, or with planned worldwide languages.

In Japanese, various words, inflections and sentence structures connote definite LevelsOfPoliteness based on the social situation. (I'd say this is true also of western languages, but the rules of politeness are not as well-known and explicit as in Japanese.)

JapaneseWriting consists of a mixture of four scripts:

Together, the hiragana and the katakana comprise the kana.

Over the last hundred years, Japanese has seen a rapid influx of foreign loanwords from the West, to the extent that if you learn how to read katakana you could probably get along rather well in Japan. I disagree, but some activities (like buying hardware or lingerie) could probably be accomplished if you know katakana. If you don't count speaking with ten-in, that is.

Verbs and adjectives are grammatically very similar to each other in Japanese. They both inflect for the past tense: oishii desu means it is delicious, oishikatta desu means it was delicious. They both modify nouns the same way, too: akai kuruma is a red car, and iku kuruma is a car that goes. In contrast, "Kuruma ga akai" is a sentence meaning "the car is red", and "Kuruma ga iku" is a sentence meaning "the car goes." And they form subclauses in the same way. "Kuchi ga akai onna" means "A woman whose mouth is red", and "Tokyo e iku kuruma" means "A car that goes to Tokyo".

Nouns don't inflect. There are adjectival nouns and verbal nouns, though. Especially, nouns don't have number, except some special nouns. Numerals, on the other hand, bear with them a type suffix - there are type suffices for small animals, big animals, elongated objects, flat objects, printed material, etc. ad nauseam. A numeral can act grammatically as a noun or an adverbial.

The predicate verb of a sentence always comes at the end. Contrast with English where the pattern is usually subject-verb-object. See WordOrder. Subclauses always precede main clause. Words such as "but, if, when" come at the end of a clause: "Watashi ga wakakatta toki, kuruma ga amari nakatta" ("There were few cars when I was young", lit. I (subject) was-young time, car (subject) rather did-not-exist)

The grammar of Japanese is very regular.

Most Japanese pronouns are grammatically nouns, and often compound words. For example, jibun (self) literally means self-part.

Japanese nouns are often followed by small particles that tell their grammatical role. These roles include being the topic, subject, object, agent, place, context, etc. of the clause. The most common particles are few and have many uses. In contrast, Japanese verbs and adjectives have a very rich conjugation scheme, including levels of politeness, at least 8 modi, two tenses (present and past), and many ways to form new verbs or adjectives from them (taberu to eat -> tabetai want to eat, taberareru to be able to eat, tabesaseru to feed)

Japanese and English seem to have some commonalities. Whether this is due to the influence of English or simply coincidence is up for debate.

They both have a progressive tense that is commonly used: I eat -> I'm eating == Taberu -> Tabete iru. The progressive tense seems to be used more in English and Japanese than in, for example, Romantic languages. Yes, it is probably even more common in Japanese than in English. It is, for example, used to express the state that is a result of a change: okiru (awakens) -> okite iru'' (is awake, lit. is awakening).

Not sure if this is relevant here. Someone will find a good place for it, anyway. It's to do with the I'm eating form of a verb, except used in the future tense. We had some Germans over visiting the office a couple of months ago, and we were in the pub. They were perplexed by the phrase "I can't have a beer; I'm driving." Now, it's obvious that the speaker wasn't currently driving - we were in the pub. There's an implied future tense there. What's that called? Is it the progressive tense?

Strange that the Germans got confused by this. In Germany it is common too, to ask before the first beer 'Wer fährt?' (Who is driving?) instead of 'Wer wird fahren?' (Who will be driving?).

No.... actually, the progressive tense signifies something is happening currently. "Unten shite iru" means "I'm driving right now", whereas "Unten suru" means "I drive", or even the implied future "I will be driving". In fact, Japanese may be more similar to German in that handling of the present tense, and in that you can't say "unten shite iru" to mean "I'm driving [tonight]".

Even though Japanese has borrowed oodles of words from English (and Chinese, etc), I'm yet to see a single grammatical element it has borrowed. For example, hiking was borrowed as haikingu - but when used as a verb, you add a genuinely Japanese helper verb, suru (to do) to be able to conjugate it. Similarly for adjectives: smart -> sumaato (well-clad), and used as an attribute with a Japanese particle, sumaato na hito (well-clad person). -- AnonymousDonor

It seems that when English has taken on influence from another language, such as when AngloSaxonLanguage acquired old Norse or old French, its grammar was simplified, rather than borrowed from the conquering language. English nouns, for example, started to lose genders, declensions, and irregular plurals. In contrast, Japanese doesn't have any of those ancient features, and already uses postpositions instead of prepositions to describe a noun's place in the sentence -- ga for subject, wo for direct object, na for adjectival use, etc. So I might guess that Japanese grammar may already be too modern to require any features from English grammar. -- NickBensema


-- AnonymousDonor (Actually, I provide that signature, to separate the above from my own commentary rather than making a huge block of italic text.)

(Disclaimer: I do not speak the language. I have some friends of various levels of fluency, and do what I can to make sense of it all.)

... My understanding of some of these is quite different. I only see "Ya" (usually written "ja" or "jaa", but see below) used in departing, so it's "bye" rather than "hi". "Ohayo(u)" doesn't seem to carry a connotation of time of day, where as "Konnichiwa" does - it's "good morning|day" as I understand it, logically paired with "Konban wa" ("good afternoon|evening").

..."Ya" should be "yaa". It means "Hi" and is different from "ja" and "jaa". "ja" and "jaa" are "bye". Confusion in the above argument may come from the fact that "ya","ja" ( and "da") are interchangeable when used as an auxiliary verb of assertion("Ya" is clearly a Kansai dialect. "Ja" and "da" is used depending both on the situations and the dialect of the speaker). One more thing about "yaa": it is usually used by a male speaker. When a female speaker use it, it gives a bit of mannish (or unisexual) impression. --- KeiSugimoto? (Japanese)

..."Ohayo(u)" does carry a connotation of time of day, but in a different way than "good morning" in English. In my understanding, whereas "good morning" implies that it is morning, "ohayo(u)" means either (1) the speaker is just after getting up, or (2) the speaker is now about to start the work of the day ( with the person spoken to ). We may be able to say that "good morning" carries a connotation of an absolute time, and "ohayo(u)" implies a relative time. In an extreme case, you can use "ohayo(u)" in the afternoon if you get up then. In other than these situations, "Konnichiwa" is used instead even in the morning. "Konbanwa" is used instead of "Konnichiwa" after sunset. -- KeiSugimoto?

... Just some observations: The romanization in the greetings above is fairly odd...not sure what the apostrophe is supposed to mean! I would write them

-- Sheesh, I'm a real pedant sometimes! -- RonCraig?


Especially when it comes to writing in romaji, JapaneseLanguage seems to be a bit flexible about where word boundaries are considered to be, though the usual patterns are inconsistent. So "konnichiwa" is actually konnichi + wa (the particle), but I usually see it written as one word like that though I normally see "konban wa" as separate words.

In HikaruNoGo I am told that the players say "Onegai" before a match. The long form is "Onegaishimasu" (see http://senseis.xmp.net/?Onegaishimasu , and its backlinks).

-- KarlKnechtel


At the top of the page, "romaji" is listed as one of the four 'scripts' of Japanese. Actually it is not quite so clear.

Again, that's all based on what I'm told and understand of it. I would love any clarification.

Anyway. I can't tell you anything about which syllable to stress in a word when reading romaji a good rule is to try not to stress any particular syllable -- this gets you pretty close to the real pronounciation (I am very frequently surprised when I watch subtitled anime), but here is an attempt at a pronunciation key:

Consonants have the sounds you would expect (and English consonants like 'c' that produce more than one common sound aren't used) except:

I heard something too about whether it sounds more like 'r' or 'l' varying by regional accent in Japan; it may be very clearly 'r' or 'l', but then the speaker is unfamiliar with the other sound. I think the problem lies more in the "english r", which is much more l-like than many other r's (compare the gutteral german r or the rolling r heard in swedish or thai [amongst others?]). Vowels are all regular and not subject to any weird translations when paired or when they precede a particular consonant. (Egregious examples of those including CanadianRaising in EnglishLanguage as spoken in Canada, and "oi" pronounced as "ua" in FrenchLanguage.)

Short vowels:

There is no 'schwa'.

Long vowels are a doubling of the short vowels, so they have basically the same sound but twice as long. The sounds are 'open'. In this regard the vowels are all much the same as in LatinLanguage or GermanLanguage.

In vowel clusters, each vowel is pronounced, so diphthongs occur "naturally" as a result of running the sounds together - sometimes there is more distinction than in other cases. The vowels after the first are basically syllables on their own, so in a haiku "gozaimasu" is a line on its own: go-za-i-ma-su.

As a study in the vowel clusters: "yaoi" (a term you will inevitably hear if you surround yourself with enough people of mixed gender who appreciate anime - and if you don't know, ask them not me ;) ) should probably become "yaw-oi", but is also frequently pronounced "yow-ee". I asked a friend once when I heard the latter, thinking it was incorrect, and was told it corresponded to the "modern" Tokyo accent. I noted that it sounded more like ChineseLanguage that way, and he suspected that this is rather the intent.

-- KarlKnechtel

This is one of a number of (more or less common) vowel contractions/shifts - the by far most common being the -ai to -ee shift. So, for example you might hear tabenee~ instead of tabenai (not eating). Another less common shift is the -oi to -ee shift (for example, in the NarutoAnime?, sasuke pronounces osoi (late) as osee) - applying this to yaoi would produce ya-ee (and putting the -ee somewhere in the middle of the o would produce yao-wee, eventually producing yowee ... incidentally, this is just how yowai (weak) might be pronounced. This paper: http://www.wata-net.com/proceedings/TakayoSugimoto/lp02sugimoto.pdf gives a few more examples of the vocal shifts (but ai->ee is by far the most common, the oi->ee shift I've basically only come across once).

Note that this is strictly spoken/slang/dialectal/anime language - and probably considered quite impolite/informal "amongst the natives". -- SimonBrenner

I think this is a bit hard to understand, here is my version: Short vowels:

-- AnonymousDonor (order has been changed to Japanese order)

According to an anonymous person: I am Japanese. [Wiki Wiki] is cheerful in Japanese. This System is very cheerful. Wiki Wiki Really? I'm not sure. -- TakuyaMurata

The person's intended words may be "uki uki" which indeed means "cheerful."

Strange how there are nine pages of linguistic jargon before we get to basic phrases like "arigato". -- NickBensema


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