Japanese is a SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) language. English is typically SVO (Subject-Verb-Object). In Japanese, the verb always appears at the end of clauses and sentences. Japanese parts of speech are usually marked with words called "particles" that follow the word they modify. These particles identify the word's or phrase's function in the sentence—for example, topic, subject, direct/indirect object, location of action, etc.
Japanese is flexible in terms of word-order due to use of particles. Sentences, however, generally have the following structure:
- Sentence Topic, Time, Location, Subject, Indirect Object, Direct Object, Verb.
Japanese is highly context-sensitive. Words or phrases obvious to both the speaker and listener are often omitted. It could be considered a "minimalist" language. For example, the statement: "I'm going to watch a movie." could be translated as 「映画を見る。」 (eiga o miru.); literally, "Movie watch." [I] is implied, as it is the speaker who is making the statement. Depending on the context, however, this phrase could also be translated as "s/he is going to watch a movie", "we will watch a movie", etc.
Japanese has many levels of formality and depends not only on what is said, but also on who is saying it and to whom. The language is so socially striated, that different forms of speech exist for men and women.
Parts of speech
Japanese parts of speech, although no more complicated than those of other languages, do not fit well into typical labels such as verb, noun, and adjective. Keep that in mind over the course of your studies.
Nouns in Japanese are fairly immutable. They do not take definite or indefinite articles, gender, and do not change for number.
Although there is no true plural in Japanese, a small number of nouns may take one of several collective suffixes.
- Tanaka-san (Mr. Tanaka), Tanaka-san-tachi (Mr. Tanaka and his group)
Certain nouns may take a prefix in polite speech. Most often, native Japanese words (和語) are preceded by "o-" ("お"), and Sino-Japanese words (漢語) are preceded with "go-" ("ご"). Both are readings of the kanji "御". Though primarily used for adding politeness or distance, some words more commonly appear with the prefix than others, and in some cases, never appear without it (e.g., お茶 [ocha], "green tea").
Many nouns may be converted into verbs simply by affixing 「する」 (suru) to the end.
- "benkyō" (
勉強) is a noun meaning "study/studies" while "benkyō-suru" ( 勉強する) is the verb "to study".
Nouns may also function as adjectives when the particle の (no) or な ("na") is appended.
- "ki" (木) means "wood" with "ki no tatemono" (
木の 建物) meaning "wooden building".
Unlike many other languages, Japanese has no true pronouns; since words that are clear from context are usually elided, there is less need for them. In general, natural-sounding Japanese tends to avoid the use of nouns that refer to people except when explicitly needed. This is often a point of confusion for beginners. Pronominals are not grammatically distinct from ordinary nominals: notably, they may take adjectives, which pronouns cannot.
- "watashi", "boku", "ore", "watakushi" all mean "I"; and "anata", "kimi" mean "you"
A Na-adjective is a nominal that often precedes a copula (such as 'na'). Due to the common occurrence of na-adjectives, many Japanese dictionaries write nominals with the 'na' included. Na-adjectives are generally adjectival in meaning, as most cannot exist in context without a previously denoted subject; however, one might simply say "げんき な (genki na)" to describe a subject that is understood within the current conversation's context (this situation is limited to casual or somewhat informal conversation; using full sentences is almost always necessary when speaking to anyone of higher status). Examples of na-adjectives: "heta na:" unskilled, bad at; "genki na:" healthy, energetic; "orijinaru na:" original
Verbs are where most of the action in Japanese sentences takes place. They are the primary means for controlling levels of politeness in speech,…
Japanese verbs inflect directly for tense, negation, mood, aspect, politeness, and honorific speech.
Unlike English, conjugation of Japanese verbs is extremely regular, with few exceptions. The system takes some getting used to, but once the kana have been learned, a uniform pattern emerges. Verbs are placed into one of three groups: 五段 (godan, aka Type I), 一段 (ichidan, aka Type II), and 不規則 (fukisoku, irregular).
Only two verbs are generally considered irregular in the modern language, 来る (kuru, to come) and する (suru, to do). Despite being such, even they are somewhat regular in their irregularity.
These inflect for tense, politeness, and honorific speech as well (although not aspect or mood, as they are all stative verbs); an -i adjective will always end in -ai, -ii, -ui, or -oi. (Note that there are also stative -u verbs.)
- "utsukushī": beautiful; "ī": good; "sugoi": amazing; "ureshī": happy
Although the copula is not strictly a verb, most of its forms derive from "de aru", but inflects somewhat irregularly. It retains an "attributive form", na, used to modify the noun it stands before: however, this form is almost exclusively used after na-adjectives.
Particles: Also called postpositions or joshi, particles show the case of nouns in Japanese: that is, they mark nouns as being the subject, object, indirect object, etc. (English typically uses word order or prepositions for the same effect.) Particles follow the noun they modify.
- wa (は, topic)
- ga (が, subject)
- o (を, direct object)
- no (の, possession, apposition)
- ni (に, indirect object marker), to, etc.
- kara (から) from
- made (まで) until, as far as
- de (で) using, at
Some particles are used after sentences instead:
Adverbs: Adverbs typically modify the entire sentence, although most Japanese quantifiers (including numbers) are actually adverbs, rather than adjectives as in English.
- aikawarazu as always;
- sukoshi (少し) a little, few
- mō sugu soon, before long;
- sō thus, so
Conjunctions: Japanese conjunctions typically either apply to nominals (like English "except") or to predicates (like English "when"), not both (like English "and").
Interjections: Common to every language.
- wā! "wow!"
- are? "huh?", "wha?"
- ē to "um, er"
- anō "um"
- [It] is pretty.
- This is a book.
- Mt. Fuji is beautiful.
- It's not very cold today. / Today isn't very cold.
- [I] gazed out at the ocean.
- [Her] mother went to the store.
- Summer has come.