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Japanese is spoken by 130 million people. This makes it the ninth most spoken language by native speakers. Linguists debate over the classification of the Japanese language, and one general theory asserts that Japanese is an isolated language and thus a language family of its own, known as Japonic languages. Another major theory includes Japanese as part of a hypothetical Altaic language family which spans most of Central Asia and would also include Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Korean languages. Neither of these theories has yet been generally accepted.

Japan is the only country where Japanese is the sole official language (though the island of Angaur has Japanese as one of three official languages). There are, however, numerous speakers in other countries. These are largely due to emigration, most notably to the United States of America (California and Hawaii, in particular), Brazil and the Philippines. Furthermore, when Japan occupied and colonized much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific, the locals were educated in the Japanese language. Many elderly locals in Korea, Taiwan, and parts of China still speak Japanese.

Japan has steadily developed for many centuries and, unlike many other cultures, has not been seriously affected by any major invasions until recent times. A substantial part of the vocabulary, though, has been borrowed over the years from Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, German, French, and most recently English.


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While Japanese grammar is very regular, it is markedly different from English. Japanese has been deemed a subject–object–verb (SOV) and topic-prominent language, whereas English is a subject–verb–object (SVO) and subject-prominent language.

To illustrate, the English sentence “Cats eat mice” contains a subject (cats), a verb (eat), and an object (mice), in an SVO order, where the “-s” is a plural marker, and “mouse” → “mice” is a plural marker by ablaut, but only the word order indicates which is the subject and the object—i.e. which is dining and which is the meal.

(ねこ) (ねずみ) ()
Neko wa nezumi o
Cat mouse eat

The topic-prominence is not obvious in this example; “cat” is the subject (the agent) in English, but it is the topic (what the sentence is about) in Japanese. In the above example, “(ねこ)は” is the topic, and “(ねずみ)()う” is the comment.

The verb “kū” means “eat” in the sense of one animal consuming another. To speak about a person eating, it would make more sense to use the word “taberu” which means “eat,” as in to consume a meal.[1]

Japanese does not have articles (the words, “a” or “an”, or “the”), nor is it mandatory to indicate number (singular versus plural). In the sentence above, “(ねこ)” could mean either “cat” or “cats.” The “mouse/mice” ablaut does not occur in Japanese, which is an agglutinative language (inflecting by appending) and highly regular. In Japanese, the plural is formed by adding the ending “-tachi,” or “-ra.” Thus, the word, “cats” would be “nekotachi,” and is always plural, but the word “neko” can be either singular or plural. “Nekora,” however, would sound rather strange, as “-ra” and “-tachi” are not necessarily interchangeable. For the beginner, therefore, it is best not to worry about learning plural endings.

For the English speaking student of Japanese grammar, the greatest hurdles to cross are probably the thought process of the Japanese sentence and learning the seemingly endless variety of endings available for modifying verbs and the order in which they can be strung together.

The grammatical paradigm of SVO or SOV is completely irrelevant in the study of Japanese and other languages outside the Indo-European family of languages. In truth, it is not only unimportant, it is untrue, and will cause the student of the language to fail in acquiring fluency, because it is an artificial imposition of an Indo-European construct on a non-Indo-European language. Japanese, like Tagalog and many other languages, uses affixes to explicitly demonstrate grammatical relationships instead of using syntax. In Japanese, word order will not change the meaning of the sentence. However, it will change the emotional character. An SVO word order is not incorrect in Japanese, and native speakers use it frequently, as a matter of fact to heighten the emotional charge. Thus, “あれは何だ” is a simple question: “What is that?” But “何だあれは” should receive an exclamation point at the end because the word order indicates that the speaker is clearly upset or at least annoyed by whatever “that” is.

Japanese sentences thus are not SOV. They are TV: T stands for topic and V for verb. Verbs are really the secret to success in acquiring fluency in Japanese. Thus, greatest attention should be given to learning the verb forms.

There are two tenses of time: past and present. The present tense is used to describe future events. All past tense verbs have the ending “-た” (“-ta”) or “-だ” (“-da.”) The present tense always ends in the vowel “-u” in the positive and “-nai” in the negative. There is only one exception: the word, “だ” (“da”), which is the present tense of “be” (“am,” “are,” “is.”) As in probably all languages, this verb is highly irregular in Japanese and its usage must simply be memorized. For the English speaker the two time tenses should be quite easy to remember because in English the past tense is usually indicated by a final “-t” or “-d,” and the present tense of the basic positive present tense verb “do” ends in the “u” sound. The “-nai” ending sounds similar to “nay” in English. In conversational Japanese, a complete sentence will end in a present tense or past tense verb. As indicated earlier, there are many other possible endings, but they are not used in the final position to complete a sentence, nor are they used at the end of the active verb.

Beyond the verb, there are words that indicate the function of words and phrases as they relate to the verb. The most important of these are “は” (“wa”), “が” (“ga”), “に” (“ni”), “の” (“no”), “を” (“o”), and “で” (“de.”) “は” marks what is being discussed. “が” follows the word that is the agent of the verb. This means who is doing something is the active tense, and who is receiving the action of a passive verb. In both cases, they mark “the who.” “に” indicates the direction toward and is usually translated as “in,” “to,” “at.” “の” indicates possession or source and usually is translated as “-’s” or “of.” “を” is only appropriate with active transitive verbs because it marks the direct object. Finally, “で” at the end of a place word indicates where a verb happened. It is usually translated “at,” “on,” or “in.” Added to the end of word that represents an object, it marks the instrument of the verb, what was used to perform the verb. It is translated, “with.”

The example

[Cats] (WA)ピッちゃん [Pitchan] (GA) [house] (NI)帰ってきて [came and]台所 [kitchen] (DE) [dog] (NO)えさ [chow] (O)食った [ate]

translates to "Speaking of cats, Pitchan came home and ate the dog’s food in the kitchen." (The “て” verb ending indicates incompletion.)

Thus, every word or phrase in a Japanese sentence takes an ending that explicitly denotes the function of that word or phrase and how it relates to the verb.

Levels of politeness

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Japanese culture and society is based on a hierarchy of higher status (目上 meue) and lower status (目下 meshita). As such, there are three varying levels of politeness. Because Japanese is primarily a "vertical" society, all relationships contain an element of relative station. For example, a student is a lower station than a teacher, and therefore a student would use polite language when speaking to a teacher, but the teacher would use plain language when speaking to a student. A salesperson talking to a customer would place himself/herself far below the customer, and would therefore use honorific language, whereas the customer would use either plain or polite language.

Honorific language is not a separate category from plain and polite language, but a separate concept that uses different rules. When using honorific language, a Japanese speaker modifies nouns, verbs, and adjectives to either lower himself/herself and their associates, or exalt someone else and that individual's associates. Whereas the use of plain or polite language is determined by the relative station of the person to whom you are speaking, the use of honorific language is determined by the relative station of the person about whom you are speaking. Exalted language is applied when you are speaking about someone who is due respect, such as a professor, an executive, a political official, or a customer. Exalted language is only applied to other people, never to oneself. Humble language, however, is only applied to oneself and people associated with oneself. It would be inappropriate, for example, to use humble language to describe a beggar, even though they would be extremely low on the social ladder.

The Japanese writing system

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Japanese is written mostly using three writing scripts, kanji, hiragana and katakana. Kanji are Chinese characters that were first introduced to Japan in the 4th century. Unlike Chinese, Japanese is a highly inflected language with words changing their ending depending on case, number, etc. For this reason, the hiragana and katakana syllabaries were created. The hiragana serve largely to show the inflection of words, as conjunctions and such. The katakana are mainly used for loan-words from other languages.


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The Japanese writing system is derived from the Chinese ideographic character set (Japanese: 漢字 kanji, Mandarin: 汉字 hanzi). They are usually very similar to Traditional Chinese characters. Though kanji are Chinese in origin their use is dictated by Japanese grammar. Each character may be read in different ways depending on the context it is in.

The number of existing Chinese characters has been variously estimated at between 40,000 and 80,000; however, only a small subset is commonly used in modern Japanese. An educated Japanese person will generally be able to read between 2,000 and 4,000 characters. In order to be literate in the Japanese language, the student should strive to master at least the 2,136 general-use characters (常用漢字 – jōyō kanji) established by the Ministry of Education.

Hiragana and katakana

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The syllabaries, known as kana (仮名(かな)), were developed around 900 AD by simplifying kanji to form the hiragana (ひらがな, or 平仮名) and the more angular katakana (カタカナ, or 片仮名). Hiragana can be recognized by the characteristic curved shapes, while katakana are identifiable by their sharp edges and straight lines. The creation of one of the scripts has been attributed to Kūkai (774-835, alias Kōbō Daishi) the famous monk who introduced Shingon Buddhism to Japan.

Hiragana and katakana are almost completely phonetic—much more so than the English alphabet. Each set, however, is referred to as a syllabary rather than an alphabet because each character represents an entire syllable with only a single consonant (which is a more recent addition) (see Pronunciation for more). The syllabary charts in Japanese are referred to as the gojūon (五十音(ごじゅうおん)), meaning "fifty sounds" because they are written in a five by ten chart. However, there are a few gaps in the table where certain sounds have fallen out of use. Modern Japanese can be written using 46 kana.

In practical use, hiragana is used to write, for example, inflectional endings for adjectives and verbs (送り仮名 okurigana), grammatical particles (助詞 joshi) and auxiliaries (助動詞 jodōshi), Japanese words that have no kanji (or not commonly known kanji), and annotations to kanji to indicate pronunciation (振り仮名 furigana). Katakana is used to write, for example, foreign words and names, onomatopoeia, emphasized words (somewhat like italicized words in English text), and technical and scientific words, such as plant, animal, and mineral names.



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