Tons of people want to learn Japanese. Thanks to the widespread appeal of Japanese pop culture in western countries, an increasingly large number of prospective students have expressed interest in learning the language of the country where the weeb shit comes from. However, anyone who has ever spent even five minutes on the internet googling about Japanese language studies will tell you that Japanese is not like English. And they’re right! It’s totally different, and that difference is what makes it exciting to study.
In this article series, I will break down a few basic grammatical concepts in Japanese. I don’t intend to teach you a full curriculum of Japanese; there are plenty of other resources online far better than anything I could possibly put together by myself, and I recommend checking those out if you want to get fluent. No, my goal here is to highlight some key differences between Japanese and English for people with a passing interest in what makes Japanese tick. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years studying Japanese, and I want to share some of that excitement with you guys. Check out the next article in the series here:
A noun is a word that represents a person, place, thing, or idea. Some examples include words like president (person), garden (place), computer (thing), or kindness (idea). Nouns are absolutely everywhere in language. I bolded all the nouns in this sentence:
John ran over to the store with his dog to buy snacks, but forgot his wallet and had to go back to his house.
That’s a lotta nouns, folks. As you can see, it’s pretty much impossible to use language without tossing in a few nouns. Each of the nouns in the above sentence play an important role. Let’s take a look at a classic example sentence:
Grandma rode the horse.
The horse rode grandma.
Very different sentences, huh? At a macro level, the role of nouns in English sentences is determined by sentence order. In other words, you know what the noun’s role is based on where it appears in the sentence. The noun that comes before the verb “rode” is the noun doing the riding. The noun that comes after “rode” is the thing being ridden.
In Japanese, the role of a noun in a sentence is not determined by sentence order. That’s not to say that Japanese doesn’t have sentence order; it does. But grammatically speaking, the role of a noun is determined by something called a particle. These are short markers that follow immediately after the noun and mark it as performing a specific role. They are a bit different from noun endings in many romance languages because they do not change the pronunciation of the noun itself. Here’s a super basic example:
Jon-san wa koukousei desu.
John is a highschooler.
The particle “wa” follows the noun John and tells you that John is the topic of the sentence. Here’s a more complicated example:
Jon-san wa toshokan de hon o yondeimasu.
John is reading a book in the library.
In this sentence, wa marks John as being the topic, de marks library as being the place the action occurs in, and o marks book as the object being acted on. I could switch the sentence to read:
Jon-san wa hon o toshokan de yondeimasu.
Even though I’ve switched the places of book and library, the meaning of the sentence is the same because the particles o and de tell me the roles of their respective nouns.
That’s not to say that you can just say things in whatever order you want. For example, the topic of the sentence marked by wa is generally at the front of the sentence, barring some exceptions. But it is true that particles allow for there to be some flexibility in Japanese sentences that would be more difficult to pull off in a similar English sentence.
There are many particles in Japanese, but breaking them all down is a bit outside of the scope of this article. Japanese Pod 101 outlines a few of the most common ones here if you are interested.
So we’ve discovered that Japanese nouns don’t change forms. Instead, particles are just attached to the end to indicate their roles. A fancy way to say that the nouns don’t change shape is to say that Japanese nouns are noninflected. In English, we mostly rely on word order and rarely inflect nouns, but there are a couple of exceptions. For example:
goose -> geese (inflection to express plural)
In English, we inflect nouns to express plural forms. But if Japanese nouns aren’t inflected, how does one express plural in Japanese?
There are some suffixes in Japanese that specifically mark a noun as plural. For example, we can make the pronoun boku (I) plural like so:
僕たち boku-tachi (we)
僕ら boku-ra (we)
These two suffixes, -tachi and -ra, can also be used with many other pronouns and nouns. But here’s the tricky part: Japanese usually does not explicitly specify plurality. Nouns are usually left unmodified. Instead, listeners/readers can figure out if the noun is plural based on the context of the sentence.
kyonen boku wa hon o ippai yonda.
I read a ton of books last year.
In English, we would make the word “book” plural, but in Japanese the noun isn’t modified at all. Instead, we are meant to understand that it is plural because of the word “ippai,” which I translated as “a ton.” If you read a lot of books, that means that you must have read more than one. Therefore, it is clear in the Japanese that we are talking about multiple books.
However, sometimes Japanese can leave the plurality of nouns a bit vague. This creates a challenge when translating, because in order to write the sentence in English, the translator will have to specify if the noun is plural or not.
We can also describe nouns to add more details to our sentences. There are several ways to do this. For example, adding adjectives, such as red apple or square box. Japanese also does this: 赤いリンゴ (akai ringo, red apple).
But there is also another way we can describe nouns: relative clauses. Take this sentence:
Grab me the box that has a bunch of tennis rackets sticking out of it.
The bolded part of the sentence is a relative clause. It relates to the noun before it, box, and tells us more about the box. It gives a lot more details than a single adjective can and is almost a whole sentence by itself. These clauses often start with words like “that” and “which” in English. They also follow after the noun they describe.
That’s where Japanese is different from English: relative clauses come before the noun that they describe. Here’s an example:
Sore wa boku no chichi ga katte kureta hon desu.
That’s a book that my dad bought for me.
The underlined word is the noun, and the bolded clause is the relative clause. As you can see, although the relative clause comes after the noun in English, it actually comes before the noun in Japanese.
And that’s a really brief overview of nouns in Japanese! I hope this is a helpful tool/fun information for anyone with a passing interest in language. Stay tuned in the next day or two for a sequel article about verbs.
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