Illustration for article titled A Brief Overview of Verbs in Japanese

This article is the second in my series of basic introductions to the Japanese language. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend checking out my previous article on nouns before reading this one.

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a verb as a word that “expresses an act, occurrence, or mode of being.” Some examples include read (act), become (occurrence), and is (mode/state of being). Your elementary school teacher probably tried to keep things nice and simple and told you that verbs describe actions, which is fair because that’s what most verbs do!

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In English, verbs tend to appear in the middle of the sentence. For example,

John ate pizza.

The verb, ate, is in between the two nouns. This is why English is sometimes described as an SVO language, or subject-verb-object language. The noun doing the action comes first, then the verb, and then the noun being acted upon. It’s possible for verbs to come at the end of the sentence (“I sat.”), but when stated, much information such as the object comes after the verb.

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Japanese, on the other hand, is an SOV, or subject-object-verb, language. In other words, the verb tends to come at the end of the sentence.

ジョンさんはピザを食べた。

Jon-san wa piza o tabeta.

John ate pizza.

This can be difficult for English speakers to wrap their heads around, but hey! On the plus side, verbs are easy to identify because they tend to be the last word in the sentence.

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Types of Verbs

Modern Japanese verbs are generally grouped into three categories: ichidan verbs, godan verbs, and irregular verbs. Here are some examples of each:

Ichidan: 食べる (taberu, eat), 起きる (okiru, wake up), 開ける (akeru, open something)

Godan: 飲む (nomu, drink), 聞く (kiku, listen), 知る (shiru, know)

Irregular: する (suru, do), くる (kuru, come)

*Note: There are only two irregular verbs, but a couple of other verbs have some irregular forms.

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In Japanese textbooks for foreigners, ichidan verbs are often called “ru verbs” and godan verbs are often called “u verbs.” This is because ichidan verbs always end in -ru, while godan verbs have a variety of consonant sounds but still end in -u no matter what the consonant that comes before is.

For the curious: ichidan verbs (ichi means one) are referred to as ichidan in Japanese because they only have one form. All ichidan verbs are conjugated (changed into different forms) by taking the stem and adding an ending to it. On the other hand, godan (go means five) verbs will have their final vowel sounds changed to one of the five vowel sounds (a, i, u, e, or o) in Japanese depending on the conjugation. I will talk a bit more about this in the next section.

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Verb Tenses

A tense is a form of a verb that expresses the time in which a verb takes place. In English, verbs are conjugated into three main tenses: future, present, and past. There are many other tenses in English, such as present progressive, past perfect, et cetera, but we can think of these three as the core tenses. Here’s an example using the verb “eat”:

will eat (future) <— eat (present) —> ate (past)

Japanese does not have a future tense. In fact, Japanese verbs actually conjugate based on completeness: they either represent an incomplete action, or a complete action. An action that happened in the past is complete, so Japanese has a “past” tense, but both present and future actions are incomplete, so they become the same tense in Japanese. You can tell if the action takes place in the future or not based on the context of the sentence. Let’s look at some example sentences using the verb for “read” in Japanese, 読む (yomu):

1) 本をよく読む。

Hon o yoku yomu.

(I) read books often.

2) 明日この記事を読む。

Ashita kono kiji o yomu.

(I) will read this article tomorrow.

As you can see, the form of yomu stays the exact same in both sentences, even though the second sentence is clearly referring to an action in the future. The first sentence refers to a regularly repeated action, so in both Japanese and English we can consider it as a type of present tense verb.

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*Fun Fact Alert* As you may have noticed in the above examples, the subject of Japanese sentences can frequently be omitted. This creates some fun challenges sometimes for translators.

Other Conjugations

Much like English, there are many different verb conjugations that are not tied to tense. For example, consider the following sentence.

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I can read Japanese.

The verb read is in the present tense, but it also has a helping verb, can, that indicates potentiality. In other words, this verb tells you that I have the ability to do this action. In Japanese, instead of attaching a helping verb, the verb is conjugated further, first to add potentiality and then to add tense.

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日本語が読める。

Nihongo ga yomeru.

I can read Japanese.

The verb yomu goes through two inflections: first, we change the -u sound to an -e sound to express potentiality, and then we add the -ru at the end to add tense. Thus, yomu -> yome -> yomeru.

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You might be a bit confused here, and that’s okay. This stuff is complicated! There are also many other types of verb conjugations to express different ideas, such as causative verbs or passive verbs (which would need their own article to discuss properly- perhaps in a future entry in this series?). You don’t need to understand all of them, but my point here is simply that Japanese verbs have many different types of modifications to express specific ideas.

Te Forms

No. We are not doing this today. Come back some other time.

Politeness

This is the scary thing that you always hear about from your friends who are studying Japanese. You see, Japanese verbs also conjugate based on politeness. All the verb examples that I have given you up until this point in this article are casual forms of verbs. You would probably only use these verbs with friends, family, or when yelling at a rando at a bar while in a drunken stupor. But with someone you don’t know or in other more formal settings, you will need to use polite form verbs. They’re actually easy to make though! Let’s take a look using a ru verb, 食べる (taberu, eat), and u verb, 読む (yomu, read):

食べる -> 食べます (tabemasu)

読む -> 読みます (yomimasu)

As you can see, these polite forms all end in -masu regardless of the type of verb. As I mentioned before, although the base of taberu, tabe-, doesn’t change, the base of the -u verb, yomu, must be changed to an different sound (in this case, an -i sound) to make a different form. Thus, taberu -> tabe -> tabemasu, versus yomu -> yomi -> yomimasu. Just by changing these verb forms, your sentences are now much more polite.

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These -masu forms of verbs make up the basic polite group of verbs, but depending on the situation, you may need to be even more polite. That’s where honorific and humble verbs come in! Honorific verbs are used to describe a social superior’s actions, while humble verbs are used to describe your own actions (thus humbling yourself in the face of others). Let’s look at the verb yomu again.

Casual form: 読む (yomu)

Polite form: 読みます (yomimasu)

Honorific form: お読みになります (oyomi ni narimasu)

Humble form: お読みします (oyomi shimasu)

And on top of it all, there is an even more polite expression for “read,” 目を通します (me o tooshimasu, lit. to pass one’s eyes over). This is the expression you might use if you are asking a professor to proofread an essay, for example. It is like a super honorific form, and there are super humble forms as well. Politeness in Japanese is very intricate, and the very idea of conjugating verbs based on politeness may seem very strange to an English speaker. Even Japanese students sometimes have to take time to study proper polite language!

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*Fun fact! Did you know that desu is a polite form? The casual form of desu is actually da!

This article highlighted some of the basic elements of Japanese verbs, including where they appear, how you conjugate them into tenses, and how to express politeness. I may delve into some other specific verb topics at a later date, but this should serve as a moderate introduction for now. Stay tuned for the next article in the series. Next time: orthography!

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