A little while back, I wrote an article about Ukrainian verbs and was going to write a similar one about Japanese verbs. But halfway through writing that article, I realized that I really needed to explain Japanese sentence structure first.
Japanese sentence structure is quite different than European languages, and so when I use something like Duolingo, I found that the textbook style presentation of Japanese isn’t very natural at all. The trouble is that trying to apply European language teaching methods to Japanese is like trying to find a square peg through a round hole.
That said, Japanese, on its own merits, isn’t that hard to learn, but it is different, so you have to learn it from the ground up. As human beings, the feelings and sentiments are the same across languages, but it’s fascinating how people have developed different methods (i.e. grammar) to express them.
Note: this page will use hiragana script in places to correctly convey the meaning. If you are unfamiliar with hiragana, check out my page on learning Hiragana script, parts one, two and three.
And with that, here we go.
One of the particular challenges to learning Japanese is its heavy reliance on context. This used to really throw me off when I was dating my wife and first learning the language because I couldn’t figure out who did what. Gradually as I got used to the language and could mentally “take it all in”, I could follow along more easily and pick up on context clues.
For example, unlike English or other European languages, the subject isn’t specified unless you explicitly need to. Let’s look at a typical example.
In English, I might write something like this:
Today, I went for a walk. It was sunny outside. Then I ran into my neighbor, Mr Wilson.
A similar sentence in Japanese would likely be:
Today, went for a walk. Outside, was sunny. Then, the neighbor, Mr Wilson, ran into.
Notice there is no explicit subject. It’s often implied. And, once you get used to it, it’s usually pretty obvious (Japanese people will ask if unclear, naturally). That doesn’t mean that Japanese never uses it, but usually only to address specific topics or questions:
A: Who ate the last sandwich?
B: Mr Wilson ate the last sandwich.
In any case, this is why Japanese language textbooks in English (including Duolingo) often teach it wrong: they teach students to still specify every part of the sentence even though it’s not necessary to do so in Japanese, reinforcing bad habits. Yes, this works in European languages, but it’s unnatural in Japanese.
This use of context leads into the next aspect of Japanese grammar…
Less Is More
Compared to English, Japanese can sound more curt or pithy, and at other times more flowery and wordy. Tae Kim’s excellent Guide to Japanese points out that rather than a SOV (subject-object-verb) sentence structure, Japanese’s grammar can be reduced to just V and still be fine.
Here’s a perfectly valid conversation in Japanese:
A: たべる？ (are you going to eat?)
B: たべた。(I ate [already])
This conversation usually has some context that both speakers know about, so to them it would make sense, even if it seems vague to us.
Another example my wife and I often use is:
Mrs: ごはんをたいた？ (Did you cook rice?)
Me: ん、たいた。(Yup, I cooked [rice])
Here, my wife is asking if I cooked (たく、past tense: たいた) rice (ごはん). We’ll get to the を in a moment. It’s super important. When she asks the question, she uses a rising tone for たいた, and she needs to specify what I cooked. In this case, the rice. I answered in the affirmative using ん (the non-casual, polite form is はい) and specified that I did indeed cook it (e.g. the rice).
Since my wife did have to specify other parts of the sentence that’s where particles really become important. They are little sound markers you put after the parts of speech, and help determine who’s doing what to whom. By using を (wo), it means the rice is the direct object. I am doing something to it.
Particle Man, Particle Man…
Particles don’t really have a 1:1 equivalent in English, so I won’t attempt to map them out, but they are really important in languages like Japanese or Korean where you have to give parts of speech. Sometimes particles come at the of the sentence to help give it more nuance (not required, but often used), while others are put at the end of the parts of speech you need to clarify.
This would accomplish the same thing as using inflection in languages like Latin, Greek, or modern European languages like Spanish, Italian and Ukrainian. However, instead of changing the ending to fit the part of speech, you tack on a particle.
Here’s an example that you might find in a textbook:
I went to the supermarket, and bought curry bread.
This is an exaggerated example, and clunky in regular, spoken Japanese, but textbooks often teach like this in order to help reinforce parts of speech and particles.
I’ve highlighted the particles, like so:
|Particle||Meaning||What it marks|
|は (wa)||The subject of the sentence||わたし (polite, formal “I”)|
|に (ni)||The target of something (e.g. where you’re going to)||スーパー (the supermarket), as in the target of where you’re going (いって)|
|を||The direct object (the thing you’re doing something to)||カレイパン (curry bread), the thing you bought (かいました).|
But again, remember in more natural Japanese you only specify the things you need to specify. So, for example if the listener already knew that you went to the supermarket, it’s perfectly valid and correct Japanese to just say カレイパンをかいました. You could even shorten it by dropping the particle + verb and say カレイパンです. Yet another particle!
Or, if the listener wanted to know where you went to buy the curry bread, it would be perfectly fine to just answer with スーパーに, or just drop the particle and use スーパーです to substitute for both the particle and verb.
Similarly, when introducing yourself, this is how textbooks usually teach self introduction:
My name is Doug. I am an engineer.
A more natural sounding version in Japanese that’s used in polite situations would be:
[I am] Doug, the engineer.
The の particle here is super-handy because it modifies Doug. Doug isn’t just Doug, Doug is an engineer. Also, notice I don’t specify the subject, わたし, as it’s wordy and unnecessary (i.e. “who else would you be doing a self-introduction for?”). Simply using my name, and what I do with the polite particle です is sufficient.1
The key to forming good Japanese sentences is, in my opinion, learning how to start with just the verb and tack on whatever additional information you need (using particles to help specify which, what, where and who) as necessary.
Similarly, learning to recognize particles and such in other people’s sentences will help you pick up nuances and details more easily.
1 We aren’t going into this in this lesson, but if you want to express a more humble nuance, you could replace です with と申しましす (to mōshimasu) where と is another particle for subordinate clauses and 申しましす is a humble version of the regular verb 言う (iu, “to say”). But that’s beyond the scope of this lesson. Using です will almost always work. と申しましす will simply add a bit more flare (or, more accurately, a bit more humility).