Top-Level Concepts in Japanese Grammar

Japanese is literally a unique language. Linguistics scholars have classified all modern languages into huge “families” that are related through their grammars and vocabularies. For instance, English and other familiar European languages such as French and Spanish are in the Indo-European family (English is in the Germanic branch, while French and Spanish are in the Italic branch). However, despite the breadth of modern linguistics categories, there are several holdout languages that simply do not have cognates in any other currently spoken language. These include Basque, Ainu, and Japanese.

Thus, it is important to approach the learning of Japanese with this concept in mind: all the grammar you learned in school does not quite “map onto” Japanese. You probably learned that there are various main parts of speech– nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs—and that they can be arranged in certain combinations to impart certain meanings. You learned about subjects/predicates, gerunds, participles, and dependent clauses. Japanese has some of these grammatical structures, but not all. And it has some that do not exist in English (or German, the other language I know).

So it’s not quite accurate to approach the learning of Japanese with the idea that you will learn how to deal with nouns, verbs, and adjectives first, then figure out how to construct phrases and clauses, etc. There just aren’t exact analogs to all those grammatical concepts! So from the beginning, you have to toss out your idea of what an adjective is, and you have to toss out your preconceived notion of how phrases and clauses are connected to the subject of the sentence. This is no simple task—these grammatical “rules” have been etched into our brains from the time we first picked up our native tongue as tiny children.

[BTW, through studying Japanese, I have come to appreciate what a difficult job my Japanese teachers have. They have had to recategorize their own language so that it can be taught to Western students. Now that I know how grammatically different English and Japanese are, I see that it would be very hard to teach English to Japanese people. I wouldn’t know how to break the language down into simple lessons that they could learn logically. The way I would break it down (ie, the way I learned English grammar as an English speaker) would be enormously confusing for them.]

One thing you may have heard about “Asian languages” is that tonality of speech is crucially important. Westerners are routinely warned that mispronouncing a word could lead to a completely different (and possibly insulting!) meaning. This is indeed true, but perhaps not quite as dramatically as you’ve been warned.

Like most Asian languages (and unlike most Western languages), Japanese does not use emphasis (stress) to mark accent. This gives the language its distinctive, rather “flat” sound– even long words do not have a stressed syllable. However, Japanese does use pitch– high and low– to distinguish words. The pitch is applied to each syllable, not within a given syllable as it is in Chinese. For example, “ima” can mean “now” or “living room”, the difference being the pitch between the two syllables, not the stress. In a few cases, you could get in trouble using the wrong pitch (and in any case you’d sound funny), but usually the context of the conversation will indicate what you mean. Overall, pitch isn’t as big a deal in Japanese as it is made out to be.

(Be glad you’re not learning Mandarin– in that case, two words that differ only by pitch are “buy” and “sell”. Now that’s an important difference! It could lead to serious stock market confusion).

What other top-level differences are there? In a preview of coming chapters, here are a few.

  • Although Japanese verb placement is often different from that of English, I believe that far too much is made of this difference. Shifting the position of the verb really does not require much rearrangement of your fundamental thought processes. So don’t sweat this part of Japanese—trust me, you will have far greater problems than this in learning the language :-).
  • Moving up the scale of “things that are hard for the Western brain,” Japanese uses postpositions instead of prepositions. That is, the things we call prepositions (like “in,” “on,” and “behind”) actually come after the nouns they are linked to in Japanese. We would say “in the station” and the Japanese would say, “station in” (eki ni). This type of construction will make your brain go backwards to a far greater degree than the SOV word order, trust me.
  • More broadly, there is a difference in the “focus” of verbs between Japanese and Western languages. We are very concerned with temporal relations and have multiple verb forms to convey exactly what happened when. One of my favorite English verb forms is “will have been going.” If you are a native English speaker, this is perfectly clear. Our minds effortlessly navigate all the relative temporal relations in that stack of four verbs.
    • But in Japanese, such time-related details are harder to express. Verbs really aren’t set up to convey that depth of meaning. However, Japanese verbs are set up to convey fine shades of emotion to a far greater degree than English verbs. We have to include a lot of adjectives and adverbs to get across details of people’s feelings, while Japanese verbs often contain these subtleties already. One result of this is that Westerners make strange blunders in Japanese because they are unaware of which emotion the verb they have chosen conveys.
  • Probably the most subtle and challenging difference between our languages is that Japanese uses very few pronouns, preferring instead to simply eliminate references to people or other nouns that are already established. A related property is the tendency to treat actions indirectly– it is far more common to say “it was decided that…” than to say “I decided to…” This at first seems vague– how can you tell what anyone is talking about? But as you get into the language, you will see that Japanese is perfectly clear; it’s just more subtle than English, and you have to work harder mentally to keep track of who is doing what to whom. (That’s not because Japanese is intrinsically more complicated than English; it’s because your mind is not properly trained to appreciate a language that doesn’t use many pronouns). This issue is even more complex than word order, postpositions, or emotional overtones, and will probably take years to master.

The result of these (and many other) differences is that, to a far greater degree than in European languages, errors are fatal. That is, if you use an incorrect form, you will not simply say something humorous, you will say something incomprehensible. I noticed that as my Japanese improved, the native speaker I was communicating with didn’t say, “How nice that you can express more complex ideas now,” or “Gosh, your usage is becoming more and more natural.” Oh, no. He said, “Gee, Kim, I am really starting to be able to understand you now!”

Learning a foreign language can reconceptualize your view of your own native language. This is a specific example of the general principle that true understanding of anything requires viewing it from an outside perspective. You don’t understand America until you have traveled in other parts of the world. You don’t understand science until you have studied art, religion, and literature (and vice versa). Once you begin studying Japanese, you will see quirks of English (or whatever your native language is) that were hidden from you before. That in itself is an end, whether you end up mastering Japanese or not.

So read on, and learn a bit about the structure of Japanese. I’m far from an expert, but I hope I can teach you a bit. Feel free to email me with questions or comments.