第7課: The 10 Major Aspects of Japanese

Japanese (Nihongo 日本語) is one of the most spoken languages in the world. Depending on one's definition of a language, it may be ranked as the eighth to the tenth most spoken language. Japanese is predominantly spoken in Japan. Japan has three means of address in Japan. Usually, Japan is called 日本, which is usually pronounced as Nihon にほん, but it may also be pronounced as Nippon にっぽん. Nippon is favored in formal settings, but in reality, Nihon and Nippon are both used in many of the same situations. The country is also formally called Nipponkoku 日本国 (the nation of Japan). 

The country of Japan is said to have been founded by Emperor Jimmu (Jimmu Ten'nō 神武天皇) on February 11, 660 B.C. Its national flag is called the Hinomaru 日の丸, which symbolizes how it is the land of the rising sun. In this lesson, you will learn about the arguably ten most important aspects of Japanese. In doing so, the mysteries of Japanese grammar that will be unraveled in the following lessons may not be so mysterious after all.

Before delving into what Japanese is, let's first address one concern you've likely had thus far: how to say basic everyday expressions. Below are some of those most important phrases that you can use with Japanese speakers. 

  • Good morning: O-hayō gozaimasu おはようございます
  • Good afternoon/Hello: Kon'nichi wa こんにちは
  • Good evening: Komban wa 今晩は
  • Good night: O-yasumi-nasai お休みなさい
  • How are you doing?: O-genki desu ka? お元気ですか
  • Nice to meet you: Hajimemashite 初めまして
  • Thank you: Arigatō gozaimasu ありがとうございます
  • Yes: Hai はい
  • No: Iie いいえ
  • I'm sorry/Excuse me: Sumimasen すみません
The ten aspects that are to be studied in this lesson are as follows:
  1. The Sounds
  2. A Mixed Script
  3. Word Order 
  4. Parts of Speech
  5. Agglutination
  6. Speech Styles
  7. Spoken vs Written Language
  8. Etymology
  9. Language Isolate
  10. Dialects

I: The Sounds

Words are composed of sounds. Each language has its own set of rules that govern how sounds come together to make words. These rules are collectively referred to as the phonology of the language. How the sounds simply sound is referred to as the phonetics of the language. 


The Vowels

 A vowel is a speech sound made by vibrating the vocal colds without obstructing airflow from the lungs. In Japanese, there are only five vowels, which is considerably less than English. In Lesson 1, these five vowels were notated as /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, and /o/. However, they aren't exactly like their English counterparts. To learn more about these vowels, we need to learn more about what vowels are.

High vowels are made with the tongue raised high. Oppositely, low vowels are made with the tongue lowered. Front vowels are made by placing the tongue as close to the front of the mouth as possible. Oppositely, back vowels are made by placing the tongue as far back in the mouth as possible.

Chart Note: The diagram below maps out the vowels of Japanese in the vowel space of the map with these qualities in mind. The further left you go, the closer your tongue is to the front of the mouth. The further right you go, the father your tongue is from the front of the mouth. The further up you go, the higher up the tongue is. The further down you go, the lower up the tongue is.

 

The vowel /a/ is made by with the tongue low but central in the mouth. It is more like the "a" sound found in British English or Spanish. The vowel /i/ is made with tongue raised high in the front of the mouth. The vowel /u/ is also a high-vowel but it's made with the tongue in the back of the mouth. In the diagram, it is marked with a diaeresis to indicate that it is not made with rounding the lips like its English counterpart. The vowels /e/ and /o/ are made with the tongue positioned centrally in the mouth. Whereas /e/ is made by placing the tongue closer to the front, /o/ is made by placing the tongue to the back of the mouth.  

Curriculum Note: Various things can happen to vowels in Japanese. They may become elongated, nasalized, and even devoiced. To learn more about these processes, see Lesson 365. 


The Consonants

In the second lesson on pronunciation, we learned about the various consonant sounds of Japanese. A consonant is a speech sound made by obstructing the airflow from the lungs in some manner. Consonants come in four broad categories: unvoiced, voiced, palatalized, and nasal. Unvoiced consonants are made by not vibrating the vocal cords. Voiced consonants are made by vibrating the vocal folds. Palatal consonants are made by placing the body of the tongue against the hard palate of the mouth. Lastly, nasal consonants are made by redirected some of the air exhaled from the lungs through the nose.

  • Unvoiced Consonants (Museion 無声音): /k/, /s/, /sh/, /t/, /ts/, /ch/, /h/, f/, /p/.   
  • Voiced Consonants (Yūseion 有声音): /g/, /z/, /j/, /d/, /dz,/ dj/, /b/, /n/, /m/, /r/, /y/, /w/.
  • Palatal Consonants (Yō'on 拗音): /ky/, /gy/, /sh/, /j/, /dj/, /hy/, /py/, /by/, /ry/, /y/. 
  • Nasal Consonants (Bion 鼻音): /n/, /ny/, /m/, /my/, /N/. 

As you can see, there is some overlap between the various consonants as to how they can be categorized. The categorization ignores how some consonants may be variants (allophones) of others, but because they can all contrast each other in the formation of words, they're all listed as separate consonants here. To learn more about allophones and the articulation of each kind of consonant, see Lesson 366.

You may remember the terms seion 清音, dakuon 濁音, handakuon 半濁音, and yō'on 拗音 when we learned about Kana 仮名. However, they don't 100% match with the terms above because they concern more with how sounds have been traditionally ordered.

  • For any consonant that is in the Table of 50 Sounds (Gojūonzu 五十音図), it is a seion 清音. 
  • When a consonant is written with a dakuten ゛, it's a dakuon 濁音. This term doesn't refer to sounds like vowels, /n/, /m/, /r/, /y/, /w/, or other sounds that also vibrate the vocal folds. 
  • When a consonant is written with a handakuten ゜, it's a handakuon 半濁音. This term only refers to /p/, which phonetically is no different other than unvoiced consonants. However, it was brought back into the language via certain phonological rules and loan-words. As such, the orthography treats it differently from the other consonant sounds. 
  • When a consonant is written with a small y-kana, it's a yō'on 拗音. This term is the Japanese equivalent of "palatal sound." 
  • Another word you may encounter is bidakuon 鼻濁音, which refers to pronouncing /g/ as /ng/. 

The Mora  

Unlike English, the basic syllabic structure in Japanese is mora-based system. A mora is a unit of sound that is equivalent to a single beat. Each "beat" is conceptualized as being equal in length, and each beat is assigned a high or low pitch. In reality, morae are not always exactly equal in length, but this is how they are conceptualized. This is reflected in the writing system. Kana 仮名 isn't a syllabary. Rather, it's a moraic system which denotes separate characters to each sound (combination) that can be treated as a mora in Japanese. This includes the moraic consonant /N/, which is written in Kana 仮名 as ん・ン.

The moraic sound system helps explain why Japanese distinguishes between short and long vowels as well as single (short) and double (long) consonants. Long vowels are deemed as two morae, whereas short vowels are deemed as one mora. Similarly, double consonants--written with っ・ッ-- are deemed as two morae, whereas single consonants are deemed as one mora. 

 Short Vowels Long Vowels Single Consonants Double Consonants
 Soto 外 (Outside) Sōtō 相当 (Considerable) Soto 外 (Outside) Sotto そっと (Gently)
 Koko ここ (Here) Kōkō 高校 (High School Koko ここ (Here) Kokko 国庫 (Treasury)

Pitch Accent

Japanese has a pitch accent system. Every mora of a phrase is assigned a high or low pitch. In Standard Japanese, there are only four possible pitch patterns that a phrase can have. Although the allocation of what phrase gets what pattern is arbitrary, the natures of these patterns themselves are not.

Chart Notes
1. "L" and "H" both stand for a single mora. That means H-L is two morae, whereas H-L-L is three morae. As a reminder of this, numbers will be placed after these contour notations to tell you how many morae words involved have.
2. The "L" and "H" in parentheses indicate what the pitch of something attached to words would be per pattern. 

 頭高型
 Atamadakagata
 Pitch is high for the first mora, drops on the second mora, and stays low for any remaining morae that follow.
 Ex. H(-L) ①, H-L(-L) ②, H-L-L(-L) ③, H-L-L-L(-L) ④
 shì 箸(chopsticks)
 中高型
 Nakadakagata
 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks at high pitch on the middle mora(e), drops back to low pitch on the third morae, and stays low for any following morae after the word. 
 Ex. L-H-L ③, L-H-H-L ④
 hanásu 話す (to speak)
 尾高型
 Odakagata
 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks at high pitch on the last mora, and then drops to low pitch on any morae that follow the word.
 Ex. L-H-(L) ②, L-H-H(-L) ③ 
 shí 橋 (bridge)
 平板型
 Heibangata
 Pitch starts low on the first mora, becomes high pitch on the second mora, and then the pitch stays high even once the word is over unto anything that follows. 
 Ex. L(-H) ①, L-H(-H) ②, L-H-H(-H) ③, L-H-H-H(-H) ④
 hashi  (edge)

Although these are the four pitch patterns of Japanese phrases, there are many processes that can change the pitch pattern of a word from one to another, especially as the phrase becomes further complex. There are also generational and dialectical differences that further complicate this basic understanding of pitch accent. The best way to acquire the Standard Japanese pitch accent system is to mimic native speakers who grew up with Standard Japanese as their primary dialect, which can be said for most people that live in and around Tokyo. 

Curriculum Note: To learn more about pitch accent, see Lesson 368. 

Chart Note: H and L both stand for a single mora. That means H-L is two morae, whereas H-L-L is three morae. As a reminder of this, numbers will be placed after these contour notations to tell you how many morae words involved have. 

 1 Pitch is high for the first mora, drops on the second, and stays low for any remaining morae.
 Ex. H(-L) ①, H-L ②, H-L-L ③, H-L-L-L ④
 shì(chopsticks)
 2 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the middle mora(e), drops back to low on the third morae, and stays low for any following morae after the word. 
 Ex. L-H-L ③, L-H-H-L ④
 hanásu (to speak)
 3 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the last mora, and thendrops to low on any morae following after the word. The L in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 L-H-(L) ②, L-H-H(-L) ③ 
 shí (bridge)
 4 Pitch starts low on the first mora, becomes high pitch on the second mora, and then the pitch stays high even once the word is over unto anything that follows. The H in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 Ex. L(-H) ①, L-H(-H) ②, L-H-H(-H) ③, L-H-H-H(-H) ④
 hashi (edge)

Chart Note: H and L both stand for a single mora. That means H-L is two morae, whereas H-L-L is three morae. As a reminder of this, numbers will be placed after these contour notations to tell you how many morae words involved have. 

 1 Pitch is high for the first mora, drops on the second, and stays low for any remaining morae.
 Ex. H(-L) ①, H-L ②, H-L-L ③, H-L-L-L ④
 shì(chopsticks)
 2 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the middle mora(e), drops back to low on the third morae, and stays low for any following morae after the word. 
 Ex. L-H-L ③, L-H-H-L ④
 hanásu (to speak)
 3 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the last mora, and thendrops to low on any morae following after the word. The L in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 L-H-(L) ②, L-H-H(-L) ③ 
 shí (bridge)
 4 Pitch starts low on the first mora, becomes high pitch on the second mora, and then the pitch stays high even once the word is over unto anything that follows. The H in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 Ex. L(-H) ①, L-H(-H) ②, L-H-H(-H) ③, L-H-H-H(-H) ④
 hashi (edge)

Chart Note: H and L both stand for a single mora. That means H-L is two morae, whereas H-L-L is three morae. As a reminder of this, numbers will be placed after these contour notations to tell you how many morae words involved have. 

 1 Pitch is high for the first mora, drops on the second, and stays low for any remaining morae.
 Ex. H(-L) ①, H-L ②, H-L-L ③, H-L-L-L ④
 shì(chopsticks)
 2 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the middle mora(e), drops back to low on the third morae, and stays low for any following morae after the word. 
 Ex. L-H-L ③, L-H-H-L ④
 hanásu (to speak)
 3 Pitch starts low on the first mora, peaks on the last mora, and thendrops to low on any morae following after the word. The L in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 L-H-(L) ②, L-H-H(-L) ③ 
 shí (bridge)
 4 Pitch starts low on the first mora, becomes high pitch on the second mora, and then the pitch stays high even once the word is over unto anything that follows. The H in parentheses in the example notations below indicate the start of something attached. 
 Ex. L(-H) ①, L-H(-H) ②, L-H-H(-H) ③, L-H-H-H(-H) ④
 hashi (edge)

In the first contour, H-L, the pitch of the word starts high but then drops and stays low. That means if a word with this contour were to have several morae, all morae after the first one would be low in pitch. This means a word with Pattern 1 could be H-L, H-L-L, or H-L-L-L. Remember, pitches only have "high" or "low" pitch. This means H-L-L would refer to a word made up of three morae and H-L-L-L would refer to a word made up of four morae.

II: A Mixed Script

Although writing is not the same thing as language, it is inexplicably tied to language. The Japanese writing system is the most complex script in the world. This is because it is composed of four different types of symbols. As we have already partly covered Japanese writing, this section will delve more into information about the system as a whole to give you are far better understanding of why it is the way it is.


1) Kanji 漢字 

Kanji 漢字 are Chinese characters brought to Japan from China via Korea around the beginning of the fifth century. Kanji 漢字 are composed of one or more building blocks called radicals, or bushu 部首 in Japanese. There are 214 such so-called radicals, and with these radicals, most characters fall under four types:

  1. Shōkei Moji 象形文字 (Pictograms): These characters resemble what they mean. It is generally the case that they looked more similar to what they represent earlier in history, but many still resemble what they mean.  
    Ex. 日 (sun/day), 月 (moon/month), 山 (mountain), 鳥 (bird), 木 (tree), 魚 (fish), 龍 (dragon)
  2. Shiji moji 指示文字 (Ideograms): These characters are abstract pictograms, more often referred to as ideograms.   
    Ex. 一 (one), 二 (two), 三 (three), 上 (above), 下 (below)
  3. Kaii Moji 会意文字 (Compound Ideograms): These characters combine one more than element to express a certain meaning.
    Ex. 休 (rest), 森 (forest/grove), 好 (like), 明 (bright), 信 (believe). 
  4. Keisei Moji 形成文字 (Semasio-Phonetic): About 90% of all characters are in this type. They are composed of two parts: a semantic indicator(s) and a phonetic indicator(s). Both indicators are based on the Chinese language rather than the Japanese language. Ex. 河 (river), 湖 (lake), 流 (flow), 沖 (offing), 江 (inlet).
    Note: In these characters, the left side indicates meaning while the right side indicates sound. 

Curriculum Note: To learn more about bushu 部首, see Lesson 359. 

How Many Symbols are There?

The number of Kanji 漢字 that exist in Japanese is uncertain. The Kanjigen 漢字源 is one of the most realistic Chinese-Japanese character dictionary (Kanwa Jiten 漢和辞典) for Japanese, which has 9,990 entries. This does not mean that Japanese speakers know 9,990 characters. Although a small percentage might, the most comprehensive proficiency test for proficiency, the Kanji Nōryoku Kentei Ikkyū 漢字能力検定一級, only covers approximately 6,000 Kanji. Yet, only about 10% of applicants pass this test--some of whom are foreign test takers. The Jōyō Kanji List, which is a list that the Japanese Ministry of Education has put forth to list out characters to create a literary baseline which is used in compulsory education, bureaucratic documents and publications, and general use. As of 2017, 2,136 characters have been designated as Jōyō Kanji 常用漢字. Additional characters used primarily for names, are designated as Jimmeiyō Kanji 人名用漢字, of which a total of 862 exist as of 2017. Generally speaking, most competent readers know over 3,000 characters, and due to the ease of typing, the average is steadily rising.  

 Examples of Jōyō Kanji 常用漢字 Examples of Jimmeiyō Kanji 人名用漢字
 雨, 広, 今, 力, 非, 明, 貝, 眠, 央, 芸, 減 丑, 之, 乎, 也, 云, 亘, 伊, 伍, 吾, 昌, 胡, 辰, 遥

Not soon after, a Japanese writing system was borne out of these characters. This system was called Man'yōgana 万葉仮名. It is called this because it is largely used in a compilation of poems written in Old Japanese called Man'yōshū 万葉集. This system is described as being a syllabary made out of Kanji. Essentially, characters were used for their sound. However, many characters were used for their meaning and created the foundation for how Kanji are read today. To learn more about this ancient writing system, see Lesson 410.

The Two Kinds of Readings

It is from this ancient system that two kinds of readings emerged: on'yomi 音読み (readings from Chinese) and kun'yomi 訓読み (readings from native words). Most Kanji 漢字 have on'yomi 音読み as they are inherently characters borrowed from China. The on'yomi 音読み of a character can usually be guessed with relative ease as most characters have a phonetic component, as mentioned earlier. Many characters were also attributed to native vocabulary, thus providing them with one or more kun'yomi 訓読み. 

Chart Note: On'yomi 音読み are listed in Katakana カタカナ and kun'yomi 訓読み are listed in Hiragana ひらがな for brevity as well as to provide an opportunity to practice your Kana 仮名 skills. Kana 仮名 in parentheses are okurigana 送り仮名, which usually spell out word inflections and enable said readings to be valid. 

 Kanji 漢字 Meaning(s) On'yomi 音読み Kun'yomi 訓読み
 息 Breath/rest ソク いき
 植 To plant ショク  う(える)
 宮 Palace  キュウ・グウ・ク  みや
 院 Institute イン 
 間 Space/gap カン・ケン  あいだ・ま

Curriculum Note: There are various kinds of both kinds of readings. Knowledge of these kinds gives reasons for why many characters have so many readings. To learn more about this, see Lesson 354. 

Japanese-Made Symbols 

However, there is also such thing as Kanji 漢字 made in Japan. These are called Kokuji 国字. Some of these characters do have on'yomi 音読み attributed to them, and some of these characters have even made their way into Chinese.  

Notation Note: For the characters described below, the same notation conventions for readings as used in the chart above are implemented.

  • 働: Meaning "work," it has the readings ドウ and はたら(く). It is also now used in Mandarin Chinese.
  • 匂: Meaning "smell," it has the reading にお(う).
  • 塀: Meaning "wall/fence," it has the readings ヘイ and ベイ, but these readings were formed by using a radical indicating a Chinese phonetic; the character itself is actually not used in Mandarin Chinese.
  • 峠: Meaning "mountain peak," it has the reading とうげ. The reading is spelled as とうげ rather than とおげ because it was once たむけ >たうげ , lending its current form, whereas instances of おお typically derive from おほ.
  • 榊: Meaning "sacred Shinto tree," it has the reading さかき.
  • 込: Meaning "include," it has the reading こ(む).
  • 枠: Meaning "framework," it has the reading わく.
  • 畑: Meaning "field," it has the readings はた & はたけ.
  • 腺: Meaning "gland," it has the reading セン. It was created by using the Chinese phonetic element 泉, lending the sound セン. This character is now also used in Mandarin Chinese.
  • 雫: Meaning "raindrop," it has the reading しずく.
Curriculum Note: To learn more about Kokuji 国字, see Lesson 360.

Character Simplification 

If you are a reader of Traditional Chinese or can read Hanja in Korean, you may notice that many Kanji 漢字 don't look the same. This is because many Kanji 漢字 were simplified after World War II. The old forms of characters are called Kyūjitai 旧字体 whereas the new forms are called Shinjitai 新字体. The old forms may still be used in proper nouns as well as in publications printed in the 1960s and beforehand. Below are a handful of some of the characters that were altered.

 Meaning(s) Traditional Form New New Form Meaning(s) Traditional Form New Form
 Yen/circle 圓 円  Learning  學  学 
 Spirit  氣  気  Old  舊  旧
 Meet 會 会 Return 歸 帰

Curriculum Note: To learn more about Kanji 漢字 simplification, see Lesson 361.


2) & 3) Kana 仮名: Katakana 片仮名 & Hiragana 平仮名 

From Kanji 漢字, Katakana カタカナ and Hiragana ひらがな were created, both of which are Kana 仮名. Each set consists of a basic pool of 48 characters. Intrinsically, they only have phonetic value whereas Kanji 漢字 usually have both semantic and phonetic value(s).

Chart Note: The chart to the left illustrates the origin of Hiragana ひらがな, and the chart to the right illustrates the origin of Katakana カタカナ. 

 

History NoteThe first system to be created was Katakana カタカナ. It was created thanks to Buddhist monks simplifying the manuscript forms of characters. Hiragana ひらがな was created by simplifying the cursive form of characters. Katakana カタカナ used to be called "man's hand (otokode 男手)" and Hiragana ひらがな used to be referred to as "woman's hand (on'nade 女手)" as the choice for what script one used was once largely based on one's gender.

Hiragana ひらがな is seen the most as it is used to spell most words that aren't from foreign languages which Kanji 漢字 may not be practical or possible.

  • Inflection - Ex. Atarashiiしい: the part that conjugates is left in Hiragana ひらがな.
  • Kanji 漢字 Replacement - Ex. Shiwa しわ: The symbol 皺 is often deemed too complicated.

Katakana カタカナ is largely used to write foreign loan-words from modern world languages. This includes modern borrowings from Chinese languages.

 Loan-word Meaning Language Loan-word Meaning Language
 シュウマイ Barbecued pork Cantonese ピザ Pizza  Italian 
 スポイト Dropper Dutchトナカイ Reindeer Ainu

Katakana カタカナ may also be used to write onomatopoeia or used to italicize expressions and even entire sentences. Its purpose for italicization is used heavily in Japanese dictionaries.

  • Italicization - Ex. megane メガネ: Meaning "glasses," this word is typically spelled as 眼鏡. 
  • Onomatopoeia - Ex. dokan ドカン (boom). 

Curriculum Note: To learn about Kana 仮名, see also Lessons 3, 4, 355, 356, 357, 364.  


4) English Letters (Rōmaji ローマ字) 

 Though Japanese is largely written with a mix of Kanji 漢字 and Kana 仮名, English letters have become incorporated into the spellings of many word, mostly newly coined words.

 Piiāru PR Public relations Ōeru OL Office lady
 Shiidii CD CD Diibuidii DVD DVD
 Emubui MV Music video Tiishatsu Tシャツ T-shirt
 Shiiemu CM Commercial Piiemu nii ten go PM2.5 Particle matter 2.5
 Eichiaibui HIV HIV Erujiibiitii LGBT LGBT 

Punctuation
Punctuation has largely been borrowed from the Western tradition, but the punctuation marks and rules associated with punctuation have evolved into something quite different. 

Firstly, there are no spaces between words, and you write to the next line even if this breaks up a word. Text may go down from left to right or down from right to left. Horizontal text was historically right to left. The most basic punctuation marks are shown below.

 、 The comma 。 The period ! The exclamation mark ? The question mark 

Punctuation marks are written with the same space as regular characters. Commas are often where particles are omitted. ! and ? have been borrowed for emphatic purposes to further demonstrate tone and emotion.  

1. わたしは(、)これがきです。
Watashi wa(,) kore ga suki desu.
I like this.

2. なに?
Nani?
What?

3. はい!
Hai!
Yes!  

Curriculum Note: To learn more about punctuation, see Lesson 346. 

III: Word Order

Basic Word Order 

In Japanese, the basic word order is SOV. This stands for subject-object-verb. These terms are defined as follows:  

  • SubjectThe item of discussion in a sentence.
  • ObjectWhat an action is directed at.
  • VerbAn action or state of being. 

Though the basic word order of Japanese involves these parts of a sentence as such, the subject and object may flip positions depending on what is deemed more important to the speaker, and a sentence may be without either or both yet still be grammatical. This means that Japanese exhibits all of the following word orders: SOV, OSV, SV, and OV. Of these,the least frequently used is the OSV word order; however, it is still occasionally used nonetheless.

In between the subject and object of a sentence are words called particles. Particles are post-positions that equate to the prepositions of English that indicate the grammatical function(s) of what they follow.  


SOV 
4. さかなをクマがべた。
Kuma ga sakana wo tabeta.
The bear ate the fish.

OV
6. ボール + を + ()げた。
Bōru wo nageta.
Literally: Ball threw.
Translation: I threw the ball.

OSV 
5. クマが(さかな)()べた
Sakana wo kuma ga tabeta.
The bear ate the fish.

V
7.
うたった
Utatta.
Literally: Sang.
Translation: I sang. 


Left-Branching

In grammar, "left-branching" refers to modifiers preceding their constituents. For instance, in the English phrase "a tall man," the word "tall" modifies the word "man." This is an example of left-branching in English. However, in English, when a modify becomes too long/complex, it goes after its constituent. This is called right-branching. In the examples below, the constituent is in bold while their modifiers are italicized.

  1. The kind cat (left-branching)
  2. The smart dog (left-branching)
  3. The cat brought back to life (right-branching)
  4. The dog chasing its tail (right-branching)

In Japanese, modifiers always go before their constituents no matter how complex they are. 

8. (やさ)しい(ひと)
Yasashii hito
Nice person

9. 学校(がっこう)から(かえ)った子供(こども)
Gakkō-kara kaetta kodomo
Literally: School-from returned kid
Translation: Child who came back from home 


Typical Structuring of Information 

  In Japanese, word order is not fixated in the way it is in English. Ultimately, the speaker can and normally will organize elements of any given sentence based on what he/she deems to be most to least important. However, most sentences are far more predictable than this fluid representation. Typically, information is organized with the following broad ordering.

 TOPIC + TIME + LOCATION + SUBJECT + INDIRECT OBJECT + DIRECT OBJECT + VERB

  The basic word order of SOV is reflected in this ordering, but Japanese typically puts a lot of information before the subject.

  • The "topic" of a sentence is what the sentence/discussion is about. 
  • Time phrases would include expressions such as "today, "tomorrow," etc.
  • Location phrases would include expressions such as "at Tokyo," "in China," etc.
  • An indirect object is a phrase referring to something/someone that is a recipient of some action, but it isn't the primary (direct object). 
  • A direct object is a phrase that is primarily being affected by the verb

10. わたしはきょう、えき友達ともだちほんをあげました。
Watashi-wa kyō, eki-de (ø-ga) tomodachi-ni hon-wo agemashita.
Literally: I-as.for, today, station-at (I-subject.marker) friend-to book-object.marker gave. 
Trans
lation: I gave a book to a friend at the train station today. 

Grammar Notes:
1. Whenever the subject and topic are the same, the subject is not stated but manifests in the grammar as an unspoken zero-pronoun. This rule comes from the general principle of obligatorily omitting syntactically redundant elements, which we'll look at next.
2. The typical ordering of information is almost completely opposite of that of English. 

11. ぞうはなながい。
Zō-wa hana-ga nagai.
Literally: Elephants-as.for nose-subject.marker long.
Translation: As for elephants, their noses are long/Elephants have long noses.

Grammar Note: This sentence demonstrates how the subject and topic of a sentence, though related intrinsically with each other, do not have to be the same thing. The pattern shown in this example will be of major focus for us in Lesson 12. 

12. 今朝地震(けさじしん)()きました。
Kesa jishin-ga okimashita.
Literally: This.morning earthquake-subject.marker occurred.
Translation: An earthquake occurred this morning.

Grammar Note: Not all verbs require objects as demonstrated in Ex. 12. This sentence is perfectly grammatical with just a time phrase, subject, and a verb.  

13. 明日(あした)から(かれ)日本語(にほんご)(おし)(はじ)めます。
Ashita-kara kare-ni Nihongo-wo oshiehajimemasu. 
Literally: Tomorrow-from he-to Japanese-direct object. teach.begin.
I will begin teaching Japanese to him as of tomorrow.

Grammar Note: "To begin teaching" is expressed with a compound verb in Japanese, but the ordering of its components is the opposite of English. In Japanese, the element for "to teach" comes first, and the element for "to begin" is added as a supplementary ending.  


Omission

If something is not important at all, it may be omitted altogether, even if it's an element of a sentence that may be grammatically necessary in Japanese. This is evident in how words like "I" and "you," which are a part of an overwhelming of English sentences, are frequently not stated. Of course, the decision between omitting or verbalizing something does imply change in nuance. For now, however, it's important to note that something in an English sentence may not need to transfer over to Japanese. 

14. 名前(なまえ)(なん)ですか。
O-namae-wa nan desu-ka?
Literally: Honorific.prefix-name-as.for, name is-question.marker?  
Translation: What is your name?

Sentence Note: There is no word in this example corresponding to "your." 

15. セスと(もう)します。 
Sesu-to mōshimasu.
Literally: Seth-citation.marker called.
Translation: I go by Seth.

Sentence Note: There is no word in this example corresponding to "I."


Inversion 

It's even possible to mention the verb first and state everything else as an after-statement. This is called inversion.

16. かなえ、わたしねがいよ。
Kanae, watashi-no negai-yo.
Literally: Come.true I-genitive.marker wish-exclamation.marker
Translation: Come true, oh my wishes.
 


Name Ordering 

The hierarchy of information importance also explains why one's family name comes first in Japanese. However, it is important to note that the language actually respects the original ordering of parts of a name if it is from another language. Many learners feel like inverting their name to be more Japanese, but this is not necessary and may end up confusing Japanese people who anticipate the first part of your name to be your given name.

 Barack Obama バラック・オバマ
 Barakku Obama 
 Donald Trump ドナルド・トランプ
 Donarudo Torampu 
 Moon Jae-in ムーン・ジェイン
 Mūn Je-in 
 Kim Jeong Un 金正恩
 Kimu Jon Un 
 John Smith ジョン・スミス
 Jon Sumisu
 Ryo Watanabe 渡辺亮
 Watanabe Ryō
 Shinzo Abe 安倍晋三
 Abe Shinzō 
 Yu Darvish ダルビッシュ有
 Darubisshu Yū

IV: Parts of Speech

Understanding part of speech (hinshi 品詞) is a quintessential to properly harnessing the grammar of a language. As a native speaker of any language, you are privy to instinctively knowing how words relate to one another, how they are similar and dissimilar. Without knowing the names of the categories that exist in your language, you're able to naturally categorize words together in various ways.

These categorizations, though, are language specific. Meaning, just because English has words called prepositions, that doesn't mean Japanese does as well. In fact, as we have learned already, prepositions really don't exist in Japanese. Instead, they're replaced by something called particles (post-positions). This, though, is just one instance of how the two languages differ.

To begin learning what the parts of speech are in Japanese, it's important to first answer a seemingly simple yet difficult question: what is a word? For English speakers, a word is anything that is written as one unit. In writing, we distinguish words by spaces. However, spacing doesn't always do justice to a word count. Take for instance the following phrases.

v. Don't (1-2 words) 
vi. Music video (1-2 words)

The phrase "don't" is a contraction of "do" and "not." Native English speakers typically conceptualize this as one word and do not necessarily deconstruct it in their minds when they use it. Likewise, the phrase "music video" refers specifically to a certain thing that is not solely music nor solely a video. In that sense, you could say it's one word, whereas if you go solely by its spelling you would say that it is two words. Because the word "word" is very vague, for linguistic purposes, the word morpheme is preferred. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning that cannot be divided further. This compartmentalization of meaning enables us to properly and objectively study Japanese phrasing for what it is rather than looking at it through an English-stilted mindset. For discussions that follow, depending on how specific things need to be broken up, "word" or "morpheme" will be used.


Independent VS Ancillary Words

There are two kinds of words in Japanese: independent words (jiritsugo 自立語) and ancillary words (fuzokugo 付属語. Independent words are those that can stand alone. Independent words can further be broken down into conjugatable and non-conjugatable words. Ancillary words, however, cannot stand alone. They too, though, may or may not be conjugatable. 

In Japanese, there are twelve unique parts of speech that can be classified as either independent or ancillary words. 

  •  Independent Words (Jiritsugo 自立語)

    Conjugatable 

     ・Verbs (Dōshi 動詞)..................................................Lessons 16, 17, 18, etc.
      A verb is a word that describes an action, state, or occurrence.
      
     ・Adjectives (Keiyōshi 形容詞) ..................................Lessons 13, 50, 52 
    An adjective is a word that describes an attribute. 
     ・Adjectival Nouns (Keiyōdōshi 形容動詞) ................Lessons 14, 51, 53, etc.
      An adjectival noun is a word that describes an attribute while also being noun-like.

    Not Conjugatable 

     ・Nouns (Meishi 名詞)................................................Lesson 8 
      A noun is a word that describes a person, place, state, quality, event, or thing.
     ・Pronouns (Daimeishi 代名詞)..................................Lessons 8, 84, 191
      A pronoun is a word that indirectly describes a person, direction, or thing. 
     ・Numbers (Sūshi 数詞).............................................Lessons 27, 28, 29, 193, etc.
    A number is a word that counts or measures entities. 
     ・Adnominal Adjectives (Rentaishi 連体詞)...............Lessons 60 & 303
      An adnominal adjective is a word that describes an attribute by directly modifying a noun.
      ・Adverbs (Fukushi 副詞)..........................................Lessons 48, 49, 154, 293, etc.
      An adverb is a word that qualifies an adjective, adjectival noun, or a verb. 
     ・Conjunctions (Setsuzokushi 接続詞)......................Lesson 169
      A conjunction is a word that connects sentence together.
      ・Interjections (Kandōshi 感動詞).............................Lesson 200
    An interjection is a word that represents an abrupt remark. 

  • Ancillary Words (Fuzokugo 付属語)

    Conjugatable

     ・Auxiliary Verbs (Jodōshi 助動詞)...........................Lessons 9, 10, 36, 37, etc.
    An auxiliary verb is an ending that attaches to a conjugatable part of speech. 

    Not Conjugatable

     ・Particles (
    Joshi 助詞)............................................Lessons 11, 12, 15, 19, 20, etc.
    A particle is a word that follows what it modifies to indicate its function.

The Six Kinds of Particles 

Particles arguably constitute the most difficult part of speech to master. This is because there are many grammatical functions a phrase can have in a sentence, and the grammatical functions that Japanese chooses to make evident may not always be those that are of grammatical importance in English. 

Of all the possible functions and/or purposes a particle could possibly express, they are all manifested in only a finite number of particles that far outnumber the roles they have. Similarly to how prepositions overlap in English, many particles at times behave similarly to others. Although it will take time to truly master the various particles of Japanese, a considerable amount of heartache can be avoided by knowing what to expect.

There are six main types of particles: case, parallel, conjunctive, final, adverbial, and bound. Particles may be categorized differently depending on how they're used. Below you will find these categories defined with many examples of each. Note that the lists are not necessarily exhaustive.   

  • Case Particle (Kaku joshi 格助詞): A particle that indicates the grammatical function of a word in a sentence. Some are prone to being omitted if their functions are deemed unnecessary to make explicitly clear.  
     
    Ga が.....................................Lesson 11, 167
    Wo を.....................................Lesson 15, 167, 183
    Ni に.......................................Lessons 31, 41, 66, 117
    No の......................................Lesson 89
    E へ........................................Lesson 32
    De で......................................Lessons 33, 90
    To と.......................................Lesson 66
    Kara から................................Lessons 46, 117, 256
    Yori より.................................Lesson 144

  • Parallel Particle (Heiritsu joshi 並立助詞): A particle that juxtaposes two or more things together.

    To と.......................................Lesson 40
    No の......................................Lesson 30
    Ni に.......................................Lesson 41
    Ya や......................................Lesson 68
    Yara やら...............................Lesson 302
    Ka か......................................Lesson 164
    Nari なり................................Lesson 302
    Dano だの..............................Lesson 304
    Toka とか...............................Lesson 141 

  • Conjunctive Particle (Setsuzoku joshi 接続助詞): A particle that connects clauses (parts of a sentence) together.

    Ga が.....................................Lesson 76
    Ke(re)do け(れ)ど.............Lesson 76
    Ba ば.....................................Lessons 109, 110, 111
    To と.....................................Lessons 109, 110, 111
    Tara たら..............................Lessons 109, 110, 111
    Temo ても............................Lesson 67
    Node ので............................Lesson 57
    Noni のに.............................Lesson 58
    Kara から.............................Lesson 57
    Shi し...................................Lesson 69
    Te て....................................Lesson 26
    Nagara ながら.....................Lessons 104, 288
    Tsutsu つつ..........................Lesson 289
    Tari たり...............................Lesson 101
    Domo ども...........................Lesson 304

  • Final Particle (Shū-joshi 終助詞): A particle placed at the end of a phrase to provide emotional context.

    Ka か....................................Lessons 19, 20
    Yo よ....................................Lesson 77
    Ne ね....................................Lesson 77
    Wa わ...................................Lesson 78
    Te て....................................Lesson 30
    Na な...................................Lesson 78
    Zo ぞ...................................Lesson 78
    Ze ぜ...................................Lesson 78
    Kana かな...........................Lesson 184
    Kashira かしら...................Lesson 184
    Jan じゃん.........................Lesson 184
    Koto こと...........................Lesson 184
    Kke っけ............................Lesson 184
    Ya や..................................Lesson 184
    Sa さ.................................Lesson 78

  • Adverbial Particle (Fuku-joshi 副助詞): A particle that indicates degree/condition/circumstance.  

    Bakari ばかり.....................Lesson 254
    Made まで..........................Lesson 47
    Dake だけ...........................Lesson 85
    Hodo ほど...........................Lesson 143
    Shimo しも.........................Lesson 182
    Zutsu ずつ...........................Lesson 188
    Kiri きり...............................Lesson 302
    Kurai くらい........................Lesson 143
    Nado など...........................Lesson 143
    Ka か...................................Lesson 44 
    Nomi のみ............................Lesson 207 

  • Bound Particle (Kakari joshi 係助詞): A particle that is an emphatic marker requiring certain conjugations.

    Wa は...................................Lesson 12
    Mo も...................................Lesson 22, 186
    Koso こそ............................Lesson 208
    Demo でも...........................Lesson 67
    Shika しか............................Lesson 108
    Hoka ほか............................Lesson 108
    Sae さえ..............................Lesson 230
    Sura すら.............................Lesson 230
    Dani だに.............................Lesson 230

V: Agglutination

Japanese is known as an agglutinative language (kōchakugo 膠着語). Agglutination is the process of creating complex words by stringing morphemes together into chains that are not broken apart in pronunciation or spelling. Japanese is known to be highly agglutinative, most notably in the construction of conjugations.

In Japanese, agglutination is brought about by a system of bases and endings. For every base that exists, several endings exist that attach to it, and each ending has its own set of bases to potentially keep the chain going. This concept of conjugation is very different to what native English speakers are used. For example, "I did not want to be forced to eat" is expressed with nine words. In Japanese, however, it is expressed as one phrase composed of many morphemes. 

17. ()べさせられたくなかった
Tabe-sase-rare-taku-na-katta 
Gloss: Eat-causative-passive-want-negation-past.tense

The phrase in Ex. 17 can be broken down even further as there are hidden morphemes that stand for the bases that act as the true glue of Japanese conjugations. Knowing how to break down phrases that far isn't necessary, but it is important to know how conjugation works overall.

In Japanese, something that is conjugatable has potential access to six base forms. After these bases endings may or may not follow. Endings will either be in the form of auxiliary verbs (which can conjugate) or particles (which cannot conjugate, thus stopping the chain).  

  1. Mizenkei 未然形: This base is called the “irrealis form” and is associated with endings that indicate actions that have not yet taken place: negation, desire, and hypothesis. It is used with endings like -nai ない (Lessons 9, 10, 16, 17, 18) and –(yo)u (よ)う (Lesson 119).

  2. Ren’yōkei 連用形: This base is called the "continuative form" and is used with endings that indicate actions that are in the process of being carried out and the verb is either taken or taking place. It is used with endings like -ta た (Lessons 9, 10, 16, 17, 18 ), -masu ます (Lessons 16, 17, 18) , -te て (26, 34), etc.

  3. Shūshikei 終止形: This base is called the "terminal form" and is used to mark the end of a complete sentence. This form may still be followed by final particles. 

  4. Rentaikei 連体形:  This base is called the "attributive form" and is used when you want to use something as a participial (verbal/adjectival modifier) when modifying a noun/pronoun. 

  5. Kateikei 仮定形: This base is called the "hypothetical form" and is used with the particle ba ば (Lesson 109).

  6. Meireikei 命令形: This base is called the "imperative form” and is used to create a stern command (Lesson 150). 

For the purpose of our initial studies, we will primarily focus on learning the conjugations that come about from this system. As such, it isn't really imperative to know exactly what base is used with what ending, or what bases those endings subsequently have.

Upon reaching Advanced I, the bases will be reintroduced and used in grammar conversations from Lesson 201 onward. By referencing this summation, however, you will be able to accurately guess exactly what's going on in case you really want to know.

VI: Speech Styles

The way one speaks in Japanese is especially important to maintain human relationships. In English, it is understood that one doesn't necessarily speak the same way to everyone. The manner you speak to your mother is not the same as you would speak to your boss. Business situations require people to be far more formal and polite than casual settings.

How English speaker change their speech to accommodate the situation largely relies on avoiding or implementing certain words. In Japanese, formality affects the entire sentence. Essentially all parts of speech are affected by the level of formality you wish to use. Word choice and conjugations are all affected.

There are four levels of formality in Japanese. As formality increases, there is a tendency for phrases to become longer and more complex. Although this is not always the case, it is a golden rule that you can use with great accuracy throughout your studies.

  1. Degrading Language (Bubetsugo 侮蔑語): Language that is degrading towards the listener. This is the opposite of honorific language.
  2. Plain Speech (Jōtaigo 常体語): Language that is neither degrading nor polite. This is used primarily in casual conversation as well as in many grammatical constructs in which politeness is not a factor. 
  3. Polite Speech (Teineigo 丁寧語): Language that is polite and used to express a general level of politeness and respect to the listener(s). This is the most commonly used speech style in conversation among working adults. 
  4. Honorific Speech (Keigo 敬語): Language that is highly formal. It's used when there is a great gap in social status between the speaker and listener(s) (Lessons 124-128).
    Humble Language (Kenjōgo 謙譲語): Language that makes it clear the speaker's status is lower than that of the listener(s). This is used when referring to states/actions involving the speaker.
    Respectful Language (Sonkeigo 尊敬語): Language that makes it clear the status of the listener(s) is higher than the speaker. This is used when referring to states/actions involving the listener(s).

VII: Etymology

There are three primary sources that compose Japanese vocabulary: native words, Sino-Japanese words, and loan-words. Together, they give rise to the language that you are now attempting to learn.


Native Words 

At the heart of the language are the native vocabulary words that have existed in some capacity from the dawn of the language. In Modern Japanese, these words make up approximately 30% of all words. As low as this number might be, they make up over 60% of words used in conversation. These words are called wago 和語 or yamato-kotoba 大和言葉. Below are some examples of native vocabulary.

 Hito  Person Hana  Flower Mizu  Water
 Koe Voice Kumo Cloud Tokoro  Place

Sino-Japanese Words 

 Sino-Japanese words (Kango 漢語), are words that were borrowed into Chinese over several centuries, largely through the use of Kanji. Many Sino-Japanese words have also been coined in Japanese. Over 60% of Modern Japanese is made up of these words; however, they only make up about 20% of the words used in the spoken language. They are, however, frequently used in the written language. Below are some examples of Sino-Japanese words.

 Kazan 火山
 Volcano Hon  Book Jiyū 自由
 Freedom
 Nigatsu 二月 February Sūgaku 数学 Math Kokka 国家 Nation

Loan-Words 

Lastly, loan-words (Gairaigo 外来語) are words borrowed from other languages. Although Sino-Japanese words are technically loan-words, they have been in the language for so long that they have been nativized. Gairaigo 外来語, however, are still clearly foreign and originate from modern world languages such as English. Below are some examples of loan-words.

 Doa ドア Door Zubon ズボン Pants Kēki ケーキ Cake
 Painappuru パイナップル Pineapple Roketto ロケット Rocket Onrain オンライン Online

VIII: Spoken vs Written Language

The spoken language (hanashikotoba  話し言葉) and the written language (kakikotoba 書き言葉) are not the same thing. The way one speaks is never exactly how one writes. This is especially so in Japanese.

In Japanese, the spoken language is full of colloquialisms, filler words, emotion, and tone that are often never truly expressed via the written language. Although everyone can moved by a beautiful passage, one is more likely to be moved by a soothing song or story. Speaking Japanese requires that you know not just how to pronounce words but also how to use them to best express how you feel and want to get across to the listener. 

In Japanese, the written language is characterized as being formal and often void of the colloquialisms and filler words that pervade speech. Spelling is utilized to add on nuances that may not be so apparent when spoken. This is made possible by the existence of multiple possible spellings of hundreds of words thanks to Kanji 漢字. There are many grammatical patterns that are used heavily in the written language that are not really used in the spoken language. Archaic expressions are also more likely to be used in the written language. Although it is important to know how to speak Japanese, it is also just as important to read and write Japanese as mastery in the written language is essential to being a functionally native-like user of the language.

Curriculum Note: Throughout our studies, many references will be made categorizing grammar points as being heavily used in the spoken language, written language, or both. 

IX: Language Isolate

Japanese is not related to other major world languages. It is instead in its own language family called the Japonic language family. Although it is not alone thanks to the minority Japonic languages spoken in Okinawa, it does not share any common ancestry with other languages in the region nor the world at large. 

Because Japanese is essentially a language isolate, it has had centuries upon centuries to evolve in is own unique way. That means its grammar is truly foreign to the English eye. Its rules are sometimes opposite to those of English. The culture that it is associated with it is also significantly different to Western culture, and these differences do affect language use. 

Grammatically speaking, many concepts that are essential to forming coherent sentences are not present in Japanese. For instances, articles (a, an, the), grammatical number (singular vs. plural), and grammatical gender (masculine/feminine forms) don't exist in Japanese. On the other hand, concepts such as case marking and politeness markers don't exist in English but are essential to speaking Japanese correctly.  

X: Dialects

  The last point to know about Japanese is that Japanese has many dialects. A dialect is a particular form of a language spoken in a certain region and/or by a certain group of people. Essentially every area of Japan has its own dialect. 

 

Dialects may differ in vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. However, the most important dialect is Standard Japanese. By mastering this dialect, you will be able to converse with essentially any native Japanese speaker. Knowing other dialects is not essential to speaking or understanding Japanese, but many dialectal expressions are known by all speakers. Whenever you watch anime or read manga, you will frequently encounter other major dialects. With this being the case, occasional focus will be given to dialectal expressions that are too important to ignore.