The View from Japan
Torii gate



mask, doll, origami craneLanguage

While some believe that the Japanese language falls into its own unique category, others insist that it is related to Korean, and maybe also to Polynesian languages, or even to Turkish. Regardless, it is unlikely that you will be able to relate the grammar or cognates (aside from loan words from European languages) to any other language you may have studied.

Japanese word order is generally characterized as being the reverse of that in English. This is not so difficult once you have adjusted to it. What may be somewhat harder to grasp is that sometimes concepts don’t fit together the way an English speaker would expect. For example, if the instruction “Turn left at this corner” is expressed in Japanese, “this corner” is treated as a direct object: “Turn this corner left.”

Writing Systems

Japanese did not have a writing system until Chinese characters were borrowed in the 5th century AD. However, since Japanese inflects much more than Chinese, it was a poor fit, and those who were literate were essentially reading and writing Chinese. In time, two sets of phonetic syllabaries, or kana, evolved. Hiragana is generally used in combination with Chinese characters, or kanji, for inflections of words, grammatical particles, and common words for which the kanji are seldom used. Katakana is most commonly used for words of foreign origin, though it is also used for things like names of plant and animal species, and comic book sound effects. The two kana systems have few irregularities (far fewer than the supposedly phonetic English writing system) and can be learned fairly easily.

The reading of kanji, however, is one of the most notorious sticking points of learning Japanese. Not only is it not phonetic, but each character has two or more pronunciations, and it can be difficult to remember—or guess—which pronunciation is used in a given situation. However, it can help to remember that the pronunciations fall into two basic categories: those that are similar to the ancient Chinese pronunciation of the character (on-yomi) and those that are native to Japanese (kun-yomi). As a general (but not iron-clad) rule, the on-yomi are used in compounds of two or more kanji, while kun-yomi are used when a single kanji stands by itself. Often, characters to be pronounced using kun-yomi will be followed by hiragana showing the inflection of the word, particularly if it is an adjective or adverb. Once you start learning kanji, they will probably not seem as difficult as you might have expected, though the sheer number of characters to learn can be a bit daunting.

Polite Forms

Another notorious difficulty of learning Japanese is that it is very situational. Various levels of politeness are used, based on how well the speaker knows the listener and where the two stand in terms of age and/or societal rank. The different levels manifest themselves most often in different verb endings (or entirely different verbs) and in the pronoun and honorific suffix used in addressing the listener. If you study Japanese, you will begin with the standard polite form which is sure to get you through any normal situation without offending people. If you have Japanese friends, you will likely learn the less polite forms used in more relaxed situations.

A word about verbs: in the basic polite Japanese taught in beginning courses, the verbs all end in -masu. However, this is the polite form of the verb, not the “plain” form found in the dictionary. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to look up an unknown verb. If you study Japanese, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by learning right away how to figure out what the plain form of a verb is by looking at its -masu form.

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Copyright 2004 This page last updated June 18, 2005 . E-mail Tim