When we string our words together to express our thoughts and ideas, we tend to not give any thought to where those words came from and how they came to be. We usually don't have to think about how to order them or whether it matters that much if a verb or noun should start a sentence.

It matters if you want to ask a question; English grammar demands that 'Do' start the query. But, these days, especially in everyday speech, we rely on a rising tone at the end of the sentence to indicate the question

"You want to have a go at it?", with the last two words pitched higher, is a perfectly acceptable question.

The way we use our language and how our usage causes English to evolve is comparable to the Japanese language only in certain aspects.

Before launching into an exploration of Japanese words and phrases, Superprof endeavours to explain how this elegant, multifaceted language originated, and how it has changed over time.

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Where Japanese Words Come From

Before 8th-Century, little is known about the Japanese language. Sure, a few mentions of it in a Chinese text from the 3rd Century but exactly how or when the Japanese language originated remains unknown.

So much for that hype.

China's influence on Japan's early language development is clear through it prevalent use of kanji
We know that the Chinese had great influence in shaping Japan's early language but little is known, beyond that. Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Thanks to kanji, a component part of the Japanese alphabet, we know that there must have been some Chinese influence but, today,  Mandarin and Japanese do not even belong to the same language family. Indeed, Japanese is more closely related to Korean than Mandarin, for all the Chinese language helped shape the Japanese tongue.

Kanji is not the only testament to China's impact on Japan's language development. Kango - literally 'Han words' (Han = Chinese) make up about 60% of the entries in modern Japanese dictionaries. However, these words don't enjoy heavy use in everyday conversation.

You might say that kango underpin but do not drive active language usage.

Along with China's long period of influence on the Japanese language and culture came an influx of foreigners; some from faraway lands. These missionaries and scholars brought their languages with them, which also played a part in shaping and growing Japan's vocabulary.

The words from that period are classified as wasei-kango - words invented in Japanese to describe foreign, often civic concepts like revolution and democracy.

And then, suddenly, the Japanese had had enough. Early in the 17th Century, they booted out virtually all the foreigners and Land of the Rising Sun dwelt in self-imposed isolation. During this time, the country spurred its language development with no outside influence.

But the tide had already turned. By the time the country opened up, roughly two centuries later, the indigenous vocabulary was ripe to be seeded with European loanwords.

Today, Japanese words with English language roots abound.

Word Order in Japanese Sentences

In many languages, the syntax - word order follows the same pattern: subject-verb-object.

We get a lot of information from even simple sentences like "I went home"; namely who performed the action (I) what the action is (went) and the target of the action (home). We also know it happened sometime in the past thanks to the verb tense and, through context, we understand that the 'I' in question was somewhere other than home.

Japanese sentences contain just as much information - perhaps even more, but it's much harder to tease out because:

  • there is no indication of plural or singular
  • there is no grammatical gender
  • there are no articles - a/an, the and so on
  • particles help to lend tone and meaning
  • verbs are conjugated for time and voice but not a grammatical person
    • there's no 'I am, you are...'
  • adjectives are conjugated
  • Japanese boasts an extensive list of honorifics

Hierarchy is important in Japanese culture; using honorifics to address someone senior to you - anyone from older relatives to your bosses at work is compulsory.

A common honorific (and particle) is attaching -san to a person's surname. It's considered improper to address anyone in Japan by their given name; thus, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would correctly be addressed as Abe-san.

It's common to see lucky lanterns in Japan
Japanese lanterns are often inscribed with fortuitous phrases and wishes for luck. Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Japanese and Chinese follow some of the same grammar rules, particularly sentence structure. In both languages, the word order is subject-object-verb: I the apple eat, for example.

Or let's say you and your mates are headed to see the latest blockbuster. "I'm going to the cinema with you!" you might exclaim. Or "I'm going with you to the cinema!" - both convey the same intent, even if the meaning is slightly different.

If you were speaking Japanese, you would instead shout: "I with you cinema go!". In Japanese, it looks like this: 私はあなたと一緒に映画館に行きます  (romaji; Watashi wa anata to issho ni eigakan ni ikimasu).

Note the contrast particles (wa, to, ni) that describe who is doing what with whom, as well as the particles for tone and meaning. Note also that the verb ikimasu has an end-particle but remains in its infinitive form.

And, of course, the kanji that starts individual words, without which reading this sentence would be much more difficult.

Japanese Words You Need to Know

Now that we have some idea of roughly where Japanese words came from and how to use them, let's try our hand at a few.

Fundamentals

Politeness is integral to Japanese culture so it's important to know at least these words.

  • Yes                      はい                           hai
  • No                       いいえ                       lie
  • Please                 おねがいします       onegai shimasu
  • Thank you         ありがとう               arigatō
  • Excuse me         すみません               sumimasen
  • No problem       問題ないよ               mondai nai yo

As mentioned in the previous segment, intent and context change how words function in Japanese. For instance, the form for 'please' changes depending on which circumstance it is used in.

The above-listed form is very similar to ください (kudasai); they vary only in their degree of formality. Thus, pleading with your mates (kudasai) is different from pleading with your parents or boss (onegai shimasu).

Greetings

  • Good Morning         おはようございます    ohayou gozaimasu
  • Good Afternoon      こんにちは                    konnichiwa (this is also a generic hello)
  • Good Evening         こんばんは                     konbanwa

Far from our own casual greetings - or sometimes not greeting (our parents, teachers and bosses), the Japanese are sticklers for polite greetings... but, if you wanted to greet your mate, you don't have to be quite that formal. A simple おはよう(ohayou) will do.

Other Essential Words

These revolve around food.

  • Breakfast          朝ごはん       asagohan
  • Lunch               ランチ            ranchi (or hirugohan)
  • Dinner            晩ごはん          bangohan
    • dinner may also be ディナー   dina
  • Eat                  食べます          tabemasu
  • Drink             飲みます           nomimasu
  • Restaurant   レストラン        resutoran

With this list, it's clear to see which words are imports; they're written in katakana and have an English-approximate phonetic equivalent. The fundamentally Japanese words all start with a kanji character and display the more elaborate hiragana ideograms.

Note that Japanese numbers also count among fundamentals you need to know.

You have to know and understand not just words but how they're put together to form phrases
Understanding Japanese phrases will reveal that this sign says 'stop where you are', not just stop. Photo by Ryoma Onita on Unsplash

Japanese Phrases You Need to Know

Now, having examined how individual words are constructed, let's string a few of them together.

During your first few months in Japan, you may find yourself often saying "I speak a little Japanese": 少し日本語を話します(sukoshi nihongo wo hanashimasu).

A good follow-up to that sentence would be "Do you understand?": わかりますか (wakarimasu ka). The 'ka' ending particle signals that this is a question.

If all your attempts to communicate in Japanese fall short, you may resort to "Can you speak English?" 英語を話せますか (eigo wo hanasemasu ka)

Upon meeting somebody for the first time, you might ask "What is your name?": お名前は何ですか (o-namae wa nan desu ka), perhaps later followed up by "Can I have your email address or phone number?": E-メール/電話番号を教えてもらえますか (e-meru/denwa bango wo oshiete moraemasu ka).

Let's say you're out shopping with your new Japanese friend, or maybe at a restaurant and you want something that you don't know the Japanese word for. You might ask "What is ... in Japanese?": 日本語で...は何ですか (nihongo de ... wa nan desu ka).

If you let your friend order for you, once the food arrives, you might have to ask "What's this?": これは何ですか (kore wa nan desu ka).

After that delicious meal, you will surely be tempted to cover the bill "How much is it?": いくらですか (ikura desu ka).

And, as your evening draws to a close, you might ask "When can we meet?": いつは会えますか (Itsu wa aemasu ka) before bidding them こんばんは (konbanwa) - you remember that word, right?

The particle 'ka' completes questions but the word that precedes it in these examples, 'desu', is also one you'll often see, hear and use. It's the Japanese equivalent of our most common verb, to be.

To explain why you're in Japan, for instance, you might say "I am a student": 私は学生です (watashi wa gakusei desu). You may further explain your youth and vigour by stating how old you are: 私は二十三歳です (watashi wa ni jū san sai desu)

However, saying "I am from England" does not yield a 'desu' ending: 私はイギリスからきた (watashi wa igirisu kara kita). That's because 'kita' corresponds to 'from', reducing your self-description to your place of origin.

However, if you said "I am British", the Japanese equivalent would include desu: 私はイギリス人です (watashi wa igirisuhito desu).

The Japanese language is so rich with context, texture, history and variety; it's no wonder you want to learn all about it.

To speak English well, we don't need to know that our words came from Latin, French and German. In that aspect, English diverges substantially from Japanese; a language that you have to know where the words came from so you can understand them, say them and write them correctly.

Now, discover more about learning the basics of Japanese...

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