The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
 
Author:
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
January 20th, 2022
Word Count:
1,491 (10:00 read time)
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Japanese Is A Fascinating Language

Japanese is a very fascinating language. It's complex, and nuanced, and sometimes it appears that there's a maddening number of ways to say the same thing; but it's also beautiful.

I've been studying it for approx 3.5 months now, and below is a list of some of the things I've found to be fascinating about the language itself, from the perspective of someone learning it.

Please keep in mind that the notes below are after only four months of study, so, there are likely to be mistakes. I welcome corrections, as I've come to understand there's no simple way to learn Japanese (read: mistakes will be made along the way).

 
1. The subject/verb order is reversed relative to how we use these things in English.
Hirugohan o tabemashita ("Lunch, I ate")
 
Ke-ki wa tsukuru koto ga dekimasen ("Cakes, make, I cannot")
 
Asa de pan wo tabe-te, ko-hi- wo non-de, gakkou ni ikimasu ("Morning in, bread eat, coffee drink, school to go")
 
2. You don't say "one, two, three" the same way when you're counting cows vs minutes.

When counting, the basic numbers 1, 2, and 3 are:

ichi, ni, san ("one, two, three")

However, when counting things, these numbers change form. This is [apparently] based on ease of pronunciation (I'll put the number base in bold below so you can see how the numbers transform as you count different objects)

ippiki ushi, nihikki ushi, sanbiki ushi (one cow, two cows, three cows)
 
ippun, nifun, sanbum (one minute, two minutes, three minutes)
 
ippai, nihai, sambai (when counting cups/drinking glasses)
 
3. When you ask someone how they are, you say "o genki desuka?"

Genki translates to "energy", which means you're essentially asking if someone has pep, vim, and vigor.

In truth, people don't say this in Japan .. and on the rare occasion when they do, it's a two word exchange: "Genki?" / "Genki".

 
4. There's no concept of plurals.

Plural is derived from context (as many things are in Japanese), as opposed to being stated explicitly.

 
5. There's no concept of future.

If I say "hirugohan o tabemasu" it means "I eat lunch" or "I will eat lunch"... it depends on the context (the tense of the verb in that sentence is present tense).

 
6. There's no analogous word for "it" in Japanese.

Once again, everything is about context. A given subject can be omitted (because it's clearly implied) or there's a very specific/clear word for the thing you're trying to say.

 
7. You can't just string together multiple adjectives like we do in English.

For example, if I wanted to say "that blanket is soft and light", I'd begin with:

Kono buranketto wa yawarakai desu. (That blanket is soft [yawarakai])
 
Kono buranketto wa karui desu. (That blanket is light [karui])

You'd think you could just say:

Kono buranketto wa yawarakai to karui desu. (That blanket is soft and light)

But no! There are rules for multiple predicates (multiple i-adjectives, na-adjectives, or verbs). You'd have to conjugate the 1st adjective and employ it's "te-" form, such that the sentence becomes:

Kono buranketto wa yawaraka-kute karui desu. (That blanket is soft and light)
 
8. You can't like (or dislike) a verb.

To like "running", you have to use it's dictionary present form, but converted to a noun.

When first learning, you'd think you could just say:

hashirimasu ga suki desu (I like to run [hashirimasu])

But stated properly, this becomes:

hashiru koto ga suki desu (I like [the idea of] running).
 
9. When using multiple verbs in a row, there are rules.

In order to string together multiple verbs, the "te-" form is used for all but the last, and the tense of all verbs in the sentence is determined by the tense of the last verb ("te-" verbs have no tense):

In order to say:

“In the morning, I eat bread, drink coffee and go to the school”

You'd be tempted to write:

Asa de pan wo tabemasu, ko-hi wo nonemasu, gakkou ni ikimasu
 
(asa de: "in the morning")
 
(nouns: pan: "bread", ko-hi: "coffee", gakkou: "school")
 
(verbs: tabemasu: "eat", nonemasu: "drink", ni ikimasu: "go to")

But since there are multiple predicates (verbs), we convert all but the last to it's "te-" form:

Asa de pan wo tabe-te, ko-hi wo non-de, gakkou ni ikimasu.

It's the tense of the last verb that determines the tenses of all the previous verbs, in this case it's present tense ("ni ikimasu" means "I go to"). If I changed it to:

Asa de pan wo tabe-te, ko-hi wo non-de, gakkou ni ikimashita.

... that would change it to “In the morning, I ate bread, drank coffee and went to the school”, as "ni ikimashita" is "I went to".

 
10. Verbs have many more conjugations and in romance languages.

For example: French. If you learned French, you know the classic verb conjugation routine "I, you, he/she/it, we (plural), you (plural), they (plural)".

The "please" form uses the "te-" form as a root and simply adds "kudasai" (which means please), and the "May I" also uses the "te-" form as the root and adds "iidesuka" (which means "May I").

If we list out a set of nine conjugations:

1. Present, 2. Past, 3. Negative, 4. Progressive, 5. Please,
6. May I, 7. Dictionary present, 8. Dictionary past, 9. Dictionary negative

We can then show them for four verbs:

eat

1. tabemasu, 2. tabemashita, 3. tabemasen, 4. tabeteimasu, 5. tabe-te kudasai,
6. tabe-te iidesuka, 7. taberu, 8. tabeta, 9. tabenai

drink

1. nomimasu, 2. nomimashita, 3. nomimasen, 4. nondeimasu, 5. non-de kudasai,
6. non-de iideskua, 7. nomu, 8. nonda, 9. nomanai

like

1. suki desu, 2. suki deshta, 3. suki ja arimasen, 4. sukini natte imasu,
5. sukini natte kudasai, 6. sukini natte iideskua, 7. suki, 8. sukidatta, 9. sukijanai

go

1. iki masu, 2. iki mashita, 3. iki masen, 4. it-te imasu, 5. it-te kudasai,
6. it-te iidesuka, 7. iku, 8. itta, 9. ikanai

(And that's not all of the possible conjugations)

 
11. Expressions like "hajimemashte" can be really cool in origin.

The expression "hajimemashte" ("nice to meet you") is based on the verb "hajimemasu", which is the verb for "begin", and so whenever I think or say "hajimemashte" I think "we have begun".

I also like the expression "gozen rē-ji" for midnight. The word "gozen" means "AM", and "ji" is hour. The prefix "rē" means "anew" or "fresh", and so that expression for midnight translates to "new/fresh hour in the morning".

 
12. There's much attention paid to "topic" vs "subject".

In any given sentence, the topic is often the same as the subject, but not necessarily. The topic can be anything hat a speaker wants to talk about. Topics are indicated by "wa" and subjects are indicated by "ga". The predicate "ga" can also be used to show emphasis.

E.g.:

Ko-hi wa nomimasu ga, ocha wa nomimasen.

"ko-hi" is coffee, and it's a topic being discussed, so it gets a "wa".

"ocha" is tea, and is also a topic being discussed, so it gets a "wa".

But the subject of the sentence, the take-away, is that I drink coffee, so the phrase "ho-hi wa nomimasu" (coffee, I drink) gets a "ga" because it's the part of the sentence that should be emphasized.

 
13. When discussing various topics, the proper word to use depends on context.

For example, when discussing family, there are three contexts:

      A. Humble Forms (to people outside of family)
      B. Honorifics (talking about other people's family).
      C. Directly to my family

One example is "father": (A) "chichi", (B) "otō-san", (C) "otō-san".

Another is "younger brother": (A) "otōto", (B) "otōto-san", (C) (his name).

And one more is "son": (A) "musuko", (B) "musuko-san", (C) (his name).

 
14. The Sounds Are Not the Same

There isn't always a 1:1 translation between sounds in Japanese and sounds in English. The two examples I've been a number of times are for the generic counters for one and two. I've seen them as "shitotsu/hitotsu" for one and "futatsu/hutatsu" for two. I believe that this is due to a 1:N relationship between the English and the Japanese, but I could be wrong.

 
Practice Sheets

Below are some practice sheets I've made to walk through some of the constructs I've mentioned above. YMMV, given how new I am to Japanese. It may also vary because apparently, the way we're learning Japanese isn't the same way it's traditionally taught. My understanding is that generally people learn a relatively narrow subset of the language at any given time, such that it can take years to introduce a concept like "dictionary present form" for a verb. We're learning it much more broadly, if that makes sense.