Japanese: ええと …

This post will be significantly shorter than the last one (I don’t expect anyone to have read it all).

Japanese the second time around leaves me … blank. I feel exactly the same way I did after I first reviewed it, except I’m not as enthralled by anime anymore (yes, I was one of those kids in high school). While I still think Japan is pretty cool, I didn’t get a “wow, I should really start learning this again!” moment.

SUMMARY: Japanese may be an Asian language, but it doesn’t really seem like it. Maybe that’s why it has its own language family. Sure, a lot of influence comes from neighbors China and Korea; almost half the words in Japanese come from the former. The actual origin of the language is still vague, as many people believe it is either an Austronesian language, related to the Altaic (Turkish) languages or a clone of both. Japan, in the mid part of the first millennium, copied China’s system of government with their imperial court, along with its written characters (called kanji, remember?). Up until the 1200s, when shogun rule would dominate the country, hiragana and katakana appeared. When the Europeans came centuries later, they brought with them guns, Christianity (although it wouldn’t spread) and a Roman alphabet. After WWI and WWII, the treacherous aftermath and eventual bounceback, Japanese would see an influx of foreign vocabulary, also called gairaigo.

FINAL IMPRESSIONS: Hmm. Japanese, contrary to belief, doesn’t really seem that hard. I can make out the language just fine in speech. The most complicated thing for English speakers would be learning kanji and hiragana and katakana. The best way to remember when to use hiragana and katakana is that hiragana is used for older words while katakana is used for foreign words. As for kanji, well, you’re on your own.

The pronunciation isn’t that hard in particular. A myth I’d like to dispel is the no-stress, “robotic” sound of Japanese. While the language, when spoken, sounds like people are speaking in a higher pitch with breathy sounds and there are stresses for syllables, especially for interrogative sentences. Also, syllables that end in i and u some words are often devoiced when at the end of words or are between or follow unvoiced consonants. For example, desu, which means “to be” or “are” sounds like “des.” (More specifically, if you observe the word in hiragana です, the su sound – す – is still there, it’s just a breath, though.)

As for grammar, Japanese is an SOV language, but it uses a lot of particles or postpositions to indicate the function of words. Below are several examples:

wa (often written as “ha” in hiragana) – indicates a subject
o – indicates an object
ka – turns statements into questions

In the phrase, watasha wa, the wa means that watashi (I/me) is the subject. Also, there is no grammatical gender and making words plural is a bit non-existent, as you would just use the number with whatever item you mention (e.i., when using a plural form of tree, you would say, four tree, instead of “trees”).

One BIG difference is honorific grammar, as words are inflected to show the relationship between speaker and listener. There are different forms of formality to use, such as polite, honorific and humble. For English speakers, memorizing verb conjugation for this factor would be a challenge.

Japanese may suffer the same fate as Spanish. I’m not excited about it anymore (and maybe it’s because I’m no longer an anime freak), but it could prove to be a useful tertiary language.

Maybe I’ll be an expert like this person!


Intelligibility: 3
Complexity: 3
Resonance: 3
Continuation: 3

COMING UP: Moldavian

4 thoughts on “Japanese: ええと …

  1. I bet it would be hard if one actually started studying it for real… but then most languages are like that. If I were to chose between Japanese and Chinese, I’d deffinitely go for Japanese because I find the culture much more interesting (i.e. I loved the book Memoirs of a Geisha LOL) But I’m with you, it’s not really a language I that would really *make* me want to study it…

  2. “Japanese, contrary to belief, doesn’t really seem that hard.”


    Japanese phonology is definitely easy, which often leads people into a false sense of confidence at the beginning stages of study, but that apparent ease soon breaks down upon a couple of realizations.
    1) Kanji is a life-long pursuit, even for native speakers. While it’s not the impossible cryptic writing system that it’s oft made out to be, it still takes considerably more effort than any other writing system I’ve ever come across. Frankly, I only really started to gain proficiency in kanji when I began studying Chinese languages (thereby exposing me to a broader range of characters, and facilitating their acquisition as Chinese usually only has one pronunciation for each character, whereas Japanese can have many, depending upon combinations).
    2) The differing registers of speech get intense. It’s not just honorifics, but changes in vocabulary and structure depending upon a multitude of factors. Simply put, it takes considerable time to acquire.

    Still, if it doesn’t float your boat, it’s best to move onwards. Learning a language that you’re not excited about is a chore to say the least…

    1. One word, friend, and that word is “Heisig”. Chinese characters are easy, but only if you go about it in the right way. Took me three months to crack the core 2000 (whilst working full time, just to give you an idea).

  3. Late to the party, I know, but awesome site anyway.

    I just thought I’d follow up the grammar part because it’s even more awesome than you assume. That ‘wa’ isn’t a subject marker, though it sometimes looks like it. ‘Ga’ is the particle that’s closer to a subject marker – instead, ‘wa’ marks the topic. You can call it the “As for ,” particle, because “X wa ” translates for “As for X, “.

    This is where the famous vagueness of Japanese comes in handy, as the sentence then becomes to mean the closest coherent thing that the recipient can then think of:

    Watashi wa ningen => as for me, human => I’m human
    Watashi wa isogashii => as for me, busy => I’m busy

    Or, some odd cases, like:
    Watashi wa biru => as for me, beer => I’ll have a beer

    We can then combine this with the subject marker (‘ga’) to make sentences where we would be the subject only indirectly

    Watashi wa imoto ga kekkon shita => As for me, my cousin got married,
    As in, perhaps: “How’s life?” “Oh, on my end, my cousin got married”

    Or we can make bizarre sentences that hopefully make sense with the appropriate (assumed) context:
    Watashi wa ishi ga koronde-iru => As for me, the rock is rolling.

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