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Step-12: Japanese Sentences

Posted by J. Pierre on September 14, 2011

If you’ve been reading the articles on this website in order, you’ll know that we’ve covered the writing system in a broad sense, focused on the hiragana and the katakana a great deal, that we’ve taken a look at building a healthy learning environment and practiced basic Japanese pronunciation and listening skills. We’ve also gone over a quick introduction of Japanese particles.

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Suffice to say that we’ve made a fair share of progress.

However in order to move forward we have to pause for a moment and take a look at Japanese sentences. Unlike in English, Japanese sentences only require a verb. That’s right: just a verb! Here are some examples, as well as potential translations:

Japanese: 飲んでいます (飲 means to drink)
Possible translations: I drink, you drink, he/she drinks, we drink, they drink, I will drink, you will drink, he/she will drink, we will drink, they will drink.

Japanese: 見ない (見 means to see, or to watch)
Possible translations: I don’t see, I don’t watch, you don’t see, you don’t watch, he/she don’t see,he/she don’t watch, they don’t see, they don’t watch, we don’t see, we don’t watch, I won’t see, I won’t watch, you won’t see, etc.

Japanese: 行きませんでした (行 means to go)
Possible translations: I didn’t go, you didn’t go, etc.

How do the Japanese communicate? How does any of this make sense?

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Context Is King

In Japanese context is rules the meaning of a conversation as a whole. In English a snippet such as “Did not go” doesn’t really make sense — or a sentence. However here’s an example of a possible Japanese conversation. I’ve kept the word order intact for a literal translation, to help you better understand how things work.

Mother: “Satoshi, this morning[-of which I speak] market[-to] go?”
Son: “Did not go.”
Mother: “Really?”
Son: “Truly. Why is?”

As you can see, saying “Did not go” makes sense within the context of being asked if you went to the office this morning. But there’s more!

In Japanese not only does context dictate the meaning of a sentence, but almost everything is implied. Japanese is what’s called a “pro-drop language”, which really means “pronoun-dropping language”. When a pronoun can be inferred by context, it is dropped.

Let’s look at our previous conversation again. This time the pronouns as well as the inferred pieces of dialog that we would use in English have been inserted into the conversation and highlighted in blue.

Mother: “Satoshi, this morning[-of which I speak] market[-to] go, did you?”
Son: “No, I did not go to the market.”
Mother: “Really?”
Son: “Truly. Why is it that you ask?”

And now for a proper translation:

Mother: “Satoshi, did you go to the market this morning?”
Son: “No, I didn’t go to the market.”
Mother: “Really?”
Son: “No . . why do you ask?”

And there you have it: a basic but essential understand of Japanese sentences. Next time we’ll be taking you deeper down the rabbit hole, of Japanese grammar!




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