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Basic Japanese

This lesson is split up in five distinct aspects of Japanese:

In relation to this there are several notes throughout the lesson which introduce and explain some of the grammar concepts that you need to be familiar with if you wish to learn language through non-intuitive learning (such as taking classes, rather than figuring it out in a total immersion program):

We're going to run through these, with as aim to have a near complete understanding of basic Japanese verb and particle use down by the end of it. A daunting prospect!

However, before we begin, a few words on the Japanese language, so you know what you're getting yourself into. Japanese is a context driven language. This is basically the best description we have for it and it's a kind of crooked way of saying "it misses loads of stuff from our Western perspective". For instance, Japanese has no determiners, has no separate verb tenses for different personal cases (i/you/he/she/we/they), it has no prepositions, has no plurals, has no verb future tense... from a Western perspective this language is "sparse". Except it isn't, because the only way to say it's sparse is to consider it a comparable language to, say, French or English... and when it comes really down to it, you can't. Why? Because the basic mindset that came up with Japanese has decided to group together things on very different criteria. In Western language, "excuse me" and "I am sorry" are both apologies. In Japanese, you don't apologise, you indicate the effect of your behaviour, and this indication is interpreted as either warranting apology or thanks. Things just work very differently.

At first we will only concern ourselves with getting the basics down, and most basics distinguish them from intermediate and difficult language by being simple, and not leading to many problems like the one just sketched - however you do need to firmly remember that because Japanese groups meanings very differently, one word in English can have multiple translations in Japanese depending on the use, and one Japanese word can have multiple translations in English depending on the use. While you probably won't have to worry about this quite yet, when we reach actually saying what you think and feel later in the lessons, this will become really important. Even in this lesson we'll see a few words that may have opposite meanings in English depending on which context the word is used in.

And now, on with the lesson, it's time to get our learn on. It might seem like I quite ridiculously have not included any reading information for kanji, but fret not: just hover your mouse over it and the reading will pop up. This has been done to familiarise you with "real" Japanese text. The reason I opted for tooltips instead of furigana is most a styling issue. Furigana makes some sentences line-and-a-half spaced, while keeping others single line spaced, so it becomes really really annoying to read the text. This is easier on your eyes, and because you have to invest a minor amount of effort to find out the reading information your brain will think it's important information too. I like to stimulate both you and your brain =)

There is one other reason I did this, and that's because I want to you copy every sentence you see used here to paper, with a pen. By writing it. Yourself. So that means no computer typing so that you have a text file to hold up to the lesson and go "ah that's how I pronounced it". Write out the sentence on paper when you see it in the lesson, in hiragana, so that you don't just get the full sentence in a, for you, readable form but also so you keep practicing that hiragana. This is really important.


 

expressions

Expressions are an important part of any language. They are typically constructions of one or more words which no longer mean what they would if approached through standard grammar. Much like the English "Have a chair" doesn't mean that you can pick out a chair and take it home, Japanese has plenty of expressions for many occasions, and the ones we'll be treating here are expressions that are used when meeting someone and introductions.

挨拶 - greetings

When first meeting someone, you use the expression "はじめまして"... but why? Literally, this expression means "[We are] beginning [this, and ...]" with the ... part left completely open. This is of course hardly useful because this is an expression rather than a real phrase. It is used when you meet someone for the first time, and can be considered part of the greeting ritual used in Japanese when meeting someone you have never met before.

Let's look at a small example of two people meeting each other for the first time:

A: 「A」といいます。はじめまして。
B: 「B」です。はじめまして。
A: よろしくおねがいします。
B: よろしくおねがいします。

This very short conversation is essentially a standard formal greeting, which can be translated as:

A: My name is A, [we are meeting for the first time]
B: I am B, [we are meeting for the first time]
A: Pleased to meet you.
B: Pleased to meet you.

It sounds a bit silly to confirm to each other that you are meeting for the first time in English, but in Japanese this is a common practice and puts emphasis on the fact that both people do not yet know each other's social status, and as such it is not yet clear which particular level of formality in speech is required from both parties. This plays a very important role in Japanese society.

Supplementary expressions

  • おはようございます - good morning
  • こんにちは - good day [は is pronounced わ]
  • こんばんは - good evening [は is pronounced わ]
  • おやすみなさい - good night
  • すみません - excuse me
  • ごめんなさい - I am sorry
  • ありがとうございます - thank you
  • どういたしまして - you're welcome

 

particles

We shall dive right into the sea that is particles. Where English uses implied grammar (that is, the words used determine what is a subject, and what is a verb object etc), Japanese uses explicit particles for this. A particle is a syllable or a few syllables which does not mean anything on its own, but is used only to label parts of a sentence as a particular grammatical construction. The grammatical particles used in the phrases in the previous section were:

  • の - genitive particle
  • が - subject marker
  • は - topic marker
  • と - noun list particle
  • に - location marker
  • を - direct object marker... but you will learn about it in the verb section, when we discuss する

The particle の is called the 'genitive' particle. Its use is indicating that one noun is related to another noun in a very particular fashion:

日本語: 
English: My book

Here 私 means "I" or "me", and 本 means "book". The particle の 'glues' the two words together, where the first word has an ownership-like relation to the second. Comparing Japanese to English, we can see the following:

Japanese: X の Y
English: X's Y / the Y of X

日本語: 
English: My book

日本語: 山田さん
English: Mr. Yamada's book

日本語: 山田さん名前
English: Mr. Yamada's name

This is a very important particle in Japanese. The particle が means "the noun or noun-phrase before this particle is the subject of the sentence". That means that acts being are being performed by subjects in the sentence, are these subjects will be marked with が.

日本語: 石田さんいます。
English: Mr. Ishida is here.

The subject of this phrase is Mr. Ishida, and the verb used in this sentence is "to be" or "to exist" for animate things, which Mr. Ishida clearly is because humans are animate. The exact working of the verb いる, used in polite form as います here, will be explained in the verb grammar section below.

It is important to use this particle; leaving it out generally results in sentences which can either mean too many things, or simply are not grammatical. However, you must also try to not confuse it with the particle は which we will now discuss, after which the difference between が and は is explained in more detail so that you hopefully will not confuse them for each other.

は (pronounced わ)

This is the context (also called topic) particle for a sentence, and indicates what the common information in a sentence or conversation is. The biggest mistake that people learning Japanese make regarding this particle, is thinking that it means the same as the English "is" or "am"; は is not a verb in the slightest, it is not even a word at all. Please remember this, for it will prevent a lot of confusion later on.

は is typically translated for education purposes in the following manner:

Japanese: X は [...]
English: as far as X is concerned, [...] / As for X, [...] / given X, [...]

There is also the more graphical explanation, which basically replaces は with brackets, to form sort of a 'math' statement:

Japanese: X は Y です
English: X ( it is Y).

This looks a bit weird for 'X' and 'Y', but if we use real words it makes more sense:

日本語: です。
English: I (being a person).
English: "I am a person"

While of course the first translation is not 'proper' English, it is not hard to turn "I ( being a person )" into "I am a person".

confusing が and は

People often confuse the subject of a sentence with the topic of a sentence. One of the major bumps in learning Japanese at first is exactly this problem. Often in short sentences, the subject of a sentence and the topic of a sentence are the same word, which is true for both English and Japanese sentences. This does not help in trying to explain the difference and so longer sentences are often used to show the differences, which have the problem that sometimes they're a bit too long to digest.

There is another way to show the difference between は and が which is, in my opinion, more elegant, and is based on the concept of 'common knowledge'.

A topic of a conversation is something that everyone is familiar with. If we were to have a discussion and I would say "I like that game" where only I knew that I meant monopoly, then you wouldn't be able to understand what I meant. This means that there is no common knowledge on what the topic, or context, is. As long as there is no common knowledge on a topic, you cannot use は.

It's that simple. This means that if you for instance ask a question like "what is that over there?", you cannot use は: you are the only one that knows what you may be talking about. Similarly, if you say "I saw a movie today", nobody knows you did until after you say it, so it cannot be a topic yet, so you cannot use は.

Before using は, you should always ask yourself "do the people I am talking to already know about the word or context that I am talking about?". If they do not, then you cannot use は.

In a later lesson we will look at using は in a way that "exploits" this common knowledge concept, where using it anyway forces a listener to imagine that there has to be a context already, or else you would not use は. For now however, that is slightly more advanced than we wish to work with.

A final way for your to remember the difference between the two, is that は marks context, while が marks subject. The difference between these two is striking: "while a context says what a sentence is about, a sentence says what a subject is about." You can't get much more succinct than that.

There are a few roles that the particle と can play, and we will treat two of them in this section of the lesson: the noun listing と, and the accompanying と.

If you are an English speaker, you will be familiar with the word 'and', but you will probably not realise that the things you are using it for can be wildly different. For instance I can say "I bought an apple and an orange" with which I meant "I bought X" where X can be one thing (let's say a large bag with stuff in it. It doesn't matter what the stuff is, it's still only 1 bag). In contrast to this, I could also say "I walked and skated today". This is not the same as saying "I X-ed today" because X cannot be represented by one thing. In Japanese, this distinction is very explicit. There are not so much different 'words' for different functions of the English 'and', but there are a large collection of grammatical constructions that all express a different 'and'.

The one for listing nouns like in the "I bought an apple and an orange" is using the particle と.

日本語: 木村さんの名前は「」です。
English: Mrs. Kimura's name is "ki" and "mura".

と creates a list out of the noun before it, and the noun after it. This can be extended indefinitely, so you can use it as "A と B と C と D と E" and you would have a list of 5 items. However, this list is what is called an "inclusive list". This means that in whatever context you are using a list that is made with と, you do not mean anything that you may not have listed. This may sound strange, but consider the following two sentences:

  1. I like books and music (I don't like anything else)
  2. I like books and music (well, actually I like more, but if I listed everything we'd be sitting here for a while!).

Sentence one uses と for the listing. In the context of "things I like", there are only books, and music. Nothing else. This means that the items "book" and "music" form an inclusive list for what I like.

Sentence two however, is cheating like mad. It says that I like books and music, but I really like a lot more than just that. In this context, と cannot be used. There is a different particle in Japanese that is used for this (や) version of 'and', but this particle will be treated in a later lesson. For now it suffices to say that you can use と only if the items you are listing are the only items you can make a list with, without leaving anything out.

A second use is the accompanying role. In this role it is used in combination with people, in phrases where we would in English use the preposition "with" such as in "I go to the beach with my family":

日本語: 家族きます。
English: I go to the beach with my family.

We can also use it in a listing fashion:

日本語: 谷村さん森山さん映画館く。 English: I go to the cinema with mr. Tanimura and mrs. Moriyama.

The interesting thing is you can think of this 谷村さんと森山さんと "list" in two ways: the noun list 谷村さんと森山さん followed by the accompaniment particle と, or two entities 谷村 さん and 森山さん, both marked with the accompaniment と. This seems to suggest that these roles for と are very closely related, and there is a very good reason for this.

There is really only one particle と, which always signifies unity. We can either treat it as different grammatical roles and ignore the fact that there is only one particle, or I can tell you that really there is only one role, unity, and that all the other uses are natural extentions on this - I would hope this second explanation is just that bit more useful to you. To show how all functions of と flow from this one role, consider: as noun listing particle, the list of と linked items is considered one thing. As accompaniment particle, the collection of people marked with と is considered a single group, and as we shall see in a later lesson when it is used as a conditional particle, it links up two subphrases into a single occurence.

The final particle that we will treat in this lesson, because we're already doing quite a few of them, is the particle に. Explaining に is a bit tricky, because the most correct definition for it is also a bit curious:

に refers to any point or frame in time-space.

What's that supposd to mean? It means that the part preceding に in a sentence can stand for a point in time (like 4 o' clock), or a location of an object (like the Airport), as well as a duration of time (say, 3 hours) or an approximation of a location (somewhere between Tokyo and Kyoto).

This makes に a very versatile particle. But there is one thing it cannot do, which beginners try to use it for anyway. に does not stand for 'the place where some verb action is performed'. This sounds perhaps a bit weird, but consider the following examples:

  1. I am at the airport
  2. I come home at 7 o' clock
  3. Mary sits on the chair.
  4. Jason is watching television in the living room.

In (1), there is no actual verb action at all. I am at the airport. I don't have to do anything for that to be true. As such, に would be used to say this in Japanese.

In (2) we have the same situation, but more disguised. While there is the verb action 'coming home', it's not one that is performed in this sentence. it's just a description of what I do at a particular time, but the sentence says nothing about whether it's now 7 o'clock and whether I'm right now coming home. Thus, in Japanese に is perfectly usable

In (3) and (4) however, verb actions seem to be going on. Can we use に to describe these sentences in Japanese? The answer is "yes and no". It depends on where we place the context of the sentences. If we consider (3) and (4) to be answers to the question "Where are Mary or Jason doing something", then we can use に, because we are focusing on the location. If however we want them to be answers to questions of the form "What do Mary and Jason do", then we cannot use に, because に says absolutely nothing about verb actions.


 

Verb Grammar - The Basics

Now that we know a bit about the particles used in the phrases in this lesson, it's time to look at verbs. As much as saying what part of a phrase means what, a real phrase usually has a verb to describe something being done, or some state of the world. Before looking at specific verbs, what follows is a small explanation of how verbs work in general in Japanese.

In Japanese, verbal words (which means not just verbs, but also a verbal type of adjective, more about those in lesson 2) always consist of two parts: the verbal stem, or 語幹, which only indicates what the verb is "about", and additional hiragana called 送り仮名, which indicates the verb's inflection. Also, there is no "to ..." form in Japanese. Instead verbs are always listed in their plain affirmative inflection. This means that we cannot technically translate verbs such as る as "to sleep", but we really should translate them as just "[I/you/he/she/we/they] [will, or right now] sleep".

Every verb in Japanese in its plain form ends on a syllable with a 'u' sound. That said, there are no verbs that end on ず, づ or ぷ so this means that any verb you may encounter has a plain form ending on any of the syllables う, く, ぐ, す, つ, ぬ, ぶ, む or る. Depending on this syllable, a verb will be one of two main categories of verbs in Japanese, called the 五段 verbs (also called class-I verbs or う verbs in literature), and the 一段 verbs (also called class-II verbs or る verbs in literature) respectively. 五段 verbs end on う, く, ぐ, す, つ, ぬ, ぶ and む, and sometimes on る, while 一段 verbs always end on る.

The verb class names will be explained in their relative sections, for now let us first look at how verbs, reasonably irrespective of their verb class, inflect: in Japanese, verb inflection is a process in three parts. Unlike for instance English, where a verb inflection like "sleeping" consists of the two parts "sleep" (verb stem) + "ing" (progressive suffix) , in Japanese an additional step is required. In Japanese the verb stem itself cannot directly take inflection suffixes, and requires an "inflectional base" suffix first. Which base suffix to pick depends on which inflection we want to use, but luckily there are quite rigid rules for this, so it's not easy to get lost in them ^_^

I said that verbs inflect in three parts irrespective of their verb class, but then what's different between the verb classes? Simply put: the inflectional base suffix. For both classes the formula to inflect a verb is stem + inflection base suffix + inflection suffix, but the second stem in this formula differs per verb class. The nice thing about Japanese is that this is the only real difference between the two classes, so once you have the stem+inflectional base, the inflection suffix is identical for both verb classes, which makes Japanese verb inflection really, really regular. The combination of the stem and the inflectional base suffix is commonly called a "verbal base", and we can identify five distinct bases, which are used in verbs inflections that have a particular "feel" about them:

base name grammatical "feeling"
未然形 Imperfect; all things "not yet" completed
連用形 Continuative; all things either finished or being in progress
連体形 Attributive; working a bit like an adjective. Also used for ending sentences.
已然形 Perfect; only used to create a hypothetical in modern Japanese, (also called 仮定形)
命令形 Commanding

Knowing these five bases for both the verb classes is so important that drilling these is essential to a proper control of verb grammar. It may seem boring and tedious, and it probably is, but without repetition, this stuff won't become second nature.

 

The 五段 verbs

As mentioned, all verbs that in their plain affirmative inflection end on う, く, ぐ, す, つ, ぬ, ぶ or む belong to this class of verbs, and a limited number of verbs that end on る belong to this group. These verbs all conjugate in essentially the same way, as can be seen in the following table:

未然形 verb stem + あ sound syllable
連用形 verb stem + い sound syllable
連体形 verb stem + う sound syllable
已然形 verb stem + え sound syllable
命令形 verb stem + え sound syllable

This means that for our example verbs, we see the following:
to walk to play to hurry to wait to talk to die to help
未然形
(未然形 お)
連用形
連体形
已然形
命令形

The reason these verbs are called 五段, which literally means 'five grade' ( meaning 5, meaning grade) , is that if you look at the position of the inflectional bases in the 五十音, the table of Japanese syllables, we see the following:

未然形 連用形 連体形 已然形 命令形
x        
  x      
    x    
      x x
x        

We see that the inflectional bases of the 五段 verb covers all five Japanese vowel sounds. For historical reasons these are called grades: the top two (あ and い) all called the upper grade, う is called the middle grade, and え/お form the lower grade. Because 五段 verbs cover all of them, they are "five grade" verbs. Hurray for reasonably logical naming ^_^

We need to look at the 未然形 before moving on though: firstly we see it has two forms, one on あ and one on お. This used to just be あ (which is why 五段 verbs used to be call 四段 verbs because it only covered four of the five sounds), but in modern Japanese the vowel sound contraction in the 未然形 when it is used to create what is called the "pseudo futurum" makes the あ sound turn into an お sound. Therefore, the 未然形 has "2" sounds in modern Japanese. The important one to remember is the あ sound, you can remember the お sound when you learn about the pseudo-futurum in lesson 5.

Secondly, there seems to be an 未然形 irregularity for 五段 verbs ending on う, which you'd expect to be あ but turns out ot be わ instead... This has to do with the fact that in classical Japanese, verbs ending on う are actually "wu" verbs, and their bases ended on わ, ゐ ("wi"), う ("wu"), ゑ ("we", ゑ. I think you can see the problem here: there aren't five "w" syllables at all. To make matters more fun, classical Japanese is not "pronounced as it is written" like in modern Japanese. The pronunciation for this series is actually わ, い, う, え, え, So, with the language reforms of the 20th century, the ゐ and ゑ were dropped from the 五十音 (they no longer exist), and the "wu" verb scheme has become the "u" verb scheme.... with the exception of this little 未然形 irregularity still hinting at classical roots.

If you are particularly observent you may have noticed that I didn't list a verb ending on る, and there is a reason for this. Not all verbs ending on る are godan verbs. If the verb sounds like it ends on ある, うる or おる (that is, あ sounding syllable + る, etc) then it is a simple matter: this will be a 五段 verb. However, if the verb sounds like it ends on いる or える it is most likely to be an 一段 verb instead. However, there is a limited number of 五段 verbs which sound like they end on いる or える, and these conjugate exactly like you'd expect:

understand need return (home) sell pray
未然形 から
連用形 かり
連体形 かる
已然形 かれ
命令形 かれ

And that's all there is to say about this class of verbs. You will probably wonder what how to tell 五段 from 一段 by now, so let's move on to the 一段 verbs.

 

the 一段 scheme

When a verb ends on る, it is quite often not a 五段 verb. As mentioned, if the verb sounds like it ends on いる or える it is most likely to be an 一段 verb, but how can be conclusively tell which of the two verb classes it belongs to?

Without more than the pronunciation to go on, you can't.

I know this sounds odd, but you just can't. There is no way to tell, without knowing the kanji form of the verb stem. And I only say this because if you know the kanji form, you can look it up in a dictionary. There is no rule that says when a verb that sounds like it ends on いる or える is 五段 or 一段. All you can really say is that if it sounds like it ends on ある, うる or おる then it cannot be 一段.

While in modern Japanese there are only 一段 verbs, the name doesn't make a lot of sense unless I tell you a little about classical Japanese. In classical Japanese, there are actually four verb classes contrasting to 五段, namely the 上一段 verbs (upper single grade), the 下一段 verbs (lower single grade), the 上二段 verbs (upper two grades) and the 下二段 verbs (lower two grades). The reason they were called this is because of how their verb stem changed in the various bases. The 一段 category had a stem that throughout their bases had only one sound, and the ( upper) and (lower) indicated whether this was in the upper grade (い) or in the lower grade (え) of the 五十音. The 二段 category on the other hand had a stem that throughout their bases had two possible readings, gaining an う reading, and the and indicated whether this was in the upper grades (い or う) or the lower grades (う or え).

However, as time went on, and as there were a really small number of verbs in the 下一段, 上二段 and 下二段 categories, the conjugation system got simplified by the people and the classical verb forms have all been turned into either 五段 or (gradeless) 一段. Which just leaves us with learning how to form the 一段 bases:

未然形 verb stem
連用形 verb stem
連体形 verb stem + る
已然形 verb stem + れ
命令形 verb stem

If we look at what this means for a few example verbs, we see the obvious (without irregularities this time):

see sleep stretch eat
未然形
連用形
連体形 びる べる
已然形 びれ べれ
命令形

We see that in three of the five instances, there is actually no inflectional base suffix at all.

Armed with this conjugational knowledge, we're ready to look at some of the fundamental conjugations that you need to know to use Japanese with even the tiniest smidgen of basic proficiency.

 

plain form: 連体形

The plain form of any verb is simply its 連体形 base without any additional conjugational suffix. This form covers both the present tense, such as "I walk" or "I build", as well as the future tense "I will walk" or "I will build". In Japanese there is no distinction between the two meanings, with context simply leaving no room for ambiguity - saying it while obviously not doing it automatically implies you "will" do it.

 

politeness: ます

One of the key skills in Japanese is to pick the right formality and politeness level. However, when a verb is used in its 連体形 form, they are considered informal, or colloquial, which means it's not really suited for most situations. Instead, any verb can be made more polite by using its ます "form", by placing verbs in their conjunctional 連用形 base, and adding the helper verb that expresses politeness, ます, to this conjugational base. Which is surprisingly easy to do! The following table shows the ~ます conjugation for all the verbs previously used for demonstrative purposes:

連体形 連用形 polite form meaning
     
歩き 歩きます walk
遊び 遊びます play
急ぎ 急ぎます hurry
待ち 待ちます wait
話し 話します talk
死に 死にます die
救い 救います help
     
見ます see
寝ます sleep
びる 伸び 伸びます stretch
べる 食べ 食べます eat

So turning a verb from dictionary form into polite formal is actually really simple, as long as you know what verb you have in front of you. This means you can now also turn verbs that are written in ~ます back into their dictionary form and look them up. How handy!

Note that there is no difference in meaning between the plain and polite form. They both mean the exact same thing, but their politeness level is different. If you are used to any Western language, this will be a new phenomenon for you, so take a moment to reflect on it. The words are written differently, but they *mean* the same thing. The exact same thing in fact. But the politeness connotation is different.

 

negation: ない

So with the two affirmative cases covered, let's look at the negative case:

日本語: 谷村さんはいない
English: Mrs. Tanimura is not here.

What makes this sentence a negative? We see another "new" conjugational form being used here: ない. This word is a verbal adjective, and is used to indicate an absence of something. You might have expected a helper verb, like ます, but while there is a classical helper verb for negation, it's been more or less "usurped" in modern Japanese by this helper adjective instead. So much so, in fact, that the negation of the special verb ある (to be, for inanimate things) is replaced by it when we try to negate it (as we shall see in the section on ある). Instead of using the 連用形 of a verb, in order to turn a verb into its plain negative, the verb is placed in its 未然形, to which ない is added:

連体形 未然形 negative form meaning
     
歩か 歩かない not walk
遊ば 遊ばない not play
急が 急がない not hurry
待た 待たない not wait
話さ 話さない not talk
死な 死なない not die
救わ 救わない not help
     
見ない not see
寝ない not sleep
びる 伸び 伸びない not stretch
べる 食べ 食べない not eat

So now we can also turn a verb into its plain negative form, and a plain negative verb back into the dictionary form to look it up.

What about the polite negative form? Can we combine ます and ない in some way to form a more polite version of the negative? As it turns out, we cannot quite do that, but intuitively we should be able to turn the polite form into a negative, which as it turns out we can do, using ません:

 

polite negation: ません

日本語: 森山さんtがいません
English: Mrs. Moriyama is not here.

This is actually two verbs, though you wouldn't say it to look at it. Consider the conjugational knowledge we now have. If the verb ます is a verb, then it should have a conjugation table, and if it's a negation, then it should have a 未然形 that is used for creating the negation... or not?

Actually, ます is a very special verb. It does indeed have a conjugation table, but it's irregular if compared to everything else. This isn't a very big deal as ます cannot be used on its own anyway, but it's an extra bit of information to memorise, so it should be read carefully. The scheme for ます is:

未然形 ませ
連用形 まし
連体形 ます
已然形 ませ/ますれ
命令形 ませ

Now that we know the 未然形 for ます can use the rules we just learned for polite negative. Let's say we want to turn いる, to be (for animate things) in its polite negative:

いる -> い + ます (polite) -> い + ませ + ない -> いませない (polite negative?)

...but that's not right! We have too many syllables now!

Much like ます has a special 未然形, it also has a special negative construction. Instead of using the helper adjective ない, it uses a classical negation verb (which was mentioned in the section on ない) called ぬ.

ぬ has a rather strange conjugation table, if it can so be called, being:

連用形
連体形 ぬ/ん

This verb has a shortened dictionary form ん, and it is this form that is used to negate ます. This ん is also used to create terribly impolite negations of normal verbs by using ん instead of ない, so remember that you shouldn't use it just for fun unless you know it's not going to have any consequences because you know the people you use it with will just laugh instead of wonder where you dug up your now apparently huge ego.

いる -> い + ます -> い + ませ + -> いません

Putting it in use:

日本語: 石田さんと田中さんがいます
English: Mr. Ishida and Mr. Tanaka are here.

日本語: 谷村さんと森山さんがいません
English: Mrs. Tanimura and Mrs. Moriyama are not here.

 

The simple conjugation table

So now we know how to conjugate a verb in its informal, formal, affirmative and negative form:

  affirmative negative
plain 連体形 未然形 + ない
polite 連用形 + ます 連用形 + ません

This scheme is considered to be one of the three most important schemes in basic Japanese. If you know how to do this, you're already well on your way. If you don't, please practice this scheme until I can wake you up at 3 a.m. and say "Polite negative form of 出来る! It's not a ごだん verb!" and you can mumble "できません... please, go away... it's too early... wait, why are you in my room >_O"

Armed with this scheme and the above explanations, we will look at the schemes for the other verbs used in the example phrases, except for the "verb" です, because it's special and I'd like to treat that as phrase grammar instead.


 

Verb Grammar - Important Verbs

Whew, that was a lot of verb information. If I were a merciful teacher, I would end it there, but I'm more of a realist, and I know that what I've just shown you is absolutely useless unless I also teach you some actual important verbs. The kinds of verb that keep popping up in every conversation, multiple times, and sort of act as a verbal backbone of a language.

いる

いる (which has a kanji form, 居る, but this is essentially never used) is the verb used to mark "existence" for animate things (be careful: this does not mean the same as "living" things - animate things can be living things like humans or animals, but also things that aren't alive but can be considered animate, such as "AIBO" robot puppies and the like). This is an 一段 verb and has a regular set of bases:

未然形
連用形
連体形 いる
已然形 いれ
命令形

As well as a wholy regular conjugation table:

  affirmative negative
plain いる いない
polite います いません

We need to look a bit at how to exactly use this verb, because it is easy to get confused - in English, there is only one verb "to be" that fulfils three roles, from a Japanese point of view. It acts as copula (defining things as other things, such as "This is a chair" or "The dog is big"), denoting existence for inanimate things (such as "There is a book on the table" or "The coffee is over there), and denoting existence for animate things (such as "My sister is in the kitchen" or "The cat is under the couch").

In Japanese these are three completely different things, and confusing them leads to either poor Japanese, or just non-sense, hence the bit of care required. For the last role, existence of animate things, we use this verb:

日本語: 石田さんがいます
English: Mr. Ishida is here.

In this sentence we are saying "Mr. Ishida is here", but we must be careful to use いる (used in polite form here), because Mr. Ishida is very much an animate object. If we were to accidentally use the verb for inanimate things (which we will look at next), then we're implying he's dead... not a good thing!

日本語: いません
English: There is no cat.

In this sentence we must again be careful to use いる, because cats are typically living, animate things.

日本語: どこにいないか。
English: Isn't ___ somewhere?

Here we are confronted by Japanese context sensitivity. The part in the blank is not actually specified in the Japanese sentence itself, and has to come from some previously established context. But what could we possible fill in the blank? If we look only at the English sentence then we can basically pick anything to fill in the blank with, but things are not that simple; if we look at the Japanese, it becomes apparent that we actually can't just pick anything: the verb used is いる, which means that the ___ has to be something animate. This means we can imagine the context to be for instance a conversation about some person or some pet ("isn't john somewhere [in the house]" or "isn't the cat somewhere [in the garden]") but it can't have possibly been about, say, a book or the coffee, because then using いる would simply be wrong.

If we want to say anything about inanimate things, we better use the following verb.

ある

As mentioned, ある is for inanimate objects what いる is for animate objects, and is a... hmm, actually, is it a 五段 or 一段 verb? From what you learnt earlier in the lesson you should be able to figure it out, but because we're still on lesson one I'll help you out: it's a 五段 verb. We can tell because even though it ends on る, that's not enough. For it to even potentially be an 一段 (or 二段) verb it has to be preceded by an い or え syllable. And that's clearly not the case here, so it has to be 五段.

This verb is a bit tricky, because while it conjugates seemingly quite regularly, its plain negation is a completely different thing. So different in fact, it's technically not ある at all. First up, the table of bases:

未然形 あら
連用形 あり
連体形 ある
已然形 あれ
命令形 あれ

seems fine, nothing wrong there, the bases are as they should be for any 五段 verb, but now lets look at the conjugation table:

  affirmative negative
plain ある ない
polite あります ありません

That's pretty weird! Instead of being あら + ない like I just taught, it completely skips the whole verb part and is just ない exclusively. What gives? Did I mislead you?

Well, yes, I did. Japanese has a well counted two and a half irregular verbs: する, which you will encounter next in this lesson, くる, which you will not encounter until lesson 2, and ある, which is only half-irregular. I say half, because for the most part ある is a normal verb, it is only in the plain negations that things go funky and we instead get a different word - just ない.

ない is a "verbal adjective", which means that it can - just like verbs - conjugate. We will look at how verbal adjectives do this in the next lesson, but for now it is probably best to cut the magic short here and just say "the plain negation for the verb ある is the verbal adjective ない" and keep it at that. Since we're only examining the simple conjugation table in this lesson, it won't get us in any trouble, and you'll learn the more complete conjugation table in the next lesson anyway, so there's no real issue with not telling you how things really work.

We use ある in the same way as we would いる, but then for inanimate objects:

日本語: あります
English: There is a book [here].

The "here" is in brackets in this sentence because it's the "most likely word without more context". However, if we're talking about someone's house and I say いいがあります then I could just as well be talking about it being at that person's house (いい means "good book", where いい is the adjective "good" - in Japanese, adjectives come before the nouns they modify).

日本語: 電話ありません
English: There is no telephone [here].

Again there is implied context, and "here" is just the most likely generic contextual word.

日本語: コーヒーがないか。
English: Isn't there [any] coffee?

Here we see ある playing its negative trick, turning into ない instead. コーヒーがある would be "there is coffee", コーヒーがない is "there is no coffee".

So now we know two of the three Japanese verbs used to do what the English do with only one verb. That just leaves the "copula" verb for defining things as other things ("coupling" two things together). However, this is a very special verb, to the point that it almost doesn't really count as a verb in Japanese at all, which is why we'll look at it in the phrase construction section instead. Don't worry, we only have 2 more verbs to go and then we'll start the phrase construction section with this "copula" verb, so you won't have to wait quite that long to find out what it is (if you really can't wait, it's です)

する

This brings us to a rather versatile verb in the Japanese language, which you will encounter in essentially every normal conversation, probably multiple times: する - "to do". As mentioned, する is an irregular verb, so we need to pay extra attention to its bases and conjugation table. First off, the bases:

未然形 し/さ/せ
連用形
連体形 する
已然形 すれ
命令形 しろ/せよ/せい

As you can see, this verb is quite special: it has three 未然形 forms, three 命令形 forms, and the bases seem to suggest this isn't a 五段 OR an 一段 verb! In fact, this verb is so rare it has its own label, the "サ-conjugation" verb. It is so special that no other verb shares this label, or its level of ambiguity... luckily! Also luckily, using it becomes a bit less confusing when we look at the conjugation table:

  affirmative negative
plain する しない
polite します しません

Now, since this is the first "transitive" verb we've encountered, it's not a bad idea to take a moment to explain the concept of "transitivity" to you. You probably know it because you use it all the time, but you might not be familiar with the name.

"What is transtivity?"

When a verb is used transitively, it require some object to show what it's doing. For instance, "I throw" might make perfect sense, but when I say "I throw the ball", then this is not the same as just throwing, it is far more specific and involves an object "ball". Some verbs can only be used transitively, like "do". You can "do the laundry", or "do something fun", but you can't really just "do". The only occasion where you might here someone go "I do" is at a wedding, and that's actually an incomplete sentence standing for "I do solemnly swear those things you just said, can we kiss now?".

There are also verbs that are intransitive, meaning they cannot be used in combination with some object. In English, the verb "walk" is a good example of this. You can walk, but you can't really "walk the road" or "walk the city". Interestingly, what is an intransitive verb in one language does not need to be an intransitive verb in another. As point in case, essentially all "traversal" verbs (walk, run, drive, swim, fly, etc) in Japanese are intransitive except when used with what they traverse, when they act transitive all of a sudden. So, in Japanese you would actually say "I walk the road" or "I fly the sky". Fun stuff.

Finally, there are verbs that can be used both intransitively or transitively, depending on what you want to say. In English for instance you can say "I drink" or "I drink tea", and both are fine as sentence. In Japanese, there are far less verbs that can be used in such a fashion, and there are typically verb "pairs" of which one is an intransitive and the other a transitive version of essentially the same verbal act. For instance, in English the verb "open" can be used both transitively or intransitively:

transitive: "I open the window"
intransitive: "it opens"

However, in Japanese these different transitivity forms of "opening" cannot be expressed with just one verb, instead (like for many other verbs) there is a pair of verbs (which share the same kanji base) that one uses. Typically the transitive version will be an 一段 verb, while the intransitive version will be a 五段 verb, but there are exceptions to this. In the case of "opening", however, this happens to be the case:

transitive: けます (from the 一段 verb ける)
intransitive: きます (from the 五段 verb く)

Which brings us to a very important feature in Japanese: while subjects are marked with が, transitive verb objects are never subjects and so cannot be marked with が. As you can see from the example, they are marked with を, pronounced お, instead. This particle is called the "direct object" particle and is a very important particle that you must know if you want to make sure you match your verbs with the intended transitivity.

Which takes us back to the verb する. する is one of the rare verbs that can be used both intransitively as well as transitively, and it can even more than that... but for now let's look at using it intransitively as well as transitively:

日本語: しますか。
English: Who will do [it]?

Admittedly, "who did it" would have been a better example sentence, but we haven't treated past tense yet, so this will have to do. Notice that the English translation shows a transitive construction, "it" being the direct object to "do". In the Japenese line however, there is no direct object; する is being used intransitively.

日本語: 今晩洗濯をします
English: [I] will do laundry this evening.

In this sentence, fairly obviously, する is used transitively, working together with 洗濯 (laundry) to create the verb action "to do laundry". It doesn't get a lot more straightfoward than that ^_^

Which just leaves one more verb to treat, which is ...

なる

This verb means "to become", and is rather important because it allows us to talk about things before they are "done" as it were. Before you are a doctor, you first have to become one, before it's too late to catch the last train, it first has to become late... this verb is just as important to know as する. Lucky for us, as there are only two and a half irregular verbs, and なる isn't one of them, this is a completely predictable 五段 verb:

未然形 なら
連用形 なり
連体形 なる
已然形 なれ
命令形 なれ

With an equallity predictable conjugation table:

  affirmative negative
plain なる ならない
polite なります なりません

Of course, it would be a bit too easy if that was all there was to it - なる is special in its own way. Rather than being transitive in the Western sense, なる can take relational objects.

"Relational objects?"

We've seen that verbs can be transitive or intransitive, but verbs have more facets than just transitivity. One of these facets is whether or not a verb can have a relational object. For instance, let us look at the two phrases "I throw a ball" and "I become a teacher". At first glace we might say they're both transitive; in the first sentence "throwing" is applied to "ball", and in the second sentence "becoming" is applied to "teacher". But that's not entirely right. "becoming" is not a verb action that you can apply to something - "a teacher" is in this case a relational object. While it is required to properly specify what the verb action is doing, it's not a direct object because the verb cannot be applied to it, nor is it a subject because the verb is not saying something about it. In English, the distinction between a direct object and a relational object is not immediately clear from a sentence, but in Japanese this difference is quite clearly marked: direct objects are marked with を, relational objects are marked with に.

Looking at transitivity again for a moment, we see that because に marks the relational object, it is also used to mark indirect objects. In the phrase "I throw the ball at Josh", we see that "Josh" is highly important in understanding the exact nuance of the verb action. Without "at josh", we know a lot less about the throw than if we include it in the statement. Not a direct object (throw is not applied to "Josh") and not the sentence subject (the sentence is about the ball being thrown), "Josh" is an indirect object to the verb.

In English, indirect objects are mostly indicated using prepositions: "I kick the ball towards Josh", "I buy the flowers for Anna", and so on . In Japanese, because the indirect object is just one of the roles of a relational object, it is marked with に.

If we were linguists or language philosophers, we could say that this use of に is in fact a sibling of the one we saw earlier in the lesson, both performing roles that come naturally from the "master" role of に as a nuancing particle. However, since explaining particle function based on their meta-interpretation is a bit over the top (not to mention theoretical linguistics) let's just call them two different roles and memorise them as such ^_^

This said, the English proposition "with" is actually special in this respect, and we cannot automatically use に as particle for a relational clauses that starts with it. What in English is considered one word can actually fulfill two roles in Japanese: accompaniment ("I go with Sarah") or instrumental use ("I write with a pen"). In the first case the particle と is used, like explained in the section on と, and in the second case we use the particle で instead:

日本語: ペンく。
English: I write with a pen.

The particle で is used when a relational object is instrumental to the verb (ie, the verb is perfomed by using [...]), which is why it's often refered to as the "instrumental" particle. Whenever you see a relational phrase with "with" or "by", check whether it is instrumental to the verb action. If so, で is the ticket.

Getting back to our verb なる, we see that most of the time it operates in conjunction with relational objects, and so we shall look at four sentences that use these relational objects:

日本語: 来年大学生なる
English: [I] will become a university student next year.

日本語: 大人なります
English: [I] will become an adult.

日本語: 君子さんが先生ならない
English: Kimiko won't become a teacher.

Here we see a combination of a subject and an indirect object. The interpretation is pretty straight forward: sentences are about subjects, so this sentence is about Kimiko. The verb act is "not becoming a teacher", so the full sentence translates to "Kimiko won't become a teacher". Easy, right?

日本語: それはなりません
English: That won't happen.

This is a bit of a sneaky line, because the translation seems to be completely wrong. We were using the verb "to become", right? Wrong! We were using the verb なる. One of the things when using Japanese and translating from and to Japanese is that you should always keep in the back of your head that there is typically not just one translation for each word. In this case, the Japanese literally reads "That won't become". This sounds a tad silly, but while you say something "won't happen" in English, there is no verb for "happen" in Japanese. Instead, in Japanese you say something "won't become". Always be mindful of the fact that some expressions simply work differently in another language - after all, why would they follow English patterns at all?

And with that little word of caution, we've wrapped up the important verb section... On to the phrase grammar!


 

Phrase grammar

In this last section, we're going to put everything together to form sentences with the verbs and particles that have been treated in this lesson, so that you hopefully get a feel for how the Japanese sentence structure works. We've already seen quite a few sentences being used as examples, and now it's time to fully understand why they're composed the way they've been composed, and what makes a Japanese sentence tick (as it were =). First off, we need to look at that third verb, the "copula" verb, that I promissed you we'd treat in this section, so without further ado, let us examine です.

です

You've probably heard it a million times already, but now you're going to learn how to properly use it!

です is technically a verb, but since it's such a special word, it's not exactly treated as one. It has a set of bases, but they aren't quite useful in modern Japanese. Instead, the best way to remember です is to just look at the conjugation table and memorise what's going on in it:

  affirmative negative
plain じゃない
polite です じゃありません

First off, what's that だ doing there? Well, as it turns out there is more than one construction in Japanese that acts as copula verb (the verb that couples, or links up, two things in a "definition" type construction). Throughout the history of Japanese many words have acted as copula, and right now there are a few in use, of which です is the polite version. だ is the plain or colloquial version, and it is closely linked to である, which is a slightly more classic version of the copula (だ and である are linked through the past tense, where だ adopts the past tense of である, being the contraction だった)

Secondly, the negatives require some explaining too: the じゃ in both negation forms is actually a contraction of the particles で (which you haven't had yet) and the particle は (which you learnt about in this lesson). This contraction (though in very formal settings you may hear it uncontracted as では, pronounced でわ) is paired with the negation for existence of inanimate things, which as you may recal as ない as plain, and ありません as polite version. (see the verb section on ある if you forgot already ^^)

When we look at what this negation actually implies in Japanese, we see something that might be quite odd:

日本語: じゃありません。
English: [This] is not a book.

This doesn't seem odd until I show you why it means "this is not a book":

日本語: じゃありません。
Decomposition: [this] does not exist as a book.

The "as" comes from the particle で which has become invisible because of the contraction, but that's what this sentence literally means. In a way this makes sense, if we say that something isn't a book, clearly there is at least a something that we're talking about, and if it's not a book it has to be at least something else, so it exists... but not as a book. I've added this little explanation to show you (again, really) that just because you know the English translation, that doesn't mean you know what the Japanese means - try not to think in terms of "this is what the English reads, so that's what the Japanese literally reads too". Quite often you cannot make a literal translation that makes sense in both languages because words and constructions have different nuances or connotations in different languages.

While of course important to know, this is a "technicality" with です, and isn't something that most people consider very special. です is in a word class of its own, and as such it just has a few forms you must memorise, and will memorise, because you'll probably be using them so much you're going to end up dreaming them.

 

Writing sentences

So now we know our major word classes, we know how to conjugate verbs in plain and polite form, and in affirmative and negative form for those two, we're familiar with the three "big words" (です, いる and ある) and with the two very important verbs する and なる, and we've learnt about transitivity and indirect objects... so before ending this lesson let's look at one more thing: how the Japanese sentence structure works.

You might hear that Japanese is an "SOV" or "subject, object, verb" language. While this sounds like a funky and useful way to think about Japanese, don't be fooled: this is merely a linguistic label for how the grammar works. Generally in a sentence with a subject, and object and a verb, you will find them in that order in Japanese. In English for instance you will generally find those three classes of words in a subject, verb, object order. But these are only "general" rules, and they have nothing to do with what the languages look like in real life - Sentences can quite easily be without a subject, without an object or sometimes quite comfortably not even have a verb in them. So what can we use as a guideline?

In Japanese, it's all about marking your part-of-sentence properly, and putting the more important bits in a sentence later in the sentence.

One of the more curious things about Japanese for people who are used to word order mattering, is that in Japanese word order is about as insignificant as possible. While the English sentences "The dog ate my food" and "My food ate the dog" have the same words but shuffled, and mean completely different things, in Japanese this problem doesn't really exist. As long as the particles stay affixed to the right words, you can shuffle parts around as much as you like:

日本語: うちのさんのごべてしまった。
English: Our dog ate my sister's dinner.

In the Japanese sentence we have the following "parts":

  • うちの - our
  • (うちの)が - (our) dog [subject]
  • さんの - my (older) sister's
  • (さんの)ごを - (my [older] sister's dinner [direct object]
  • 食べてしまった - eaten (with added connotation that this is a bad thing, through the additional verb form しまった)

Now, because changing the word order doesn't change the inherent meaning of the parts of a sentence in Japanese, because the meaning is not based on position in a sentence but on which particle is affixed to it, we can do the following:

日本語: さんのごべてしまった、うちのが。
English: Our dog ate my sister's dinner.

日本語: べてしまった、うちのが。さんのごを。
English: Our dog ate my sister's dinner.

Or completely upside down and inside out:

日本語: べてしまった、ごを。さんの。うちのが。
English: Our dog ate my sister's dinner.

So does that mean that order is entirely pointless? No, actually. While in Japanese the order does not affect what the parts mean in relation to each other, it does affect how important something is perceived to be in a sentence. For instance, if we look at the English sentences "I ate the fried chicken on the porch" with "The fried chicken I ate on the porch", then we see that even though the shuffling didn't change the real meaning of the sentence, the second sentence seems to hint at some kind of contrast, almost as if there was probably something else I ate that I didn't eat on the porch, and I want to emphasise the fact that I ate the chicken there.

While for English the rules of emphasis are a tad complicated, in Japanese the idea is "the later in a sentence, the more emphasis it receives". So if we look at the previous three sentences again, then we can rewrite the English translations in a way that shows where the emphasis lies:

日本語: うちのさんのごべてしまった。
English: Our dog ate my sister's dinner.

日本語: さんのごべてしまった、うちのが。
English: It ate my sister's dinner, our dog did.

日本語: べてしまった、うちのが。さんのごを。
English: He ate it, our dog did... my sister's dinner.

日本語: べてしまった、ごを。さんの。うちのが。
English: He ate the dinner... my sister's, our dog did.

So while the intrinsic meaning doesn't change, the perceived importance of each bit of information in a Japanese sentence is most definitely dependent on where in a sentence it is. This little "rule" about Japanese sentences allows you to downplay something in favour of emphasising something else whenever you have a sentence that is more than a few words, which means that you can be very creative with how you handle your sentences, but that it might in the beginning take some practice to get a feel for words that come later in the sentence being important.


 

And.. that's it

Right, that's it, I'm done - but I hope you're not. I hope this lesson gave you enough information to be motivated enough to reread and learn all the things this lesson teaches you before moving on to the next lesson, because there is a reason the lessons follow a certain order: if you don't control the material from this lesson, then because lesson 2 assumes you now know all the material from lesson 1, it will be quite hard. I recommend not moving on to lesson 2 at all for a few days, and just mulling this information over - you just read in only a few tens of minutes through what university students get in a few weeks, so don't be too hasty. If you are wondering about the pace, let me just say that at the end of lesson 3, you'll know about as much about verb conjugation and particles as a university student knows after a full trimester. If you stick around for lesson 4, you'll know as much as a university student knows after a semester. I'm not joking when I say I'm power-teaching you Japanese.

Stick with it, and before you know it you'll know more than someone who's attending university for this knowledge!

- Pomax