Japanese From Zero (Part 2)

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Today on Japanese from Zero, we’ll be discussing Japanese syntax, nouns (and pronouns), adjectives, and adverbs. (Particles and verbs we’ll leave for part 3 because they can get pretty complex)

Japanese Syntax

Syntax is the relationship between word order and meaning. “I ate a sandwich” is a very difference utterance than “A sandwich ate I” and even more different than the nonsensical “Sandwich ate a I”. All languages have a structure which is required for a sentence to make sense. In English, the subject goes first, then the verb, then the object. Each noun takes its article before the noun, adjectives go between the article and the noun. You get the idea.
Japanese is commonly referred to as a SOV language, meaning Subject-Object-Verb. This means that the subject goes first, then the objects, then the verb. However, this is not entirely true. The verb (in the vast majority of cases) needs to go at the end of the phrase. But the subject and objects can be moved around, with the things closer to the verb carrying more importance than those farther away. Further, many sentences in Japanese don’t have a subject. That’s hard to see in English when we translate because all English sentences have a subject.
At the level of parts of speech, the order is this:
[(adverb)-(adjective)-noun-particle] [adverb] || ([number-counter]) [verb] [ending particle]

Things between parentheses () are optional, meaning that the sentence doesn’t need them. Obviously, a noun phrase doesn’t always need an adjective or an adverb. “Number-counter” refer to the way Japanese mentions the quantity of the direct object, when necessary. Essentially, the amount is stated and the genus (a.k.a. the counter) of the object is stated thereafter. The genus is determined in an illogical and convoluted way (for example, birds and rabbits are in the same genus).
The double bar || means that one can fiddle around with the order of what comes before it without changing the meaning of the overall statement.
And, needless to state, sentences can have more than one noun phrase.

Nouns & Inflection

Nouns are simple. Because they do not generally inflect.

What does it mean to inflect? Inflection is when a word changes to suit a number or a gender or the function of the word in a sentence.
English doesn’t have much inflection in nouns, but thankfully the pronouns (which are a sub-set of nouns) do retain quite a bit on inflection.
Let’s use “she” as an example. “She” is inflected to be singular (number), feminine (gender), and nominative (case), which simply means it is the subject of the phrase. But if we are talking about two or more females, then we’d use “they”, which is an inflection for the plural (number), feminine (gender), and nominative (case). How about if they were the objects of the phrase? Then we’d use “them”, inflected to be plural (number), feminine (gender) and objective (case).
English nouns do not inflect for gender or case. “The sandwich ate the boy.”, “The boy ate the sandwich.” Both nouns, “sandwich” and “boy”, are the same despite having different functionalities in the sentence. How do prove that English nouns have no gender? By showing that the pronoun that everything without sex (i.e. a sexual identity) uses is “it”. In languages with genders (like Romance languages) every noun has a gender and this affects the pronouns and articles used with them.

Okay, so back to Japanese. What does it mean that nouns do not inflect? The noun doesn’t change, no matter the quantity, what it does in the sentence, and there is no gender.
However, some pronouns will take the suffix -tachi or -ra, meaning that we’re talking about a plurality. That is the closest thing to inflection we have.
So basically what I’m saying is that you don’t have to worry about nouns.


Adjectives, on the other hand, you have to worry about a little bit. Not because of anything drastic, but because you can kind of explain everything that goes on in Japanese grammar without actually having to call anything a straight up adjective. Crazy, I know. But it’s not big deal.

Essentially, you have two different form of adjectives in Japanese: i-adjectives and na-adjectives.

na-adjectives are nouns that take the suffix -na to make the noun a modifier of the noun. It’s like in English when you put a -y at the end of nouns to make them adjectives (rain-rainy, snow-snowy, sleep-sleepy). Just like -y, however, not all Japanese nouns can take -na without sounding weird. And some nouns you never see without a -na (This is what happened with happy, where hap means luck but nobody remembers that so we only have happy).

To understand i-adjectives, we need to understand how phrases in Japanese modify other phrases. In English, when a phrase modifies another phrase, you use the words “which” or “that” to link them together: “the dog that chased the cat that hunted the mouse that sought the cheese” In Japanese, you put the phrase before the noun: “cheese sought mouse hunted cat chased dog”
So an i-adjective is essentially a mini-phrase. It’s a noun plus something that’s like a verb. that suffix -i is conjugated (inflection for nouns) instead of the main verb. “The bird was blue” “Bird [particle] blue [suffix -i inflected for the past] [copula inflected for the present]” Looks tricky, but that’s all they are.

When we talk about verbs and how verbs inflect, we’ll bring up i-adjectives so that you can see how that -i inflects (because that -i will switch out for a -k- in all cases other than the present, affirmative inflections)


Japanese adverbs come in a few varieties, none of which are hard to grasp. Like adjectives, you can go pretty far without having to call anything an adverb in Japanese grammar.

First, to convert an adjective to an adverb, you change the ending. In the case of i-adjectives, you change the -i suffix to a -ku suffix. In the case of a na-adjective, you change the -na suffix to a -ni suffix. That’s it.

Also serving as adverbs are the stems of verbs. If you remove all the suffixes of a verb (those suffixes providing the inflection), you end up with the stem. That stem can be attached to verbs as prefixes and that will modify the verb. This creates a kind of pseudo-adjective.
Some of these become so popular that they become real adverbs, such as “onaji”, meaning “the same”, which comes form “onajiru” (meaning “to agree”). (We saw this word in the Sailor Moon lessons)

Then there are spacio-temporal adverbs, which are interrogative pronouns with the suffixes -demo or -mo, as is the case with Dokodemo, meaning “anywhere”, being constructed from “doko”, meaning “where?” and -demo. These are easy to notice. There are also a few spacio-temporal adverbs constructed from repetitions of the same word. For example, “toki”, means time. Say it twice: tokidoki (the /d/ being there for legitimate reasons, trust me), and it means “sometimes”.

There are a few that fit none of these descriptions, but they’re easy to find because they are followed by no particle.

So read, reflect, digest, and I’ll see you in part 3.