The J-Sub Experiment is all about linguistics, the science of language. We are more interested in why things mean what they mean more than merely their English equivalents. This form of thinking allows us to tackle virtually any form Japanese takes without having to worry about not having learned that one inspection yet from our textbooks. Here’s the good news: It’s not hard.
If you wanted to, you could jump right into the lessons and parsings and read it all and just figure it out by yourself. Our explanations are thorough enough to allow that to happen. But to make things a bit easier for you, we’re created this Starter Kit in hopes that a lot of the more notable and trickier things will not shock you on sight.
The Japanese Language
To start things off, let’s just talk a little bit about Japanese itself.
Japanese is the language of Japan, an very long archipelago east of the continent of Asia, with 125 million native speakers.
Japanese’s language family is called Japonic, which includes standard Japanese and the dialects that exist throughout the four main islands and the Ryuukyuu islands, which is the chain of very small islands south of Kyuushuu. Japan is not related to Sinitic languages (China) or to Korean. This is what we can call a semi-isolate, in that the small family itself is related, but besides that it is isolated.
Having said that, Japanese and Korean are related typologically, meaning that they have many similar mechanics and structures. (If that’s any comfort to anyone.)
Japanese is not a tonal language, meaning that the tone one gives each syllable does not affect the meaning. Japanese does, however, have a pitch accent, which is very regionalized; and is not so central to the meaning such that, if you get the pitch wrong, nobody will understanding you. This is something worth noting, but not something you need to worry about.
Japanese, like most languages, has developed through time; and the Japanese spoken today is very different from the Japanese spoken in the 8th century. Linguists tend to divide Japanese as Old Japanese, Early Middle Japanese, Late Middle Japanese, Early Modern Japanese, and Modern Japanese.
We at The J-Sub Experiment are always talking about Modern Japanese (except when we’re talking about historical developments). Modern Japanese begins in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), with the establishment of “Standard Japanese” (in Japanese called “hyoujungo”), which is what is taught in schools and used by newscasters but isn’t necessarily what people speak in their day-to-day business (though very often it’s quite close to that.)
People say that Japanese has three writing systems. That’s not quite it. In reality it’s more complicated than that. Japanese has two writing systems that are based on morae, often mistaken for syllables, called Hiragana and Katakana, and then there’s a functionally optional (meaning that you don’t need it for the writing to make sense, even if one is very much encouraged to use it) logographic set of characters known as Kanji, which are almost all logograms taken from Chinese.
So let’s start Part 2 with Hiragana and Katakana and Part 3 with Kanji!