Japanese Parts of Speech
Japanese has a few parts of speech, thankfully none of them terribly unfamiliar to us. We have nouns,particles (which can be seen as suffixes to a noun), adverbs, conjunctions, post-positions (which are like pre-positions), verbs, and adjectives (maybe). There are also expressions, which are not parts of speech but do hold a lot of semantic weight. Those are included in this discussion.
For the next few parts, we’ll be talking about these things. Most of them aren’t hard to wrap one’s head around. The only tricky things are verbs and adjectives, which we’ll talk about in the end.
Nouns and Pronouns
Nouns are names for things and ideas. This is universal.
In some languages, nouns change form depending on quantity and function in the sentence. The changes nouns undergo is called declension. English verbs decline for number: “cat” vs. “cats.” “louse” vs. “lice.” And English pronouns decline for function, in linguistics known as case: “he” vs. “him” vs. “his.”
Japanese nouns do not decline for number or case. Congratulations! There is a small caveat, though, for some suffixes that indicate the plural for nouns referring to people, but that’s about it.
Pronouns are words that substitute a name. These are “he,” “her,” “it,” “everybody,” “nobody,” “that” and the like. These work just like regular nouns most of the time.
It is important to note, however, that the personal pronouns are tricky, particularly the second and third person singular pronouns, of which there are a few, and, if you intend on speaking Japanese, you need to know when to use them. So please read what we have to say on all that in our lessons.
In lieu of case declension, Japanese uses particles to indicate case. What this means is that depending on the function a noun has, it will take a certain particle.
In linguistics, there exists a certain set of cases, and most languages’ cases seem to match the descriptions of that relatively small list. Further, it tends to be that one case will have many roles; and cross-linguistically languages tend to group functions to a case pretty consistently.
In our lessons, we give you the case and the function of each particle. You don’t need to guess!
Nevertheless, we’ll do a quick runthrough of the particle, the name of the case, and the main functions.
が (ga): nominative case, indicates the subject of the sentence. Sometimes emphatically indicates the direct object of the sentence.
は (wa): topical case, indicates the topic of the sentence. The topic exists separate from all other phrases in a sentence.
の (no): genitive case, indicates that the phrase is a subset or holds a relation to another phrase.
に (ni): dative case, indicates the location of the action and the indirect object in the sentence.
で (de): instrumental case, indicates the means with or reason for the action of the sentence.
を (wo): accusative case, indicates the direct object in the sentence.
へ (he) locative case, indicates the direction of the action. The dative case can do this same action. This one is quite rare.
So let’s look at a sentence!
(Jinrui wa josei ga hon de kodomo ni no kako no monogatari wo oshieteageru.)
Translation: “In the human race, women teach children the legends of the past with books.”
人類は (jinrui wa): is the noun meaning “humanity” or “the human race” with “wa,” the topical particle. This is the topic of the sentence. We’re talking about humanity in general.
女性が (josei ga): is the noun meaning “female” and the nominative particle “ga.” This is the subject of the sentence.
本で (hon de): is the noun meaning “book” with the instrumental particle. So whatever the verb is, it’s done with a “book” or “books.” (Remember that there isn’t declension for number, so context is important.)
子供に (kodomo ni): is the noun meaning “child” or “children” with the dative particle “ni,” indicating the indirect object.
過去の (kako no): is the noun meaning “the past” with the genitive particle “no.” This is indicating that this noun phrase is part of the next noun phrase. “X no Y” is very often translated as “Y of X,” and even when it isn’t, it’ll help you get an idea of what we’re talking about.
物語を (monogatari wo): is the noun meaning “tale” or “legend” plus the accusative particle, indicating the direct object.
教えてあげる (oshieteageru): is the verb, translating “to teach.” I’ll tell you about it in the verb section.
Adverbs words that modify the verb. In English these are words such as “often,” “hardly,” “merrily,” “meticulously,” etc.
Japanese has three kinds of adverbs. The first are adverbs that has no suffix indicating they’re adverbs, adverbs that are nouns with the suffix -ni, and a special kind of verb that has a semi-copula that has an adverbial form. (We’ll talk about the last one in the verbs section.)
The first kind is very easy, like nouns.
Adverbs with suffixes without the suffix are nouns. For example: 別 (betsu) is a noun meaning “difference” or “exception.” With the adverb suffix -ni, it becomes adverbial and means “especially” or “separately.”
These are some of the most consistent parts of speech. These don’t cause problems.
In Part 5, we’ll be talking about conjunctions and post-positions!