What’s the difference between furigana and okurigana? When should I use a counter and when a particle? What on earth is a copula?
When you’re new to learning Japanese, or a foreign language in general, one of the surprising hurdles to overcome is the jargon... in your own language! So many technical terms are thrown around flippantly and rarely explained outright that it’s easy to get lost.
This series serves as a basic introduction to some terms that you’re bound to meet on your journey towards Japanese fluency. This isn't an exhaustive vocabulary list but rather a primer on a few terms that you might find difficult to wrap your head around as a beginner.
We’ve started with Japanese writing, and this time we'll look at Japanese grammar.
- Japanese writing vocab refresh
- Japanese grammar vocab refresh
- Japanese pronunciation vocab refresh
- Japanese etiquette vocab refresh
In English, we say ‘My name is Tom.’ The key to this sentence is the verb to be. We can say “I am Tom.” and it gets exactly the same meaning across.
To say what something is in Japanese, we normally use です, linguistically called the copula. You can stick any noun before です. For example, In case of giving our name, we simply say:
トムです。 I am Tom.
One of the building stones of Japanese grammar are particles. Some of these particles correspond to English prepositions and postpositions, but many allow us to express concepts where English would resort to complex grammatical constructions, and some don’t have a direct translation at all. The particle に shows a specific direction or target in a sentence, whereas へ shows a general one; this idea doesn’t exist in English. Some of the common particles are the grammatical は, が and も, emphatic よ and ね, or the question marker か. Find out more about the Japanese particles with our free particles cheat sheet.
Unlike in English, where verb stems are usable on their own, verb stems in Japanese, called gokan (語幹) and generally written in kanji, require a declensional ending, called okurigana (送り仮名) and are always written in hiragana. For example, the stem of 見る, to see, is the kanji 見, and the okurigana is る.
Conjugation of verbs through changes of the aforementioned okurigana play a very important role in the Japanese grammar. Different particles, auxiliary verbs and grammar pattern require the preceding verb to be in different conjugation form or tense, called kei (形) in Japanese.
For example, the continuative aspect (連用形) of 見る is 見ている (to be seeing), formed by appending the auxiliary verb いる (to be), to the te-form (テ形) of ‘to see’: 見て.
Godan & ichidan
In contrast to many western languages, Japanese verbs have a very high degree of regularity.
Except for two verbs, all of them can be classified into two categories, ichidan (一段動詞, aka ru-verbs) and godan (五段動詞, aka u-verbs), depending on how they are inflected.
However, there’s a small problem in that all ru-verbs end with る, u-verbs can end with any ‘u’ kana, which unfortunately, in addition to つ、す、く、ぐ、む、ぶ、う、and ぬ (the only verb that ends with ぬ is 死ぬ), includes る.
Even if a verb ends with る, if it does not end in ‘iru’ or ‘eru,’ it is always an u-verb. However, this rule does not work reciprocally. There are many u-verbs that end in ‘iru’ or ‘eru,’ and there is no way to distinguish them apart from memorization. These are sometimes called ‘false’ ru-verbs.
You can learn more about Japanese grammar and conjugation in our Japanese textbook.
In Japanese, depending on what you are going to count, you have to add a special counter word after the number - usual ‘numbers’ aren’t used. This is very similar to how you say “one loaf of bread” or “one slice of bread” in English. The Japanese equivalents would be パン一斤 (‘bread one-loaf’) and パン一枚 (‘bread one-flat piece’).
What terms do you struggle with?
I hope this brief glossary has shed a little light onto some potentially confusing topics.
Are there any other terms related to the Japanese language that either currently confuse you or have confused you in the past? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check back soon for our Japanese pronunciation vocab refresh!