Click on the Language You Want to Learn Below

    Archive for November, 2013

    Classifiers (how to count things)

    Classifiers or Counters


    In Japanese, they use a type of grammar word called a counter or classifier. This way of speaking exists in many eastern Asian languages.


    In English and many other languages, there are ways to indicate plural. For example, one person two people. In Japanese, that’s not the case. Whether you have one or a hundred, the word never changes. In fact, some people I’ve met think its strange to have to refer to plurals of things.


    So in Japanese, you don’t usually have to worry about referring to how much or how many of something there is. But when you do, there are specific counting systems for different groups of items.


    First, there is a general counting system. This can be used to count anything and it’s the one that I use the most!


    一つ hee tote sue


    二つ foo tawt sue


    三つ meet sue


    四つ yote sue


    五つ eat soot sue


    六つ moots sue


    七つ naw nawt sue


    八つ yawts sue


    九つ ko ko note sue


    と tow


    This system of counting stops at 10.


    The counters


    The three most common you will encounter are for thin objects, 枚 (my); for long slender objects such as pens, pencils and bottles, 本 (hone); and for small objects, 個 (ko).


    一本 (ee pone)


    二本 (nee hone)


    三本 (sawm bone)




    一枚 (ee chee my)


    二枚 (nee my)


    三枚 (sawm my)




    一個 (eek ko)



    二個 (nee ko)



    三個 (sawn ko)


    There are many counters for objects, so much so that even Japanese people don’t even know them all. Not to worry though. The ones contained in the counter lessons and ones you can find on the internet are all you need.


    The one thing to be careful of is the pronunciation. Some of the counters change depending on what number they are with. For example, 本 (hone) becomes (pone) when put with 1 and (bone) when it’s put with 3.


    When counting or stating how many of something, the object comes first, then the counter.


    ペン三本 (pen sawm bone) This means: 3 pens


    紙一枚 (kaw mee ee chee mai) This means: one piece of paper






    Another counter that you will be likely to use is the one for people. For one and two people, it has an irregular form. After that, it’s pretty easy.


    一人 (he toe ree)


    二人 (foo taw ree)


    三人 (sawn neen)


    四人 (yo neen)



    Sound Words

    What’s that sound?


    When you study a new language, you always learn the proper way of communicating. But when you learned your mother tongue, you learned to express yourself, in good ways and bad!


    Each language has a special way of expressing specific ideas and feelings: that particular way of explaining that exact idea that you want to get across. Japanese is no exception. In Japanese, there are two systems of words that are used to convey very specific ideas. One uses sounds for explanation (close to our onomatopoeia.) The other one describes characteristics.


    擬音語 Giongo.               [Gee Own Go] (gee with a hard g as in ‘guy’)


    Giongo is the onomatopoeia for Japanese. Even though words like ‘slam’ in English are usual words, there isn’t much need to use them. In Japanese, however, they are necessary for regular communication.


    Giongo is used in two ways. The most common way (at least that I hear) is the word is said twice to use it as an adjective.


    For example, こりこり (ko ri ko ri) means crunchy. The word こり means ‘stiff.’ It’s said twice to explain that something is crunchy. So, if you want to explain that food is crunchy you simply have to say, “こりこり!”


    These words mimic sounds. Some may be easy to understand while some may be difficult. Here are more examples.


    こりこり(ko ri ko ri) – crunchy

    ぱりぱり(paw ri paw ri) – crispy


    The softer sound of the ‘p’ changes the texture to a softer one.


    The second way is as an adverb. The Giongo is used with the grammar particle と (tow), which is used for quotations, then a subject and verb.



    (Approximate pronunciation) Zaw Zaw tow ah may ga furu


    This means: The rain is pouring down.


    The Zaw Zaw is the sound of the pouring rain.



    擬態語 Gitaigo.               [gee tie go] (gee with a hard g as in ‘guy’)


    Gitaigo was the one that took me by surprise. I had already discovered Giongo, despite the fact that no textbook ever teaches it. A woman was talking to me about this dish she made with asparagus and cheese rolled up in a thin piece of meat then sautéed. She seemed to quite like the cheese as she described it as とろっとした (tow row tow she taw). I thought, “What!? Melting cheese makes a sound?” I mistakenly thought it was onomatopoeia.

    The word とろう (tow row) describes a specific manner. In English we have a large variety of words that would be used in various situations where the Japanese would use just the one. As for the cheese, I think “oozing” is the closest we can come. Doesn’t quite sound as appetizing, as ooze can also be used to describe things like blood.

    Here are some more examples of gitaigo.


    うきうき oo key oo key


    Meaning: to be lighthearted or be on cloud nine




    うろうろ oo row oo row


    Meaning: to wander aimlessly


    After these expressions is する soo rue (to do). うきうきする, うろうろする

    I (more pronouns)

    Me, Myself and I


    As I explained before, there are many words for “you” in Japanese. And, as you could expect, there are many words for “I”.


    Of course, English has a few as well. The difference is that the words in English are different for grammar reasons. Japanese are different for social reasons.


    私 Wah taw shee


    私 is the basic word for “I”. It can be used by anyone and with anyone. Again, Japanese people have a knack for avoiding it.


    Add the possessive の (no) to make 私の and it means “my”.


    Add に (nee) to make 私に to make “to me”.


    僕 bow koo


    This word is the polite word for male speech. It can be used with immediate superiors provided there’s some sort of closer association. So if you’re speaking with someone much higher social status than you or someone that you don’t know well, the 私 is the better option. However, it is probably used more by very young boys. At least that has been my experience.


    僕 has a boyish image. It’s often used when you are speaking to older people (ones that you’re well aquatinted with). Elementary school boys often use it and it is a word that is ok to be overheard using.



    俺 oh ray


    俺 is another word in male speech. This word, however, is not polite.  It is used only by males who are friends and only when speaking with someone of the same age or younger. I have heard it used by young men to slightly older men, but only with really close friends. This word is not polite to be overheard using. Although nowadays, social norms are changing.


    So the overall advice is to stick with 私 and you’ll never go wrong.


    There are other words, but I have never heard them actually used. Most of them are out of date so are only spoken of in conversations about history.



    You (the pronouns)

    Hey you!


    As I said in a previous post about suffixes, when I first came to Japan, I never heard the word for “you”. The funny thing that is even though the word for “you” isn’t used much, there are actually several different words!


    You あなた (awe naw taw)


    First we have あなた (awe naw taw). It is a polite word and as I said, almost never used. Japanese people have a knack for getting around a conversation without having to use it. I find my English speaking brain needing to use it on occasion. So if you need to, it can safely be used by and with anyone.


    君 (kee mee)


    Another word is 君. This one is used among friends or people who know each other. It is used to people of lower status or to people younger than you, never to anyone older.  It was also originally male only speech, but a lot of women use it now too. あなた still seems to be the most refined and can be used with anyone except very small children and babies.


    お前 (oh maw eh)


    If you are a fan of such things as manga and anime, then you may have come across this word. A very interesting thing to me is that words that were once very formal and polite are now considered very coarse or dirty.


    お前 is one of those words. It also means you  but it is not a good word to use. It is male speech, even though some young women like to use it, especially in the entertainment industry. However, it should be avoided by any non Japanese person. Young men use it and only use it with close friends who are younger than they are or who are the same age. It is also considered bad manners to use it where you can be overheard.


    てめえ (teh meh)


    てめえ is another one of those words that used to be very polite. And again, if you are a fan of manga or anime, you may have come across this. In short, don’t use it. In the 11 years that I have been here, I have never used it. Not even in joking around. It is male only speech, but it’s not one that you hear used unless someone is angry. It is a word that can start a fight.


    There are still others, but you’ll never come across them unless you look. There are plenty of them that I have never even heard. The best rules to live by is the one I stated in the suffix’ lesson. Avoid the word “you” if you can. Use titles or family names plus san. You’ll be safe.

    Adjective Tenses

    Adjective Tenses


    The grammar of different languages can be quite different indeed! The title of this article is ‘Adjective Tenses’ not ‘Verb Tenses.’ The reason why is that in Japanese, not just the verbs have tenses!




    In Japanese, there aren’t as many verb tenses as in English. However, adjectives can also have tenses.



    (Approximate pronunciation) Taw no shee


    This means: Fun



    (Approximate pronunciation) Taw no she cot taw


    This means: Was fun


    The sentence then becomes quite an interesting one for an English speaker. After the past tense  adjective comes です (dess) which is the present tense of the Japanese version of

    “to be.” Here is what a sentence looks like.



    (Approximate pronunciation) tan no shee cot taw dess


    This means: It was fun.

    Literally though it means, “It was fun is.”


    In Japanese, there are two different kinds of adjectives. The above adjective, fun, is what is called an い (ee) adjective. Which means that it ends with the syllable い.




    The other is a な (naw) adjective. It ends in な



    (Approximate pronunciation) she zoo caw naw


    This means: Quiet


    The な adjectives do not have a special ending, so they are followed by the past tense ending of the “be” verb, だった. (Dot taw)



    (Approximate pronunciation) she zoo caw dawt ta



    This means: It was quiet.


    And you are…?

    San, Sama and Other Suffixes


    When I first came to Japan, I really couldn’t speak any Japanese. There were some words that I knew. Armed with potential, I went out into public. What I didn’t realize was that my thought process was hopelessly English.


    One of the things that perplexed me was that I never heard the word for “you”, あなた (awe naw taw).I asked a Japanese friend about it. He had no idea what I was talking about.


    One important point about Japanese is that you rarely, if possible, refer to a person directly. Look at the following example.



    (Approximate pronunciation) knee hone GA ski dess KA


    This means: Do you like Japan?


    Looks ok, but the word “you” doesn’t appear in the Japanese sentence. If you translate it literally, you get this:


    Japan is liked?


    This is a typical Japanese sentence.The structure of the verb also makes the sentence sort of passive.Very indirect!


    When there is a need to refer directly to someone, there are some rules to remember.


    First, if that person has a title, use it. The most common would be 先生 (Sensei) or teacher. This title is not only used for teachers, but professionals such as doctors, and sushi chefs.


    Other titles can also be job positions such as principle (of a school) or master (the owner of a small shop).


    When referring to someone older than you or someone you don’t know, use their family name plus “san.” So someone with the family name, Tanaka, would be “Tanaka-san.”


    “Sama” is an honorific suffix and is used only by staff members and clerks when talking to customers. In my experience, most interactions other than customer relations, use “san” not “sama.” People don’t often meet someone of high enough status to require the honorific language.


    With acquaintances, you can just simply use their family name. If they are of higher status than you, such as a boss or older than you, you should use “san.”


    With friends, you can use given names, but it’s not uncommon for people to refer to each other by family names. I have a friend whose wife still calls him by his family name!


    For boys, who are younger than you, you can add “kun” (koon.) So young Tanaka would be “Tanaka-kun.”


    For girls, it’s “chan.” If Takaka were a girl, she’d be “Tanaka-chan”, but only if you know her well. Otherwise she would be “Tanaka-san”, despite her age. However, you would never refer to a very small child or baby by “san”. In that case, the parent would probably tell you the first name of the baby.


    Wow, so many rules! And I haven’t even gotten to the different words for “you!” Yes, so many. But remember these two rules and you’ll be ok:


    If the person has a title, use it.


    Use the family name with the suffix “san.”


    Suffixes, Past and Polite

    Verb Endings


    In most languages, to express things such as tenses, the endings of verbs are often changed. But not all languages do that and not all languages have all tenses. For example, English doesn’t actually have a future tense. Verbs cannot be changed to indicate that something will happen in the future, but rather another a word or words are put before the verb to indicate future. Those words, of course, are ‘will’ and ‘be going.’


    Endings don’t just indicate tense, but can indicate different nuances such as politeness.



    (Approximate pronunciation) ee koo (oo as in moo)


    This means: Go


    This is the dictionary form. This is how you have to look up a word in Japanese. This is also the casual form of the verb. When talking with friends or people younger than you, you can use this form.



    (Approximate pronunciation) ee kee moss


    This means: Go


    The root 行く (ee koo) changes to 行き (ee key) and then the ます (moss) ending is added. This is the basically polite form and the one that you will most often use.


    There are different groups of verbs and each version has it’s own forms for past tense and other tenses too.


    行った (eat taw) – casual, past


    行きました (ee key mawsh taw) – polite, past


    For the Japanese lessons, mostly the polite form was used, as it is the most useful for getting around. It will be the one you most often hear, except in restaurants and stores where they use the honorific.


    The one exception to the lesson verbs is the verb です (dess). Depending on the situation, the casual form だ (daw) was used. In surprising or emergency situations, one wouldn’t worry about politeness.