Japanese is a language that is believed to be related to the Altaic language family in which Mongolian, Turkish and other languages belong. Nevertheless it is also similar to Polynesian and other Austronesian languages. In Japanese, the language is called Nihongo.
What does “kon’nichiwa” mean? It’s one of the first words you will learn when you study the Japanese language. It’s a universal greeting that means “hello.” But in Japanese, that is only used when you are greeting a person face to face because although you may be used to saying “hello” when answering the phone, in Japanese, they use “moshi moshi,” which is pronounced as “mosh mosh.”
Technically, Japanese belongs to the Japanese-Ryukyuan or Japonic language family. While it shares many words with the Chinese, including the extensive use of Chinese characters or kanji, the two languages are not related.
Nihongo is an East Asian language, and the national language of Japan. There are about 125 million speakers of the languages and most of them are in Japan. Outside of the country, Japanese is spoken in the United States, Australia, Palau, Brazil and Canada. There are also significant Japanese communities in London as well as in Paris.
The Japanese language seems to be a fascinating and interesting language, but it looks like a difficult language to learn. And why not? With the proliferation of “things Japanese” such as Japanese manga, movies, fashion, beauty products, dramas, food, snacks and other delicacies, and the country’s technological advancement in manufacturing, electronics, cars and communication, the little-known language of yesteryears has been discovered and learned by millions around the world.
Let us take a look at what is behind the Japanese language.
For English speakers, it is a good thing to know that Japanese words do not have gender, and the use of articles is almost non-existent. Nihongo also does not distinguish between singular and plural. For example, the word “hon,” which is Japanese for book, could be “a book,” “the book” or “books.”
The Japanese language is made up of many foreign loan words or “gairaigo.” Most of the foreign loan words came from Portuguese, Dutch. German, French and English. Once you’ve discovered them, it is likely that you’d think Japanese is not a formidable language after all. Well, basically, it is easier to learn to speak the language, because you can get by with the Romanized script. Writing in Japanese characters is another matter.
The challenge of the written Japanese is in learning the characters. There are three character sets in Japanese and each one is different. Kanji consists of thousands of Chinese characters and the other two are Katakana and Hiragana, both of which consist of 46 characters. These last two go together and called Kana. Writing Japanese text can be done in the traditional way, in vertical columns that go from right to left, or you can do in the Western way, writing in horizontal rows from the top of the page to the bottom. Both styles are used in Japan.
Word order in Japanese grammar is quite tricky. Sentences are in the subject-object-verb format, which is similar to Turkish and German word order. However, nouns never change and there are almost no articles and no gender, singular and plural forms to further complicate it.
There are very few sounds in Japanese and the pronunciation is almost straightforward except for some silent words. What is difficult is the accent, which, although not as extensive compared to Chinese, might be difficult to grasp at first. Complicating the matter is the existence of a large number of homonyms.
The levels of speech take many forms as well. Different expressions and words are used depending on the person you are talking with. The English word “I” alone has five different equivalents in Japanese, depending on how you use it in the sentence. The Japanese also use honorifics or “keigo” during formal situations.
From Korea, Kanji, which are Chinese characters were introduced to Japan during the fifth century. Kanji are called ideograms meaning that each character means something and has a corresponding word. Words are then created by combining the characters. The word train for example, is a combination of the Kanji characters for electricity and car. This is the most difficult character set to learn. For everyday use, one has to know at least 2,136 characters. A person should have knowledge of 2,000 to 3,000 Kanji characters to understand what is written on Japanese newspapers.
The Japanese did not have a writing system prior to the appearance of the Chinese characters and the Japanese used not only the original Chinese pronunciations for the characters but also had them associated with the native pronunciations of Japanese words. As such, Kanji could be pronounced by the Japanese way or “kun’yomi” or by the Chinese way or “on’yomi.”
If you are wondering when Kanji is used, the character set is used when writing nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives. However, it has to be paired with katakana and hiragana to make the endings of sentences grammatically correct.
Hiragana had 48 characters. These were an offshoot of the Kanji characters and are actually simplified versions of Kanji. The writing style of Hiragana is more rounded and cursive whereas Katakana is more on the angular side. Hiragana is used chiefly for word endings or “okurigana,” those words that are not written in Kanji, like some adjectives, nouns and adverbs, original Japanese words and words whose Kanji characters have been declared obsolete or obscure. It is written together with Kanji to point out the pronunciation, particularly if it is non-standard or obscure. Hiragana is sometimes written above the Kanji characters to show the pronunciation. This can be sometimes seen when the text is written horizontally. When this happens, the Hiragana is called “ruby” or furigana.
Katakana is the simplest of the three Japanese scripts. Like Hiragana it has 48 characters. It is characterized by angular, straight and shorter strokes. Katakana is basically used for writing foreign loan words or gairago and as a rhetorical device for emphasis and for writing Japanese words like scientific and technical terms, and names of minerals, animals and plants. It is also used to write persons’ names and geographical places that cannot be written in Chinese characters or Kanji. Most of the names of Japanese companies are writing in Katakana.
To illustrate the difference between the two Japanese writing styles, here’s how the vowels are written:
Foreign loan words
Although the Japanese language borrowed heavily from the language of other countries, these loan words are “Japanized” that the words sound different from the original, are shortened or abbreviated, and at times the meanings become different. Here are some examples, and most of them are still recognizable, when compared to the original.
Keigo is the term for honorific language, which is still very much in practice in Japan. This is how the different levels of politeness is shown with the use of different endings for verbs as well as the use of alternative words and expressions. The levels consist of colloquial, polite and honorific or the keigo. Still, keigo has three forms: respectful language (sonkeigo), modest or humble language (kenjogo) and polite language (teineigo). These honorifics contribute to the reasons why Japanese can be difficult and confusing to learners.
The honorifics are usually used when speaking to a person of much higher position or status and you are required to use humble expressions when referring to your own self. For example:
If you are talking with your close friend, you can say:
“(Is it) Okay to ask a question?” – “Kiite ii?”
If you are a junior or lower in rank talking to someone who is your superior:
“I would, however, be delighted if I may be permitted to ask (a question).”
Here, you are humbling yourself, being in a lower position, asking the person for permission first before asking a question. In Japanese it translates to:
“Kikasete-itadakeru to ureshii no desu ga.”
This sentence is already polite:
“Your cooperation, please.” – “Go-kyōryoku-kudasai.”
It can be made formal like this, which is usually found on written text:
“We respectfully request the favor of a measure of your cooperation.” In Japanese, this will be written as: “Go-kyōryoku no hodo o-negai mōshiagemasu.”
If you will notice, there is the presence of “desu” and “masu” that are included in polite and formal speech. These are used as ending for sentences. When there are neutral objects, the prefixes “o” and “go” are added. In plain terms, let us take for example the word “meet.” In plain form it is “au.” At the sonkeigo level it becomes “o-ai ni naru,” “o-me ni kakaru” at kenjogo level and “aimasu” at the teineigo level. Also, when addressing a person, you add the word –san after the name. This represents Miss, Ms., Mr. or Mrs. The suffix –sama, on the other hand is added when addressing a person of very high rank. South Korean actor Bae Yong Joon is called Yon-sama by his Japanese fans.
Some words and phrases in Japanese
So while Japanese might prove to be too difficult to learn if you do not have the right amount of time to devote to it, there are still ways for you to learn the language, particularly if you want to be able to at least ask a question or two, introduce yourself and greet people, with some basic words and phrases. Do remember that the letter “u” at the end of the word is silent and the letter “t” is stressed. Here are a few that are easy to learn.