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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Japanese: the almighty adjectival


Every Thursday, we're going to introduce you to bits and pieces, and aspects of, the Japanese language. But, before we go too far, let’s talk a bit about putting sentences together in Japanese. Perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind is how things are described in Japanese.

There are ordinary old adjectives like red (akai), noisy (urusai), cold (samui) and sexy (sekushina) that work exactly the same as in English. E.g. akai isu (red chair), urusai yatsu (a noisy guy), samui hi (cold day) and sekushina onna (sexy woman).

However, when it comes to trying to say things like “The man I spoke to on the phone this morning,” it’s best to try and forget about how we do it in English.

In some ways, Japanese is more consistent than English in regard to sentences like this. In English we jump from saying, for example, “the tall MAN” (i.e. description + THING) to “the MAN I spoke to on the phone this morning” (i.e. THING + description. But Japanese keeps the order the same.

So in Japanese, you would say: “this morning/on the phone/spoke to/MAN”. (Kesa/denwa de/hanashi o shita/OTOKO) How’s that for efficient? (When you’re saying a sentence like this, everyone knows, unless you specifically state otherwise, that you’re the one who spoke to the man, so you can leave any reference to yourself out.)

How about: “the music I liked as a kid?” We’re describing music here, so MUSIC comes last in the Japanese sentence, i.e. “kid time/liked/MUSIC” (Kodomo no toki/ki ni itta/ONGAKU”.

Try it yourself: using the three following words: otoko (man) aruiteru (walking) yuki ni (in the snow), try and say “The man walking in the snow” in Japanese. Have a look underneath the picture below (of snow, yesterday, in Tokyo – taken at Nakano-sakaue Station) to see if you were right.

Snow falling at Nakano-sakaue station, Nakano ward, Tokyo.

Yuki ni aruiteru otoko. Congratulations! Now, do you remember the word for "cold"?!

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