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Friday, February 15, 2008

Japanese language: using "wa"


In Japanese grammar, the article wa (along with ga, which we’ll look at another time) is the most basic element of a Japanese sentence. At first glance it resembles the “be” or “do” verb in English, but treating it as such will lead to mistakes.

Wa indicates the main topic of a sentence and is closest in meaning to the English “as for,” or the colon. Thus “Okaasan wa nete imasu” (Mom is asleep) can be broken down as follows: Okaasan (mom) + wa = “as for mom,” and “nete imasu” = “asleep”. In other words, “As for mom: asleep”. It just so happens that in this example “wa” correlates perfectly with “is,” but, as I just mentioned, this is by no means always the case.

Take the following example:
Tokyo wa wakarimasen. (wakarimasen = “not know” or “not understand”). If you think of “wa” as “is” or “do,” this sentence seems nonsensical, or at least whimsical. “Tokyo doesn’t know/understand” doesn’t make sense (unless we are using Tokyo as an abbreviation for, say, “the Tokyo branch” – but here we are not.)

But taking “wa” for what it really means “as for,” we can translate it like this: “As for Tokyo, don’t know”. To understand this sentence, however, we need to take in another aspect of Japanese grammar: omission of “I, you, s/he, it, we, they”.

Omission of pronouns not that uncommon in casual English. For example, “Dunno” is enough to convey the fact that “I” don’t know, and “Could be” might be referring to anyone: “I” or “you” or “he” or “she” or “it” or “we” or “they”. It depends on the context.

It's the same in Japanese; except, in Japanese, abbreviating like this is very much a part of even the formal language. So “As for Tokyo: don’t know” requires an "I," "you," "s/he," "it," "we," or "they" before the word “don’t” to make it understandable. And, just as with the English “Could be,” the identity of the person who “doesn’t know Tokyo” depends completely on the conversational context. If the person saying this sentence is referring to his/her own unfamiliarity with Tokyo, then it would translate as "I don't know Tokyo."

So, thinking of wa as the introducer, or an isolator, of the main topic under discussion will make it a lot easier to use and understand.

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