Common Misconceptions of The Japanese Language
Even today, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding the Japanese language. Things like “It’s insanely complex” and “You have to know tens of thousands of characters” get tossed around all the time, by people who basically have no understanding of the language at all. As a student of Japanese Linguistics, it kind of gets to you after a while, especially since every attempt at educating the people around you basically feels like running into a brick wall repeatedly (“But it looks so complicated so it's gotta be hard!”). But nonetheless, I will go ahead and try to convey some basic principles of the Japanese language, and hopefully clean up some of the misconceptions surrounding it at the same time. I won’t go into too much detail and I won’t teach you to actually speak Japanese or anything like that (not now at least), I’d just like to give you a very basic overview about the language itself.
"Japanese is the same as Chinese"
Yes, I know it looks like it. And while it is true that the characters were adopted from the Chinese script several hundred years ago, the languages themselves are actually nothing alike. In fact, Japanese is pretty much unlike any other language in the world, with the exception of the Ryukyuan languages, which are spoken on the Ryukyu islands in southwestern Japan. While there are a lot of theories trying to find relations to other languages, none of them have proved to be 100% conclusive, leading to the creation of a new language family, the Japonic languages. And while the Japanese and Chinese script may look alike for westerners, it is actually pretty easy to distinguish between the two.
"You have to learn thousands of characters"
Well...yes and no. Japanese uses 3 different scripts (scripts, not alphabets) for writing: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana (collectively called Kana) are pretty simple and not too numerous – there are 48 of each, with 2 characters being obsolete in modern Japanese. Now, the Kanji are a different beast altogether and they are what everybody is so afraid of. The Kanji were directly adapted from the Chinese script, and hence are quite numerous and can look pretty fearsome at times. The total number is disputed; estimations range from 50.000 to as much as 100.000. And while some of you may have thought “See? There ARE ridiculously many characters!” just now, let me assure you: No one knows all of them, and nobody is expected to, either. In fact, all you need are about 2000 characters, which are defined as the so-called Jôyô-Kanji (literally “regularly used Chinese characters”) by the Japanese Ministry of Education. And while 2000 may still sound like a lot, it sure is a hell of a lot more manageable than 50.000.
"Japanese is overly complicated"
You’re probably not going to believe me, but: In terms of grammar, Japanese is WAY easier than English. Seriously, if you take away the fancy characters and concentrate on how a sentence is constructed, Japanese is almost ridiculously simple. Let’s look at an example, so I can show you what I’m talking about. Take the sentence I eat cake. In Japanese, this would be
Keeki o tabemasu.
Now let’s say we wanted to put the sentence into the past tense using the perfect form. This would give us I have eaten cake. We introduce the auxiliary verb have and change the form of eat to the past participle. Now, what about Japanese? In Japanese, the sentence would be
Keeki o tabemasita.
See what happened? All we did was change the ending of the main verb, from -u to -ita. That’s it. And trust me when I say that it’s always that simple. Another example: Let’s say we wanted to turn the sentences into a question now: Do you eat cake? While not too overly complicated, we still added another auxiliary verb, in this case do. Now let’s take a look at the Japanese counterpart:
Keeki o tabemasu ka.
All you need to do is add -ka to the end of the verb, and you got yourself a question. No change in syntax, no auxiliary verbs, just -ka. And if you wanted to ask Have you eaten cake? you'd say
Keeki o tabemasita ka.
We can simply combine the -ita and -ka suffixes to create a question in the past tense. Of course these are only a few examples, so it may not convince you. But trust me when I tell you that Japanese really is that simple almost all the time. This is due to the fact of it being a so-called agglutinative language, which basically means that you construct words and phrases by “gluing” stuff together. This makes it very systematic and easy to understand.
"Japanese has no cuss words"
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