Studying Japanese - Two Things Teachers Don't Tell You
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While Japanese is a simple and easy language from a purely linguistic standpoint, the fact that it works differently than English or basically any other Western language still makes it hard to understand and learn. In order to make Japanese a little more accessible to Westerners, some grammatical points are often simplified or "streamlined", that is, the teacher (or book) focuses only on the most prevalent function of a grammatical point. While this is fine in a University context, where all your contacts with the Japanese language are orchestrated and supervised by your teacher, it will become confusing as soon as you get in touch with some natural Japanese. Suddenly all those grammatical phenomena you struggled to memorize are used in wholly different ways and in contexts where you're unable to translate them. In order to lessen the shock a bit, I decided to write down and explain two of the most common simplifications of Japanese grammar I've encountered in books and reading material so far.
1) -ga and -kedo don't always mean "but"
When you first encounter the particle -ga and it's more colloquial equivalent -kedo, you're probably told it means "but". And most of the time, it does. Examples:
"I was hoping to leave on the 25th, but if there aren't any seats, I guess I don't have a choice."
John came but Mary didn't come.
For those sentences, translating -kedo and -ga as "but" works fine. But how would we translate the following sentence:
If we translate -kedo as "but", we'd get something like "About the lunch meeting on Nov. 15th, but do you think that Bob needs an interpreter?" This doesn't make a whole lot of sense. So, how should we translate -kedo in this case? Well, simply put, not at all. In the above sentence, it's merely a device to connect the two parts of the sentence together; theres no adversative relation between the two parts. So the correct translation would be: "Regarding the lunch meeting on Nov. 15, do you think Bob will need an interpreter?" This use of -kedo is often used in spoken Japanese. Combinging several sentences into a whole using -ga oder -kedo makes the conversation flow better and makes it sound more natural (but, at the same time, more confusing to foreigners).
There is another occurrence of -ga and -kedo that may be confusing to foreign students of Japanese: Often times they are used at the very end of a sentence. Examples:
I have a big favor.
"I don't have the data for that yet," admitted the researcher.
In these cases, -ga and -kedo are used to lessen the impact of the sentence.
In essence, it's the same as putting "..." at the end of an English sentence; "I have a favor...", "I don't have the data yet...". It makes you sound a little more unsure and timid, and not as brash as by simply stating "I have a favor." Therefore, it is often used when making requests or asking for favors. So in these cases, it's actually not all that wrong to translate -ga and -kedo as "but", since it implies that the sentence could go on:
"I have a big favor, (but if you don't want to help me, that's okay)."
"I don't have the data for that yet, (but I will try to get it as soon as possible)."
2) -da and -desu are not always copula
A copula (sometimes also known as "linking verb")is a word that's used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate. In English, the main copula is the verb "to be". "I am hungry", "My name is Jack"..."I" and "my name" are linked with "hungry" and "Jack" respectively. Now, in Japanese, this function is often attributed to the words -da and desu.
I am Tanaka.
This camera is expensive.
So far so good. Now imagine you're sitting in a restaurant in Japan. A person the next table over calls the waiter, looks him in the eye and proclaims:
The waiter makes a note on his writing pad and leaves for the kitchen without batting an eyelash. What is going on here? Didn't that person just claim to be an eel? Well, if you adhere to the definition of -desu being a copula, then yes. But in actuality, and you may have guessed it already, the person merely ordered eel for lunch. So apparently, -desu also has a different function; and that is to sometimes replace other parts of a sentence. What the person basically said was something like
I want to eat eel.
Except が食べたい was replaced by です. So, the sentence should rather be translated as "For me, eel" instead of "I am (an) eel". It is okay to say うなぎです in this case, because it is implied by context what you mean; If you enter a restaurant and sit down at a table, your intention probably is "eating". Hence, 私はうなぎです can easily be understood as "For me, eel". This means that when -desu means something else than "to be", it must be derivable by context. In this case, the context is extratextual; But usually, it's a lot easier to identify the meaning of -desu. Take a look at the following example:
Where does it hurt?
B is answering A's question, so he is obviously saying "The ankle (hurts)" or "(The pain is in) the ankle". So in this case, -da is replacing が痛い. But since the context and topic of the conversation is already established, there is no need to repeat 痛い. It's the same in English:
A: Where does it hurt?
B: In my chest.
A: What do you want to drink?
So while -da and -desu are usually used as copula, in some situations they merely replace parts of a sentence that are clear to all participants in the conversation.