The Art of Speaking Japanese – “Chunking”

2011 March 28
by PaulBenson

As native English-speakers learning Japanese, there are a few extra tools that’ll really help you make sense of what’s going on in the more complex Japanese sentences. In this lesson I want to introduce you to one of them l call “chunking.” Long Japanese sentences can look complicated and complex when they’re actually very simple, structurally. Chunking means to identify those inclusive “chunks” of text which’ll help you parse the sentence into more easily manageable and understandable pieces. Let’s look at an example:

私は*を明日読む。

watashi wa hon* wo ashita yomu.

I will read the book* tomorrow.

私は複雑な本 *を明日読む。

watashi wa fukuzatsuna hon* wo ashita yomu.

I will read the complicated book* tomorrow.

私は友達が貸してくれて複雑な本*を明日読む。

watashi wa tomodachi ga kashite kurete fukuzatsuna hon* wo ashita yomu.

I will read the complicated book* my friend lent me tomorrow.

私は大学に入った時に友達が貸してくれて複雑な本*を明日読む。

watashi wa daigaku ni haitta toki ni tomodachi ga kashite kurete fukuzatsuna hon* wo ashita yomu.

I will read the complicated book* my friend lent me when I went to college tomorrow.

All four sentences are structurally the same (“I will read the book tomorrow”), and what changes is how much information is provided about the book. The underlined chunk is essentially a string of modifiers all working on a single keystone noun (marked with “*”). “Chunking” means to see this string of text as one inclusive “chunk” of text that modifies an identifiable noun, action, something. The challenge is identifying where the chunk of text starts and stops, but it’s like everything else – you’ll bet better at it the more you do it.

Here is the most important guideline to follow: in Japanese, modifiers come before the modified – in the above example the keystone noun, hon 本 (“book”), comes last. It’s being modified by the rest of the chunk. Let’s look at another example and go through it piece by piece as if we were reading:

木村は東京に行って、前から買おうと思っていた辞書を買った。

kimura wa tokyo ni itte, mae kara kaō to omotte ita jisho wo katta.

First we have 木村, a surname, so we know we’re talking about a singular person (Mrs. Kimura, let’s say). 木村 is marked by は, the topic-marking particle, which tells us that Mrs. Kimura is our topic. We’re talking about her and some statement is about to be made about her. We have a topic but no chunk so let’s keep going. 東京に行って = goes(?) to Tokyo. Up to this point we could have a chunk, so it’s either that Mrs. Kimura will go, is going, or has already gone to Tokyo, or that something else which is beginning to be modified will go, is going, or has gone to Tokyo. It’s not clear yet. Comma. The comma here essentially confirms it’s not the beginning of a chunk, which brings us to the first of our two options. Here’s what we have thus far [literally translated]: As for Mrs. Kimura, [she] goes/will go/went to Tokyo and….

前から (“from before” = for a while now) gives us a time modifier, so it looks like we’re at the beginning of a chunk. 買おうと思っていた should be read together and is the familiar “yō to omou” construction indicating the is thinking of doing  __ (whatever the verb is). We have the verb 買う kau (“to buy”), so Mrs. Kimura is thinking of buying something. We also have the っていた conjugation which shows Mrs. Kimura had thought of buying something (for a while now), and is not thinking so anymore. We’re in a chunk and still looking for our keystone noun to bring everything together. 辞書を (“dictionary”). Jackpot! So, it’s a dictionary which Mrs. Kimura had thought of buying for some time now. This closes our chunk. を marks direct objects, so now we’re looking for a verb. 買った (“bought”) quickly gives us our final verb and indicates that Mrs. Kimura went (now we know it was in the past) to Tokyo and bought the dictionary she had thought of buying for some time. *whew*! Here’s the sentence with the chunk marked:

木村は東京に行って、前から買おうと思っていた辞書*を買った。

Want to “chunk” your Japanese into more easily manageable and understandable pieces? Sign up for classes at Hills Learning to take your Japanese to the next level!

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