Learning Japanese – The Wonderful World of Particles

2011 June 24
by PaulBenson

Welcome! This is the first article in a series on jyoshi助詞 (particles) in the Japanese language. This article is a primer with more detailed articles to follow on individual particles. First off, it’s clear to everybody that English and Japanese are pretty different. They look different, sound different, write differently, they move in opposite directions, and the way things are said is different, too. The differences pile up very quickly.

So, language learners look for cost-effective ways of utilizing the language. You want the cultural exchange, the access to conversation, business, literature, and culture that’s happily waiting to greet you with a bow and a cup of sake on the other side of the great Nihongo language barrier. One strategy is simplifying the language into cookie-cutter linguistic equivalents, such as “A wa B desu” = “A is B.”

In many cases this works! After all, we have the following:

私は翻訳者です。 =   I am a translator.

watashi wa honyakusha desu.

太郎は高校生です。 =   Taro is a high school student.

Taro wa koukousei desu.

But, this sort of sentence simplification doesn’t always work. Take the following sample conversation in a Japanese restaurant…

Waitress:         お飲み物は。。。    How about a drink?

onomimono wa…

Friend:             コーラ。                    Coke.


You:                 私はビールです。    I’ll have a beer. [somewhat more polite]

watashi wa bi-ru desu.

Obviously, you’re not saying “I am a beer;” yet, this doesn’t match the easy sentence construction you learned! What’s going on? What changed? For Japanese, nothing has changed. The language is happily going along as it has been. But for the language learner, who wanted the short cut, the quick and dirty, things aren’t working out too well.

I am of the opinion that the best way to understand Japanese is to treat with it directly. Learn its system, its way of doing things, and you will never need a crutch or a shortcut (like sentence constructions), and you’ll have a better and more nuanced understanding.

One of the key pieces to the Japanese language is the jyoshi 助詞 (particles), literally助 “help” and 詞 “word.” They are, literally, helping words that make meaning clear and understandable. As you might expect, there are a lot of particles in the Japanese language. There are some familiar faces, the wa, ga, ni, he, wo, and de, as well as others with more specific tones and nuance. As a rule (as you can see above), the particle always follows what it “helps.” Particles will identify case, directionality, the direct object, the subject and topic of speech – the list goes on.

How does English handle the same grammatical needs? Some English prepositions are roughly like Japanese-style particles:

私は店行きます。            I go to the store. (particle: に ni)

But English also uses wholly different words where Japanese simply uses a different particle.

彼女が            She [subject of a sentence; nominative case]

kanojo ga

彼女を            Her [object of a sentence; accusatory case]

kanojo wo

As I said above, as non-native speakers I think we should treat with Japanese directly. Learn its particles, and you’ll have a better, more nuanced, understanding anyway. No extra words like when Japanese natives learn English, no extra shortcuts (which is even MORE stuff to remember), and no gaps in what you learn and the language. Sounds pretty good, right?

“Wait a second,” you say. “You mean to tell me that I can learn more about these particles, which are easier than in English, and my Japanese will be better? And I have to remember less?? AND I don’t need these sentence constructions anymore?!?”

Yes. J

See you next time when we start really getting into them. Feel free to sign up for language classes at Hills Learning in New York City for more personal classes.

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