Japanese Sentence Structure Introduction
Probably the first thing you have to learn when learning a language (other than your native one) is sentence structure. Even if you know grammar and vocab, without knowledge of sentence structure, you can’t build a sentence properly. But before I get into Japanese sentence structure, let me delve a little into linguistics. As linguistics is the science of (human) language, it’s good to know some of the mechanics behind the language(s) you want to study. Please bear with me as I explain the following in this two-part series: Part One (this page):
Quick question: What do Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian have in common? They’re all romance languages and are also genetically similar. Why is that? Well, because their respective country of origin is geographically close to the other, the languages followed suit and are similar in sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. This explains why a native Spanish speaker may find learning and listening to Portuguese rather easy and vice versa (and so on and so forth), but may not be able to understand all of Portuguese.
Now you know what a genetic affiliation is, but what is a language family? It’s a group of languages that are descended from the same parent or proto language, and thus have genetic and typological similarities. The following are a few of language families and some of their members. There are dozens of subgroups within these language families (not listed below), such as Germanic, Celtic, Italic, Hellenic, etc.:
Indo-European: Hindi, English, Spanish, Norwegian, Gaelic, etc.
Uralic European: Hungarian, Finnish, etc.
Afro-Asiatic (Northern African and Middle East): Hebrew, Arabic, etc.
Sino-Tibetan (North Central, East Asia): Mandarin, Tibetan, Burmese, etc.
Niger-Congo (African): Swahili, Zulu, etc.
Austronesian (from Madagascar to Hawaii): Maori (New Zealand), Tagalog (Philippines), etc.
Altaic (Central Asia): Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu
Japanese, the Language Orphan
Believe it or not, Japanese is one of the most disputed languages in the world of linguistics. Given its geographic location, linguists have varying theories arguing that it should be Altaic, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, or a mix. There are even theories about it being related to Indo-European languages! Aside from genetic similarities, there are a number of factors that come into play to determine which family a language belongs to, so right now Japanese is an orphan! Ironically, the Ryuukyuan language of Okinawa has been proven to be a descendent of Japanese.
Despite Japanese’ parentlessness, the language many linguists usually associate Japanese with is Korean because they share many structural characteristics (although, with the exception of words that came to them from China, they do not share the same basic vocabulary). For example, they both share the SOV sentence pattern, as explained below.
Now that you know a little bit about linguistics and why Japanese is so hard (because there are no languages, aside from the Ryuukyuan language of the Okinawans, which are similar to it), onto Japanese sentence structure!
In Japanese, the sentences follow the subject-object-verb structure, or SOV (same as in the Korean language):
私 is the subject, りんご is the object, and 食べる is the verb.
In English (and Chinese), the sentences follow the subject-verb-object structure, or SVO:
- I eat apples
'I' is the subject, 'eat' is the verb, and 'apple' is the object.
If you applied the SVO structure to Japanese and translated it, you'd get 'I apples eat'.
While you can understand what kind of action and when it's happening (ie: in the past, present, or future) at the beginning of an English sentence, you don't know until the same until the end of a sentence in Japanese. This means you have to wait for the speaker to finish talking in order to understand everything.
Thankfully, as long as the subject is at the beginning of the sentence and the verb is at the end, you can say whatever in between in Japanese. Take the following translations of 'I'm going to watch the World Cup with my friends at 3pm':
- 私は午後３時に友達とワールドカップを見ます [watashi wa gogo sanji ni tomodachi to wa-rudo kappu o mimasu]
- 私は友達と午後３時にワールドカップを見ます[watashi wa tomodachi to gogo sanji ni wa-rudo kappu o mimasu]
However, this is only part of construction. You need to know about particles (hyperlink) in order to fully understand how to make a Japanese sentence.
Please read on to part 2 of my sentence structure of Japanese series, coming soon!