Basic Grammar Japanese Lesson
You might (if you're an anime nut) already be able to make a few one-word sentences: "Gomen nasai." ("Sorry."), "Konnichiwa." ("Good day."), "Tasukete!" ("Help!"), and maybe even "Ranma no Baka." But what say we learn some grammar.
Let's start with word order. In English, we have a subject-verb-object order to our sentences; "This is a starship." Japanese, on the other hand, puts the verb at the end of the sentence--the order is subject-object-verb. Check out our first example sentence:
"Kore wa uchuusen desu." ("This is a spaceship.")
In this sentence, "Kore" ("this") is the subject, "uchuusen" ("space ship") is the object, and the verb, "desu", is at the end. This verb at the end of the sentence business takes some getting used to, but you'll adjust to it eventually. Try it color-coded:
"Kore wa uchuusen desu." ("This is a spaceship.")
You now know more than most of the world's population about Japanese grammar. That wasn't so bad, was it?
To Be (and To Am, and To Are...)
While we're here, take note: "desu" is the general "to be" verb in Japanese, so it's very useful. It covers the same ground as "is", "are", and "am" in English, and if you listen closely, you'll hear it a lot in anime.
Just one important thing: Although people (me) will tell you there are no silent letters in Japanese, they're sort of lying--in this (and pretty much only this) case, the "u" at the end is usually not pronounced (much, anyway). So you'll usually hear "des" instead of "desu", and it's ok to say it that way.
The next important thing to know about Japanese is that there aren't any articles--"a", "an", and "the" are nowhere to be found. So, in the sentence "Kore wa uchuusen desu.", there is nothing that takes the place of "a" in the English "a starship". It's just "starship".
Ok, so now you might be wondering what's with that "wa" sitting in "Kore wa uchuusen desu." That's part three of our basic grammar lesson. Japanese may not have articles, but they do have something usually called a "particle".
Particles are little words with no meaning that are used to mark different parts of a sentence or connect words. "Wa" is a particle used to mark the subject of a sentence. The only tricky part of this is that it comes after the subject; the same holds true for other particles and the different parts of a sentence that they mark, but don't worry about those quite yet.
So, in the sentence "Kore wa uchuusen desu.", we have "Kore", which we know is the subject not only because it is at the beginning of the sentence, but also (and more importantly) because it is followed by "wa". Then comes the object, "uchuusen", and finally the "is" verb, "desu".
No Subject, Either!
Take note that it's usually better to pay attention to "wa" (and other particles once you learn them) than to where a word is in the sentence, because Japanese is rather flexible about word order. Worse yet, Japanese speakers have a tendency to drop the subject of a sentence if it's clear what the topic of conversation is.
For example, let's say you were standing around admiring a huge piece of machinery, wondering what it was. Since it's obvious what you're talking about, it wouldn't be strange for the person you're talking to just say "Uchuusen desu." (literally, "Is spaceship."). This is about the equivalent of saying "It's a spaceship." in English.
Another situation where it's common to leave out the subject is when you're talking about yourself. Unlike in English, it's not necessary to say "I...", "I...", "I..." in a conversation. Since you're probably wondering, "watashi" means "I" (and also "me"--there's no difference in Japanese), so remember it.
Putting It All Together
Now we know our basic sentence structure:
"[Subject] wa [something] desu." ("[Subject] is [something].")
Right now, you know (at least) two subjects, "kore" and "watashi", so let's try playing with them. If "Kore wa uchuusen desu." means "This is a spaceship.", how about:
"Watashi wa uchuusen desu."
Yep, "I am a spaceship." (Hey, computers can talk.) Now let's try changing the other part:
"Kore wa katana desu."
You already know what a katana is (I hope--a curved Samurai sword, right?), so this sentence would mean "This is a katana."
Here are a selection of sentences using this same basic pattern. Look at all the fun things we can describe:
- "Kore wa pen desu." ("This is a pen.")
- "Kore wa raito seibaa desu." ("This is a light saber.")
- "Kuruma desu." ("It's a car.")
- "Watashi wa Haruna desu." ("I am Haruna.")
- "Haruna desu." ("I'm Haruna.")
- "Watashi wa neko desu." ("I am a cat.")
- "Watashi wa Shinigami desu." ("I am the God of Death.")
- "Watashi wa baka desu." ("I am an idiot.")
In the first three sentences, only the objects are new, and you probably already recognize the first two. And yes, "pen" (with a Japanese accent) means "pen"--you'll be seeing a lot of words like that. In the third sentence, the subject ("kore" in this case) has been left out, so it must be clear what the person who said it is talking about (no, not clear to you right now, clear to whoever they're talking to).
4 and 5 are both ways to introduce yourself, and mean the same thing (although 5 is a bit more informal than 4). Remember, if it's clear you're talking about yourself, you don't have to say "watashi wa" in this and many other situations.
In 6, 7, and 8, we're using "watashi" again, but this time instead of a name, we're using different words to describe ourself. Note that although English would use "a", "the", or "an" depending on the noun in these sentences, there is no difference in Japanese.
And that's it for your start in grammar. Oversimplified points to remember: Verb comes at the end, there is no "the", and "wa" doesn't mean anything. In part 2, we'll learn how to be egotistical and talk about ourselves.