Introduction to Japanese: Volume 1

Chapter 5

Introduction to particles, and the verb ”to be”

Last time, we learned the basics of Kanji, the most complex of the three scripts used to write Japanese. Now that we have covered all three scripts, we are finally ready to start learning some basic sentences and grammar. After you finish studying this article, you will learn the basics of Japanese particles and sentence structure, plus a few Kanji for good measure.

We will be using Hiragana and Katakana in this chapter, so if you cannot read them and haven’t checked our previous articles, we strongly recommend you to read them first here. We will also gradually introduce some Kanji throughout this chapter.

Making sentences in Japanese

Ok! Now that we can write Katakana and Hiragana (and even some Kanji), we can start writing some Japanese words. For example, we can learn some greetings: おはようございます (good morning), こんにちは (good afternoon) and こんばんは (good evening). We can write some basic words like ありがとう (thank you) and すみません (sorry).

ヒロキ:こんにちは。
ドウドウ:こんにちは。

That is nice and all, but there is one thing we still cannot do: write sentences! In order to speak or write anything other than the most basic sentences, we will need to learn two things: Japanese word order, and Japanese particles.

Japanese word order

Japanese language grammar is quite different from English. For example, there are no articles: “a book”, “the book” and “books” are written the same way. While in English we always need to write the subject of a sentence (even when there is no “subject” to speak of, such as in the sentence “It is raining”), in Japanese we often drop the subject if we can infer it by context, so a sentence like “went” is perfectly grammatical in Japanese. Make no mistake: it is a tricky language to learn for native speakers of English.

One of the things we need to learn is that Japanese word order is different from English. For example, the sentence “I eat bread” becomes “I bread eat” in Japanese. This is why Japanese is often considered to be a SOV (subject-object-verb) language, as opposed to English, a SVO language.

This, however, is not completely accurate, as the sentence “bread I eat” is also grammatically correct in Japanese. Actually, the sentences “bread eat”, “I eat”, and “eat” are all grammatically correct!

All a sentence in Japanese needs to be grammatically correct is to have a predicate (normally a verb, in this case, “eat”) ending it.

The rest of the sentence can normally be written in whichever order you fancy, and as I mentioned before, both subject and the object – in our example, “I” and “bread” – may be altogether dropped, if they can be deduced by context.

Grammatical particles

I want to show you why word order not mattering (except for the predicate) creates some issues for us and how the Japanese language solves these issues. In English, word order is important because it tells us what is the grammatical function of each word: that is why “Mary sees Peter” is different from “Peter sees Mary”. The sentence “I bread eat” may be obvious enough to guess what is the subject and what is the object, in the sentence “Mary Peter sees”, how can we know who seems whom?

The Japanese solution is grammatical particles, words that we attach to nouns, verbs, adjectives, or even sentences to assign them a grammatical function. Most of them have no equivalent in English, while some would be rendered as prepositions in English (such as “to” and “from”).

Let’s check how we write “I eat bread” in Japanese and what these mysterious particles are.

わたしパンを食(た)べます。(I eat bread.)

As you can see in our handy vocabulary box (which will always appear whenever we use a new word), “watashi” means I, “pan” (from Portuguese “pão”) means bread, and “tabemasu” means “eat”. What is the meaning of the words I bolded, then? The first one, は (read as “wa”), is called the topic marker.

For now we can think of it as the particle that introduces the subject of the sentence: I. The second particle, を (read as “o”), indicates the direct object, in this case, “bread”.

Because the particles clearly indicate the grammatical function of the words, word order does not matter in Japanese nearly as much as it does in English.

That is why a sentence such as パンわたしたべます is also correct.

Let’s check some other sentences:

みどりみずのみます。 (Midori drinks water.)

ヒロキテレビみます。(Hiroki watches television.)

かよこビールかいます。(Kayoko buys beer.)

ドウドウてがみかきます。(Doudou writes letter.)

In all these sentences, the particle は introduces the topic of the sentence, を tell us the direct object, and a verb finishes the sentence. Now we can answer my earlier question about who sees whom in “Mary Peter sees”. If Mary sees Peter, we write マリーはピーターをみます.

On the other hand, if Peter sees Mary, we need only to invert the particles, writing マリーピーターみます. Of course, if writing the subject first makes the sentence more understandable to you (and most Japanese would write the subject first anyway), by all means you can write ピーターマリーみます.

Copula and the verb “to be”

So far we have seen the verbs to eat, to drink, to see, to buy and to write. Astute writers may be wondering where the verb to be is. The answer might surprise you: Japanese lacks a verb “to be”. Instead, there are some different words used to represent the meaning of the verb to be, the most important of them being です (“desu”). です is what in linguistics is called a “copula”, that is, a word used to link a subject to a predicate. While the word might be unfamiliar, the concept certainly isn’t, since the verb to be is the English copula.

です is not a verb, but it is used in a similar way in Japanese. For starters, it always appears at the end of a sentence just like a verb would.

Let’s see how we use it in the following sentences.

ヒロキがくせいです。(Hiroki is student.)

たなかせんせいです。(Tanaka is teacher.)

かよこにほんじんです。(Kayoko is Japanese.)

がくせいヒロキです。(Student is Hiroki.)

せんせいたなかです。(Teacher is Tanaka.)

にほんじんかよこです。(Japanese one is Kayoko.)

In all sentences above, the copula です links the subject to the predicate. As we can see by the last three sentences, by inverting the words, we can change the subject and the object of the sentence. Please also note that since there are no articles in Japanese, without further context there is no way of knowing if by たなかはせんせいです mean “Tanaka is a teacher” or “Tanaka is the teacher” (incidentally, learning articles is one of the hardest things for my Japanese students of English).

Another thing to mind is that in purely declaratory sentences (such as “this is a book”), the particle は isn’t even necessary. Check, for example, the following sentences:

ほんです。(This is a/the) book.

ペンです。(This is a/the) pen.

ドウドウです。(This is) Doudou.

たなかせんせいです。(This is a/the) Tanaka-sensei.

にほんです。 (This is) Japan.

All sentences above are grammatically complete, even though they wouldn’t be in English. This shows how only the predicate (normally a verb, but in these cases, the copula です) is necessary to make a full sentence in Japanese.

Arimasu, Imasu, and the particle に

Finally, in addition to the copula です, there are two verbs in Japanese that can be similar to the verb to be: あります and います. They are used to indicate existence in the same way that we say in English “I am here” or “There is a book”; ありますis used for inanimate things and います one for living ones.

Let’s see the following examples:

かよこにほんいます。(Kayoko is in Japan.)

ふじさんにほんあります。(Mount Fuji is in Japan.)

ヒロキがっこういます。(Hiroki is at school.)

ドウドウこうえんいます。(Doudou is at park.)

There is a new particle here! The particle has many uses, one of them being to indicating place of existence, as in “Hiroki is at school” or “Mount Fuji is in Japan”. We write it after the location where the subject is.

Shukudai section

This chapter isn’t over yet! In some chapters, we would like to give you some homework – in Japanese, shukudai – so that you can practice what you have learned so far. For now, I will give you two types of shukudai: Grammar and Kanji. Please be aware there will be some vocabulary that will be introduced exclusively in the shukudai section, so please be sure to always check it!

Grammar

Using the words below, write at least five grammatically complete sentences. Please pay special attention to word order and particle use (bold words not present in the article).

りんご (apple) かきます (to write) べんごし (lawyer)
がっこう (school) がくせい (student) みず (water)
ふじさん (Mt. Fuji) せんせい (teacher) のみます(to drink)
こうえん (park) にほんじん (Japanese) テレビ (TV)
ほん (book) はは (Mother) みます (to see, to watch)
ペン (pen) にほん (Japan) ビール (beer)
にほんじん (Japanese) てがみ (letter) かいます (to buy)
わたし (I) パン (bread) たべます (to eat)
います (to be (living)) あります (to be (inanimate)) ともだち (friend)
よみます (to read) さけ (sake) かれ (he)

Kanji Review

Today we will look at the following 11 Kanji:

This Kanji means “I” or “private” (as in private school). Like most Kanji, it has two readings: the native Japanese reading and the original Chinese one. The Japanese reading is one of the words you will use the most: わたし, meaning “I”.

The Chinese reading, , is often used as a suffix meaning “private”, such as 私立(しりつ) (private establishment) or 私鉄(してつ) (private railway). Please note that the part on the left of this character is a radical that appears in many different Kanji, such as 和, 利, 秘 and 程.

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)はがくせいです (I am a student.)

This Kanji means both “to eat” and “food” in a general sense. When used alone, its most common reading is た, as in 食(た)べます (to eat).

The Chinese reading, often used in Kanji compounds, is しょく, appearing in words such as 食事(しょくじ) (meal), 食品(しょくひん) (foodstuff), 外食(がいしょく) (eating out) and 食堂(しょくどう) (cafeteria).

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)はパンを食(た)べます (I eat bread.)

Sample sentence: ヒロキは食堂(しょくどう)で食(た)べます (Hiroki eats at the cafeteria.)

This Kanji’s left part is very similar to 食 which we have just seen, but please note that the bottom part is slightly different. When used alone, its most common reading is の, as in 飲(の)みます (to drink); its Chinese reading is いん.

A good example would be the word 飲食(いんしょく) (eating and drinking), which you could already guess both reading and meaning. This word can often be seeing in the expression 飲食禁止(いんしょくきんし), meaning “no food or drink allowed” (literally “eating and drinking forbidden”).

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)はビールを飲(の)みます. (I drink beer.)

This Kanji means “child”. We will learn it now because it is a common radical of many more complicated Kanji. In native Japanese words, we normally read it as こ or ご; for example, 子(こ)ども (child), 息子(むすこ) (son) or 双子(ふたご) (twins).

In words borrowed from Chinese, its reading is normally し or じ, as in 男子(だんし) (young man) and 女子(じょし) (young woman).

One story I have about this Kanji is that it gave me an initial appreciation for the imaginative process behind Kanji. What do you get when you combine “electricity” with “child” (電子(でんし))? An electron!

Sample sentence: みどりは女子(じょし)です. (Midori is a young woman.)

Sample sentence: ドウドウは男子(だんし)です. (Doudou is a young man.)

This Kanji means “learning”, “scholarship”, “knowledge”; it is also used as a suffix to indicate “field of study”, just like we use “-logy” (sociology, biology, etc.) in many of our words.

As you can see, it contains the “child” radical we have just seen; just like Japanese schoolchildren wear a hat to go to school, I have come to liken this character to a child with a hat – feel free to use this mnemonic if it suits you.

The Japanese reading まな appears in the verb 学(まな)ぶ (to study in depth), but it is the Chinese reading がく, or, sometimes, がっ (“ga” with a pause after) the most common one, appearing in words such as 学生(がくせい) (student), 大学(だいがく) (university) and 学校(がっこう) (school).

Sample sentence: ドウドウは大学生(だいがくせい)です. (Doudou is a university student.)

Sample sentence: ヒロキは学校(がっこう)にいます. (Hiroki is at school.)

This Kanji means “life”, and like life itself, it is very hard. It is not a hard Kanji to write, mind you, but this might be the Kanji with the biggest amount of readings. Instead of trying to learn all of them now, let’s focus on one of its most common readings.

For example, one of its Japanese readings is なま, meaning “raw”; one of the most common words in your life might be 生(なま)ビール (“raw beer”, that is to say, draft beer). A common Chinese reading is せい, used in Kanji compounds such as 学生(がくせい) (student; literally a “life of study” or “studying life”), 生活(せいかつ) (lifestyle), 人生(じんせい) (human life) and 生産(せいさん) (manufacture, production).

Sample sentence: ヒロキは学生(がくせい)です. (Hiroki is a student.)

Sample sentence: かよこは生(なま)ビールを飲(の)みます. (Kayoko drinks draft beer.)

This Kanji can be a bit confusing, as its meanings include both “before” and “ahead”. To understand it, think about the probably most known word with it, 先生(せんせい) (teacher): your sensei came into this world before you, and that is why he is probably ahead of you.

This is why this kanji is used both in words that relate to the past, such as 先週(せんしゅう) (last week) and 先月(せんげつ) (last month) and words that mean advancement, such as 先進国(せんしんこく)(developed country).

Finally, it is present in another famous word among the otaku crowd, 先輩(せんぱい) (senior). As you have guessed, its common reading is せん.

Sample sentence: たなかは先生(せんせい)です. (Tanaka is a teacher.)

We briefly saw this Kanji in our previous article; as we mentioned then, this Kanji means “the Sun”, and per analogy, “day”; furthermore, it is also used to mean “Japan” (“the land of the rising Sun”) just like we would use the suffix “nipo” in English. It also has many different readings, which is why we will concentrate on only a few for now.

For starters, this Kanji can sound as に, in the words 日本(にほん) (Japan) and its variations such as 日本人(にほんじん) (Japanese person), 日本語(にほんご) (Japanese language) and 日本酒(にほんしゅ) (Japanese sake); it can also sound as にち, especially when it is referring to day, such as in the words 毎日(まいにち) (every day; also the name of a newspaper) or 日常(にちじょう) (ordinary, everyday).

Finally, one reading that beginners soon meet is び, as a suffix meaning “day of the week”. Monday, for example, is 月曜日(げつようび), while Sunday is 日曜日(にちようび) – that is right, a word where the same Kanji appears twice with different readings.

At least it makes sense – the first 日 refers to “Sun” while the last one refers to “day of the week”, in other words, Sunday.

Sample sentence: みどりは日本人(にほんじん)です. (Midori is Japanese.)

Haven’t we just seen this Kanji in the previous example? That is right; just by learning 日 we already know a bit about 本. This is why I argue that learning Kanji is like solving a jigsaw puzzle: it is really hard in the beginning as you are starting from zero, but gets progressively easier as you put more and more pieces together, or in another words, establish more and more connections.

You can guess its meanings: “origin”, “foundation”, as in “origin of the Sun”, Japan. 本 can also mean “truth”, such as in the word 本当(ほんとう) (truth, reality), and even “book”; you may think of it as books being the source or foundation of knowledge if it helps you to remember it.

The common Chinese reading in all these words is ほん.

Sample sentence: かよこは日本(にほん)にいます. (Kayoko is in Japan.)

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)は本(ほんし)をかいます. (I buy books.)

This Kanji, meaning “person”, “human being”, is another character that we have previously seen in an earlier chapter. Like most of these basic Kanji, it has many readings, and therefore we will only see some of the most common ones here.

The first one, as you have already noticed, is じん, and often works as a suffix indicating nationality, like –ian, -ish or –ese would be used in English. The Japanese reading is ひと, meaning “a person”.

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)はブラジル人です. (I am Brazilian.)

Our last Kanji for today means “to see”; it can also means “opinion” (after all, things are different depending on your point of view). When used alone, its common reading is み, as in 見(み)る (to see).

When used in Kanji compounds, it is normally read as けん, as in the word 見学(けんがく) (field trip, study by observation). And that wraps-up our Kanji study for today.

Sample sentence: 私(わたし)は人(ひと)を見(み)ます. (I see a person.)

Wrap-up

Our goal in this article was to introduce readers to the basics of Japanese grammar, including word order, particles, and the equivalents of the verb “to be”. The fact that word order is not as important to Japanese as it is to English makes particles crucial to understand the grammatical function of each other and to decipher Japanese sentences.

While the particles は, を and に have uses other than the ones taught in this article, you can already use them now to write some basic sentences in Japanese by yourself. Finally, we also started to learn some Japanese verbs and Kanji, including eat, drink, see, buy and write, as well as some vocabulary.

Good luck in your studies, and we’ll meet again in our next article!