Japanese Grammar: Get to Grips with the Basics
The English language and the Japanese language have very strong differences that can seem off-putting to a native speaker of either language to attempt to learn the other. When focussing on grammar, this can seem to make a lot of sense.
English focuses a lot on word placement, so “John strikes Joe” will mean something completely different than “Joe strikes John”. Japanese, if you wanted to give it a grammatical word order, would be almost the opposite of English, though in truth word order is less important than particle placement. So, in Japanese “ジョンがジョーを殴る (Jon ga Jo- (w)o naguru)” will mean that John strikes Joe, but “ジョーをジョンが殴る (Jo- (w)o Jon ga naguru)” will still mean that John strikes Joe.
That’s not to mention the differences in adjectives and adverbs, various politeness levels of Japanese, and what may be the most important thing in Japanese grammar: the verb. Of course, it is not as difficult as it may seem if one is willing to put in the time to practice and study.
Adjectives and Adverbs
An adverb modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb, and typically comes before what it is modifying. This is true in English as well as in Japanese, but in Japanese, an adverb can also be used in statements with a noun. Some examples:
そろそろ寝る (sorosoro neru)
In this phrase, the adverb “sorosoro” modifies the noun “neru”. “Sorosoro” means something like, “soon”, or “any time now”. “Neru” means “to sleep”. So, the speaker is saying that he or she is going to sleep soon.
もうすぐ夜だ (mo sugu yoru da)
“Mou” is an adverb that means something akin to “already”, “sugu” is an adverb that means “soon”, and “yoru” is a verb that means “night”, while “da” signifies the sentence is a statement of how things are at present. So, it would mean approximately, “It’s almost night” in English.
An adjective is a descriptive word that would typically apply to nouns in English. This is similar to Japanese. In Japanese, there are two types of adjectives: -i adjectives and na adjectives. The former is an adjective that ends in an added -i, separate from the kanji.
An example would be “遅い (osoi), which means slow or late. These types of adjectives can easily become adverbs by dropping the i (い) and replacing it with a ku (く). For instance, “遅くなる (osoku naru)” would mean that it is becoming (naru) late (osoku). The na adjectives are words that become adjectives by placing na (な) at the end of them. “綺麗な鳥 (kirei na tori)” would be describing a bird (tori) that is pretty (kirei na).
Japanese Grammar and Levels of Politeness
In Japanese, you have declarations and action sentences. There can be said to be, in a broad generalization, four different politeness levels in Japanese: rude, familiar, polite, and super polite.
It is most important to understand the middle two, which are the two very common levels used. While words in the sentence can affect how polite something seems, the level in which it falls depends mainly on the end of the sentence.
If one was to say, “久世だ (Kuze da)”, the speaker would be saying essentially, “It’s Kuze.” This could be giving his own name to identifying someone else. To change the politeness of it, it is a simple change from “da” to “desu”. “久世です (Kuze desu)”. This makes the statement more polite.
To start getting into different tenses, one could say “久世だった (Kuze datta)” and it would mean that it was Kuze. The difference is in replacing “da” with “datta”. To say this in a polite manner, it would be “久世でした (Kuze deshita)”. It simply requires a change of the end of the sentence.
The same can be said of the verbs, as verbs typically come at the end of the sentence in Japanese. To make an action sentence more polite, the verb goes to its -masu stem form (this sounds more difficult than it is!) and then you add -masu to it. The easy rule to remember is that in general, with some exceptions, the -masu form of a verb is simply the verb in its normal form, but ending in -i. That may be an odd way of describing it, so let me provide some explanation and examples.
In its “normal” present-tense form, all Japanese verbs end in -u. Think of any Japanese verbs you know. 食べる (taberu) , 来る (kuru), 行く (iku), 言う (iu), 喋る (shaberu), 乗る (noru), etc., etc. To find the -masu form of the 行く (iku), change ku (く) to ki (き). 行きます (ikimasu), to go in the polite form. The same is true of 言う, 言います (iimasu), to speak in the polite form. However, a general exception is in some verbs ending in -ru (る).
There are essentially two types of verbs ending in -ru, the normal ones and the special ones. It is important to mark the special ones from the normal ones as it affects further conjugation forms. For instance, 喋る is a normal -ru verb. The polite form of 喋る is 喋ります (shaberimasu), to speak. A special one would be 食べる. It’s polite form is 食べます (tabemasu), to eat. The special -ru verbs end in either -eru or -iru, but not all -eru or -iru verbs are special. 来る (kuru) in general is a unique verb, and fits not into either normal camp. 来ます (kimasu) is how one would pronounce the polite way to say to come.
To change these -masu forms into past tense, for all verbs, you just change the -masu to -mashita. 食べました (tabemashita), or 喋りました (shaberimashita), are the polite ways to say did eat and did speak, respectively. This is just the start of the learner’s wonderful journey through conjugation…
Verbs are the bread and butter of Japanese, and perhaps most languages. They inform the listener of what’s actually happening. Different forms or meanings depend upon verb conjugation in various languages, including Japanese. Here is a small introduction to the past tense and -te forms of verbs in the Japanese language.
All Japanese verbs have a root form that ends in -u. However, Japanese is more of a syllabrary than an alphabet and what comes directly before that -u can be very important when it comes to conjugation. A past tense verb ends in -ta or -da. Remember the special -ru (る) verbs I spoke about earlier? That matters here, too. These verbs ending in -ru are conjugated to end in simply -ta. It’s as easy as replacing the る with a た, so 食べる (taberu) becomes 食べた (tabeta) to mean “did eat”.
Other verbs ending in -ru replace the る with った (tta). 喋る (shaberu) becomes 喋った (shabetta).
To verbs ending in う (u), the う is replaced with った (tta). 食う (kuu) becomes 食った (kutta) to mean “ate”.
Verbs ending in つ (tsu) replace the つ with った (tta). 勝つ (katsu) becomes 勝った (katta) to mean “won”.
Words ending in ぶ (bu) swap it for んだ (nda) so 飛ぶ (tobu) becomes 飛んだ (tonda), “flew”.
Words ending in む (mu) swaps it for んだ (nda), so 頼む (tanomu) becomes 頼んだ (tanonda), “requested”.
The one verb that ends in ぬ, 死ぬ (shinu) becomes 死んだ (shinda) to mean “died”.
Verbs ending in す (su) swap it out for した (shita). 滅ぼす (horobosu) becomes 滅ぼした (horoboshita), “destroyed”.
Verbs ending in く (ku) swap it out for いた (ita). 聞く (kiku) becomes 聞いた (kiita), “heard”.
Verbs ending in ぐ (gu) swap it for いだ (ida). 泳ぐ becomes 泳いだ (oyoida), “swam”.
Exceptions are する (suru, to do), 来る (kuru, to do), and 行く (iku, to go). する becomes した (shita) to be in its past tense, while 来る becomes 来た (kita), and 行く becomes 行った (itta). Pound these into your memory! The best way to do so is by exposing yourself to interesting reading and listening content, and that’s easy to on LingQ! There are 100s of hours of content in the Japanese library on topics to suit all interests.
Now, to change them to their -te forms, which allows for a lot of other options in Japanese like linking verbs together or gerund forms, you just replace the past form’s “ta” with “te”, or if the past form ends with “da”, replace the “da” with “de”. It’s that simple! Two forms in one, essentially! So, 泳いで (oyoide) is swim in the te form, while 聞いて (kiite) is hear in the te form.
It can seem difficult, but with a lot of study and practice, it can be a lot easier to understand Japanese grammar and what it entails. This is just a quick overview that that just scratches the surface of the language’s grammar. Really, you shouldn’t focus on much grammar in the beginning and focus more on learning from meaningful content, things you enjoy. If you haven’t already, be sure to try our LingQ and tools to help you in your quest to slay the beast that is Japanese.
Keep on studying!
Caiman Cotton is a freelance Japanese translator who has studied the language for years. He hopes to one day also study Latin.