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Nothing particular about particles

03/09/2017|カテゴリー:About Japanコメント(1)

Once upon the time there was an old bamboo cutter. 今となっては昔竹を取りの翁がいました。

The name of the bamboo cutter was Sakaki no Miyatsuko. 竹取の名前はさかきのみやつこでした。

One day the old man found a tiny, sweet girl in a stalk of bamboo. ある日翁は竹の中三寸ぐらいとても可愛らしい少女を見つけた。

The old couple raised her and gave the name Kaguyahime to the girl. 老夫婦はこの子を育ち女の子にかぐや姫というなを付けた。

This is the beginning of the famous, more than 1000 year old Japanese folk tale of the bamboo cutter. 竹取物語The little girl grows into a young lady of extraordinary beauty and it turns out that she is a princes, but not from this world and that is probably why in contrast to the princesses in western fairy tales she shows remarkable independence by rejecting all the princes, even the emperor who came to ask for her hand. But this is a different story. Let’s focus on the particles involved here.

I chose this introduction to demonstrate that there are comparable concepts in Japanese and western languages. The first sentence introduces the bamboo cutter as a new (unknown)未知 topic and therefore the particle „ga“ is used. After that the bamboo cutter is already known既知, and that’s why the particle following the bamboo cutter in the second sentence is „ha“ . In the English equivalent this is rendered as „a bamboo cutter“ (indefinite article a) for the first time he is introduced and later „the bamboo cutter“ once he has become something already known.

So let’s follow up on that concept a bit further. At the station a train is of course something that can be expected to be there. But if I say: „I went to the station and there was a train“ then that would refer to just any train whereas „there was the train“ would indicate a connection to me, for example the train that I intended to take. Same thing in Japanese with ha andagain. 電車がmeans any train. 車はrefers to the train related to me.

Known information doesn’t have to be mentioned explicitly but can also be deducted from context. Imagine a murder scene. The forensic people suddenly tell the inspector „we found a gun“. This would imply that there was just a random gun. But if they said „we found the gun“ it would mean that this is the gun used in the murder. This can be expressed in Japanese with 銃がありました(jyu ga arimashita) or銃はありました(jyu ha arimashita)

The Japanese have quite a penchant for the English definite article „the“ like ザめしや, „The Meshiya“ (Japanese restaurant chain). The article „the“ is used here to give the following noun the aura of being the essence or the epitome of its genre. A Japanese Zen master chose the title „The Zen“ for his book about Zen Buddhism although it was written in Japanese. This is not because he had many western disciples but rather a word play. „The Zen“ means the essence of Zen, but the article „the“ is rendered phonetically into Japanese as za. It happens that this can mean Zazen 座禅meaning sitting Zen or simply meditation. So the interpretation would be that Zazen is the essence of Zen.

It should be added that these similarities are an approximation because English and Japanese belong to two completely different language groups. English is part of the Indo European language group and therefore an inflected language although it has lost most of these inflections in contrast to other European languages. One explanation for this is that the Germanic language of the Anglo Saxons was overlaid by the French of the invading Normans (a Romanic language) and in the process of merging into one language they polished off each other’s edges. Japanese is an agglutinative language, therefore grammatical meaning is glued to the verb at the end of the sentence such as iku 行く(I go), ikeba行けば(If I go) ,ikitakereba行きたければ (if I want to go) or expressed through particles. In addition this article refers to modern Japanese which has evolved in the last 150 years. Classic Japanese (古文)seems to have less particles.

This disclaimer presupposed we can probably proceed to compare the Japanese particles Ha, Ga, No, Ni, and Wo to the 4 grammatical cases of the Germanic or Romanic language groups, of which many English native speakers are probably not always conscious.

Nominative :は、が „the bamboo cutter [as a subject] the girl emerged from the bamboo女の子は竹から出て来ました

Genitive: „the bamboo cutter’s / [of] the girl“ the girl’s name is Kaguyahime 女の子の名前はかぐや姫です。

Dative: „[to/for] the girl“ [as an indirect object] They gave the name Kaguyahimeto the girl.


Accusative:“the girl“ [as a direct object] The bamboo cutter found the girl. 竹取は女の子を見つけた

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