Japanese Language

旅 tabi / trip, travel

The Japanese Language

Around 130 million people speak Japanese, the ninth most widely spoken language in the world. Outside Japan itself, there are approximately 5 million people who speak Japanese with some degree of fluency - predominantly descendants of Japanese emigrants in Hawaii, Brazil and other parts of the Americas.

It is unique in many ways but does have the advantage of differing from the complexities of European languages in that its grammar is relatively simple. It does not have complicating factors such as gender articles and distinctions between plural and singular are missing almost completely, rules for verbs and adjectives are simple and almost free of exceptions, nouns appear always in the same form. Pronunciation poses little problems to most learners. The biggest difficulty are accents, which do exist, but to a much lower extent than in the Chinese language; if you come from a Latin-based language the only difficulty is not accenting. In addition, there are relatively many homonyms, i.e. words that are pronounced the same way but have different meanings. Strictly speaking, there are differing levels of speech according to the relationship of the people involved mainly in terms of status, for instance, there are more than five different words for the English word "I", which are used depending on the context. For formal situations, an honorific language level (keigo) is still in common use, but for many people including native speakers this does not always encroach into day to day interaction and does not necessarily get in the way of non-Japanese engaging with people; in fact Japanese inclination to their notions of "wa" or harmony confers on any non-Japanese native speaker a respect and welcome no matter how clumsily they speak, simply because they have made the effort to try.

Speaking:

 

As mentioned the Japanese language has much less accent than many other languages:

a: as in mama > mada / yet

i: as in hid > ima / now

u: as in put > muzukashii / difficult

e: as in bed > sumimasen / excuse me

o: as in cot > gomen nasai / I’m sorry

**Accents occur mainly in stresses where there is a double consonant:
tanoshikatta / it was fun

or when the o is followed by u effectively “stretching” the o sound:
arigatou / thankyou *most simply pronounced as in arigatoh

Basic and Useful Phrases:

Using the language of a country one is visiting, even on the most basic level in the country really changes and enhances the experience.

eigo= English, hai = yes,  i-i-e = no,  do-ko? = where?,  i-ku-ra? = how much,  kip-pu = ticket,  e-ki = station,  (domo) a-ri-ga-toh = thank you, 

to-i-re / o-te-ara-i = toilet,  ta-be-mo-no = food,  no-mi-mo-no = drink/beverage,  o-mi-zu = water, ku-da-sa-i = Could I have...? / .... please

Visual Stuff:

Probably the most confusing for most inbound visitors is dealing with the immersion of characters. The Japanese writing system consists of  three script forms, actually divided into two types of characters: the syllabic kana – cursive hiragana (ひらがな) and angular katakana (カタカナ) – and more complex kanji (漢字, かんじ), the adopted Chinese characters. Because of the way in which kanji were adopted a single character can actually have a number of different reading sounds.  The kana characters are closer to abc as eahc has a set sound and they are essentially a guide to the reading of the kanji. The subject is, in fact, immersive so I will move along.

In the larger cities there is a lot of English signage these days but just the same, needs must, recognising the following characters will be useful for a traveller:

入口 (いりぐち i-ri-gu-chi) = entrance

出口 (でぐち de-gu-chi) = exit

女 (おんな on-na) = female

男 (おとこ o-to-ko) = male

お手洗い (おてあらい o-te-ara-i)/トイレ (to-i-re) = restroom, toilet

駅 (えき e-ki) = station

電車 (でんしゃ den-sha) = train

地下鉄 (ちかてつ chi-ka-te-tsu) = subway

辛い (からい ka-ra-i) = hot, spicy

非常口 (ひじょうぐち hi-joh-gu-chi) = emergency exit

禁止 (きんし kin-shi) = forbid, prohibit, ban

Expressions and Phrases: 

su-mi-ma-sen, chika-te-tsu wa doko desu ka                         Excuse me, where is the subway/underground?
eki wa doko desu ka                                                                              Where is the train station?

ai-te-iru heya wa arimasu ka .                                                         Do you have any vacancies?                                                   
ku-u-koh ku-da-sa-i                                                                              (to) the airport, please 
ko-re wa i-ku-ra desu ka                                                                   How much is this?                  
nama bi-iru futatsu kudasai                                                           two draught beers, please
nama bi-iru                                                                                               draught beer
oishi-i                                                                                                          delicious
e-i-go no men-yu wa arimasu ka                                                 Do you have an English menu?
oh-ki-i                                                                                                         big
chi-i-sa-i                                                                                                    small
ne?                                                                                                                ... isn't it?

Miyako Hoteru kudasai                                                                 (to) the Miyako Hotel, please
ryoh-shu-u-sho kudasai .                                                               Could I have a receipt, please?

NUMBERS and COUNTING:

 

ichi

1

ni

2

san

3

shi/yon

4

go

5

roku

6

nana

7

hachi

8

kyu

9

ju

10

 

ni-ju

20

go-ju

50

hyaku

100

ni-hyaku

200

go-hyaku

500

sen

1,000

ni-sen

2,000

go-sen

5,000

 

ichi-man

10,000

ni-man

20,000

go-man

50,000

   

Currency:

 

En

Japanese Yen

roku-man ni-sen go-hyaku nana-ju yon en

62,574 yen


**Cultural curiosity: Japanese tend to use yon and avoid using the word shi for the number four as it is also a homonym for the word for death.

COUNTING THINGS:

 When counting actual physical items you should use the following:

hitotsu          1 (thing)

futatsu           2. (things)

mitsu             3

yotsu             4

itsutsu           5

mutsu           6

nanatsu        7

yatsu             8

kokonotsu    9

juu                 10

**Cultural curiosity: Japanese tend to use yon and avoid using the word shi for the number four as it is also a homonym for the word for death. 

I hope this proves of interest and helps in some way in enhancing your experience with the extraordinary Japanese culture. If you would like to explore deeper and find out about the writing system: http://www.saiga-jp.com/japanese_language.html

Hugh Cann is an accomplished Japanese speaker and oriental brush calligraphy artist.

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