Japanese is a case inflecting language. What exactly is “case inflection,” you might ask; case inflection refers to a system by which a language inflects nouns—using either morphological affixes, or particles—to designate them with grammatical roles within a sentence, the end result typically being sentences in which word order is generally loose. Interestingly enough, English—an Indo-European language of the West Germanic variety—was once case inflecting. Check out Beowulf in Old English, if you’re interested. In Japanese, this inflectional morphology is accomplished with the help of particles, little lexically-bound morphemes (semantic units unable to exist as free standing words that must be attached to an independent noun) that follow the nouns they modify, such as: は、が、で、に、を、と、etc.
The mastery of Japanese particles for a second-language learner of Japanese is admirable; particles can be nasty little suckers for the unprepared learner. Over the next several weeks, I will be writing short guides with the intent of helping learners differentiate between basic particles. This week, we tackle は.
は is perhaps the most commonly misused particle in the Japanese language; it is biffed by second language learners about as often as “the” is fumbled over by native Japanese speakers. は, a topic marking particle, marks a word for contextual significance. In English, the topic of a sentence typically appears at the beginning of the sentence and is grammatically identical to its subject. Thus, in a sentence like “My legs hurt,” the noun phrase “my legs” is both the topic of conversation, as well as the grammatical subject of the sentence. Japanese, however, does make a very clear distinction between the topic and the subject. Take for example: 「私は足が痛いです」(My legs hurt). This sentence marks 「私」as its topic; the listener should, first and foremost, be concerned with how the rest of the sentence relates to the topic, which is myself. 「足」is marked by the subject marking particle, 「が」, which communicates to a listener that meaning of the sentence now revolves around either: what my leg is doing, or what is happening to my leg. To put it simple, 「私は足が痛いです。」is a sentence about a leg hurting that concerns the speaker. “A leg hurts, and this fact is significant to me.”
This sentence can be contrasted with: 「私の足は痛いです。」, in which “my leg” becomes the topic of the sentence: “It hurts, and this fact is significant for my leg.” This sentence carries the nuance that it is less concerned with the implication that my wounded leg has on me (as in the first sentence), and more concerned with the implication that my wound has for my leg itself.
As a topic marking particle, は can be used alongside, or in place of other particles, as detailed below:
“(According to the rules) you can not smoke inside.”
This sentence pairs はwithで to draw attention to 屋内 as a significant detail. It is completely fine to smoke outside, but inside smoking will not be tolerated.
“It’s because of you (and not anybody else) that this relationship is going well.”
“I do karate, but I do not do aikido (as opposed to other martial arts that I practice).”
This sentence replaces を with は to illustrate that aikido is a significant detail, one that stands in contrast to any other form of martial arts. If a native speaker were to hear the second clause of this sentence in isolation, they would get the impression that the speaker of the sentence is, in fact, a martial artist that practices forms other than aikido. This is in contrast to: 「合気道をしない。」, which simply states that the speaker does not do aikido (and may or may not practice other forms).
“I have never been to Japan (but I’ve totally been to other countries).”
This sentence augments にwith は to draw contrast between the country of Japan and other countries of the world. It is clear from context that the speaker is an (at least somewhat) experienced traveler. Compare with: 「日本に行ったことがない。」, “I have never been to Japan (and may or may not have ever been anywhere else).”
““Sadness,” a nominalized form of “kanashii,” means “kanashimi” (in Japanese).”
とは is a common particle construction typically used when providing the definition of a word or phrase, or otherwise clarifying a statement.
The above uses of は all share one thing in common; they all draw contrast to or away from a topical point of conversation. But は has some further uses.
In a compound sentence—a sentence with more than one major clause— は functions to mark the noun serving as the most important argument in the sentence:
“I tried eating a little bit of the food he made us, but I didn’t like it at all.”
彼, being the less important of the subjects deployed throughout the two clauses is marked by the subject marking particleが (which we will discuss more next week); however, 私, being the main focus of the sentence, takes は as its particle; this happens because, at its heart, this sentence ultimately boils down to mean: 「全然好きではなかった」, “(I) didn’t like (it).” It is a sentence about my reaction—anything else appearing in the sentence is auxiliary information, and for this reason,, は is used.
は can also be used with ～て inflected verbs:
“You can’t chew gum. (But you can keep it in your pocket, or save a stick for later.)”
“I’m sorry for stepping on your foot. (But not for tapping it to get your attention earlier).”
“How about we go to the same place again next time (instead of staying at home)?”
The reason that を tends to be a somewhat easy particle to master is that it is only used to mark nouns that fall under a grammatical role that corresponds to the “direct object” argument in English: I kicked a ball; Michael lost a tooth last night; the quick fox jumped over the lazy dog; I went to the store and purchased some bread.
“Nakauchi read a book at the library”
“I changed my hairstyle and went to meet with a friend.”
“I’ll someday achieve all of my dreams and become famous.”
“I dug a hole and buried the ring.”
“I recently got a new piercing.”
It’s very easy to see how を tends to be much less complicated than はand が; however don’t be fooled into thinking that を doesn’t have any tricks up its sleeve. Like は intrudes upon the territory ofが, に intrudes upon that of を. This is because を only works when preceding a transitive verb. Intransitive verbs must take に instead.
In case you might not remember what I have previously written about transitive and intransitive verbs, I’ll provide a short reminder. Transitive verbs are those that are able to take a direct object (they suggest that something or someone is doing something directly to another participant); intransitive verbs are those that do not have the ability to describe the relationship between a subject and a direct object. In Japanese, verbs are generally paired in transitive/intransitive forms. For example: 変える・変わる、する・なる、溶かす・溶ける、壊す・壊れる、割れる・割る、倒す・倒れる、転がす・転げる。
Observe the differences in the following sentences:
“I broke the TV.” (Subject-Verb-Direct Object)
“The TV was broken (directly) by me.” (Agent of Action-Subject-Passive Transitive Verb)
“Because of me, the TV broke.” (Source of Action-Subject-Intransitive Verb)
“My TV broke.” (Topic-Subject-Intransitive Verb)
“My TV broke.” (It was my TV that broke.) (Possessed topic of Discussion-Intransitive Verb)
“I defeated all of my enemies”
“All of my enemies were felled before (directly by) me.”
“All of my enemies fell because of me.”
“All my enemies fell.”
“All my enemies fell.” (I was my enemies that fell)
“He’s spreading that trend.”
“That trend is being propagated (directly) by him.”
“Because of him, that trend is catching on.”
“That trend of his is catching on.”
“That trend of his is catching on.” (It’s his trend that is catching on)
Much of the above content tends to speak for itself; the を particle really is extremely straightforward, so long as the active verb is a transitive. Thankfully, a great deal of verbs dropped in every day conversation tend to be transitive in nature, so を is generally a pretty easy particle to master quickly.
To conclude this week’s entry, let’s take a look at a completely ridiculous sentence:
“Mr. Garrison’s sex change operation shocked everyone in South Park’s fourth grade class.”
“Everyone in South Park’s fourth grade class was shocked (directly) by Mr. Garrison’s sex change operation.
“Everyone in South Park’s fourth grade class was shocked because of Mr. Garrison’s sex change operation.”
(The first sentence sounds more natural than the third, which sounds more natural than the second)