Thursday, February 17, 2011

Japanese Word Order: Pick An Order, Any Order

One of the first things you discover when you learn Japanese is that the verb in a Japanese sentence always comes at the end of the sentence.

            ano hito wa kaimono ni ikimashita.
            That person went shopping.

            Toukyou no fuyu wa kibishii to omoimasen ka?     
            Don’t you think Tokyo winters are severe?

OK, in the second example, there’s ka at the very end, turning the sentence into a question. Simple particles like ka, ne, yo, or even ze, zo, and na do come after the verb in a Japanese sentence.

Japanese Words in Any Order?

Interestingly, Japanese word order is loose compared to English—except that the verb has to be placed at the end of the sentence or phrase. When I say loose word order in Japanese, consider this example:

            昨日 彼に りんごを あげました。
            Kinou kare-ni ringo-wo agemashita.
            I gave him an apple yesterday.

In Japanese, the first three parts ( 昨日,  彼に,  りんごを) can be put in any order! The only requirement is that the verb show up at the end. For example, all of these sentences are grammatically possible in Japanese:

            昨日 りんごを 彼に あげました。
            りんごを 彼に 昨日 あげました。
            彼に 昨日 りんごを あげました。

Before you start randomizing your Japanese word order, remember that I said grammatically possible—not all of these sentences are natural Japanese. Ringo-wo kare-ni kinou agemashita is particularly unnatural, but still grammatically correct and understandable by any native Japanese.

One more point to keep in mind: The part closest to the verb is the part being emphasized in the sentence. So, if you want to emphasize that you gave him an apple as opposed to some other fruit, the choice:

            彼に 昨日 りんごを あげました。

works best.

Try doing this kind of word rearrangement in your own language, and the sentences probably won’t make sense. (“Him gave I yesterday an apple.”)

Japanese Particles to the Rescue

Japanese word order is flexible (other than the verb), thanks to particles like ga, ni and wo. By attaching a particle to a word, you set the role for that word in the sentence. Then, you can take the word and its particle and move it in the sentence around like a building block, without losing any meaning. (In English, by contrast, the placement of the word itself dictates its role, so moving an English word out of place causes it to lose meaning.)

Particles are fundamental to Japanese. Using the wrong particle can make a sentence undecipherable to a Japanese speaker. For example, if I wanted to say “I gave him an apple yesterday,” but said:

            昨日 りんごを 彼 あげました。

My Japanese listener would hear: “Yesterday he gave an apple (to someone else).” And confusion would result.

One of my difficulties with listening comprehension in Japanese (such as JLPT listening comprehension exercises) is correctly hearing these very short particles, which have a big effect on the meaning of a sentence. There are many cases where changing ni to ga or vice-versa causes the meaning to be exactly opposite. The writers of the JLPT know this, of course, so they (evilly) set out to make some of the JLPT exercises difficult in precisely that way.

If you are learning Japanese, watch your particles (and be sure the verb comes at the end), and you’re sure to be speaking more natural Japanese.

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