Cadence

The fundamental difference between English-like languages and Japanese-like languages is the word order.  The other differences are important, but I think it’s this difference that requires the most change in mindset.

English is a prepositional language.  This means that the particle-equivalents come before that which they are to modify.  For example,  “I am going to the store”.  “to”, in this case, is prepositioned – it is positioned before the part of speech that it is going to modify – namely, “the store”.

Japanese is a postpositional language.  The particles come after the part of speech they are intended to modify.  So, the same sentence in Japanese is 私は店に行ってます.  The particle “ni” (に), which means “to” or “towards” in this context, is after the word for store (店).

But it doesn’t end here – as anyone who has studied even a little bit of Japanese knows, even the verb comes at the end.   Note above that “ittemasu” is last in the sentence.

What this means for an English speaker, is that while in English the meaning develops naturally from the flow of the sentence, in Japanese that’s very much backwards – all the way through the sentence, you’re provided with the information you need, and only then are you told what to do with it.  In English, I would say “I am going -” and if it stopped there, then you would know most of the information you’d need.  I’m going, but you don’t know yet to where.  But in Japanese, the first thing you get is “this is about me.”  Essentially, the Japanese is structured like:  “We’re talking about me.  We’re also talking about the store.  This involves motion towards the store.  So, with all those things in mind, the verb is “to go”, and the form means something that is presently happening.”

There are a few consequences to this.  One is that Japanese has a very interesting cadence to it, and sometimes you can hear it when you listen to a native speaker talk.  Take a more complicated sentence, like one that has both “wa” and “ga” particles.  You’ll sometimes hear “something wa… pause… something ga… pause.. something ni… pause… verb”.  Not always, but it lends itself to that cadence, and one that I don’t think exists in English.  Another, I think, is that it makes it very hard to interrupt someone until the sentence is finished, because it’s a lot harder to figure out where they’re going with it until you have the verb.  The sentence doesn’t progress, it kind of simmers as you get more and more of the information that you need, and then it snaps together at the very end.

But, I think, once you can internalize this, the rest is, quite literally, just semantics.

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