Every now and then I’ll hear someone say that Japanese is pretty straightforward. I’ve said that a couple of times, and in limited contexts, it’s true. The rules are pretty clear, and most of the time if you follow them you’ll do okay.
See the catch in that sentence? “Most of the time.”
Let me enumerate the ways in which Japanese is NOT straightforward.
- Rendaku. It’s so complicated that a guy made Lyman made a law about it. That only mostly applies.
- Yomikata. Kanji readings are for the most part predictable – there is usually one kun-yomi and one or two mainly used on-yomi. But most kanji seem to have the occasional exceptional reading that you can only really learn by trial and error.
- Verb conjugation. It is rather straightforward in one sense – but there are several verb classes, two irregular verbs, exceptions to one of the classes, and the conjugation for the other class requires a lot of memorization.
- Modifiers. There seem to be an endless number of modifiers that you can stick at the end of or in a sentence that change its meaning, sometimes subtly. These aren’t really particles, there’s modifiers that change the meaning of a sentence. Speaking of…
- Particles. I’m not even sure English has the concept. In English, the function of particles is performed by context. Japanese spells it out. Except for when they don’t. An entire sentence can be said using one word, if you know the context it’s said in.
- Politeness language. There are several levels of politeness language in Japanese, and you are expected to know when and to whom to use it.
- Pronouns. Here in America there is this huge battle over pronouns – who gets to tell who which ones to use. I imagine that’s confusing in Japan – most of their pronouns are somewhat rude to one degree or other. Again, most of the time. And I wonder what American far-left authoritarian types would do if the language they used didn’t even bother with pronouns most of the time. On balance, maybe a good thing. Google translate almost always gets Japanese wrong when it comes to pronouns because it cannot figure out context.
As you get more familiar with the language, these things become… not less of a concern, per se, but you get used to them. Which, to me, is a tragedy in itself – who in their right mind would get used to this mess?
But then… I can’t really say a whole lot about that, considering English is probably worse in many ways. At least they have a really robust “alphabet” (in the form of kanji). We have 26 letters, 15,000 syllables, and are not afraid to use any of them. And we have quite a few more vowels and they change sounds based upon context, very much like rendaku, I think, just supercharged. So I guess English isn’t straightforward either. No less a tragedy that I was raised with it and am used to that, too, I suppose. Oh, to have a nice, simple language that most people spoke.
I have a mind that is geared towards linguistics and I’m usually pretty good at choosing the right words at the appropriate times. It is frustrating to be learning a language where not only do I not know the rules, I don’t even know which rules I don’t know. But I guess that’s what keeps me busy.