General Vocabulary

I don't have a large number of actual vocabulary words here, and that's because you can look them up more easily in dictionaries. There are any number of hardcopy J-E E-J dictionaries available, and several online, including Jim Breen's WWWJDIC.

You could also try Yahoo's BabelFish or Google Translate for translating sentences, paragraphs, and even webpages, but computerized parsing of Japanese is usually so bad that it's more useful for a few quick laughs than for actual translation. It's even worse if you try translating one way and then translating the result back. Not that I'm making fun of them (quite); I'm actually rather impressed that the results are halfway understandable most of the time. And, of course, they're free. The WWWJDIC also has a text translation function, but that just picks out words and gives the dictionary entries for them, without even attempting to digest the grammar or decide which of multiple possible meanings is appropriate.

More recently, I've been using Goo's dictionary function. The Japanese to English and English to Japanese functions are good, with generally excellent definitions, but relatively limited vocabulary. The best part about it, though, as far as I'm concerned is the Japanese to Japanese dictionary. It's more trouble, since the definitions need to be translated too to be useful to a non-Japanese speaker, but it knows an incredible number of words and phrases, usually gives usage examples and synonyms, and often lists derivation and explains nuances too. You also need to be able to enter, or at least copy/paste, text in Japanese characters to use it, but it's well worth the trouble when investigating uncommon words and more obscure meanings.

Blog Entires

On the other hand, I have been dropping a few vocabulary-related entries onto the blog, so it couldn't hurt to look there, and feel free to send in requests for future entries if you have something that deserves some attention. Here's a list of relevant entries as of the most recent update to this page.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Plurals

Japanese hardly ever makes a distinction between singular and plural, so 鳥 (tori), for instance, can mean either "bird" or "birds", depending on the context. After all, does the distinction between "one" and "not one" really matter all that much, especially when a plural could as easily mean two million as two? It makes at least as much sense to just say how many there are when it does matter, and not bother with plurals at all otherwise.

Linguistically speaking, Japanese nouns act as mass nouns (as opposed to count nouns), in that they remain unchanged regardless of number and require numerical classifiers to specify a particular amount. These classifiers are most often called "counters" in English, even though the English equivalent is typically called a "unit". English has a few mass nouns of its own, such as "equipment", "knowledge", and "water", so this is not an entirely unfamiliar concept.

The exception is that pronouns referring to people will normally have an explicit plural (usually adding 達 (tachi) or 等 (ra) to the end) when referring to more than one person. This is one situation in which the distinction between one and several can make a big difference, particularly when referring to ideas, opinions, and feelings. The lack of a plural "you" in modern English ("y'all" doesn't quite count) is one of its larger failings in my opinion. It's a shame that "ye" fell out of use...

Pronouns

While verbs and some adjectives generally conjugate when used (see the grammar section for more on that), pronouns have the same form regardless of their function in the sentence (subject, direct object, possessive, etc.), so they don't have any of the I/me/my/mine nonsense like in English. There's usually a particle involved instead. However, formality and gender typically do affect word choice, so there are quite a few ways to say, for example, "me". Refer to the personal pronouns page for more. .

Formality

How formal, respectful, or polite your language is tends to matter more in Japanese than in English. Here are some formality indicators I use here and there on this site to give a rough idea of where terms fit on the spectrum.

The formality levels given are approximate. Different sources may list different or more levels, or classify some things differently. From what I can tell, there aren't really set levels of formality anyway; it's more of a continuous slope. It's just that some things are more polite than others and it depends on the situation which are appropriate. My symbols are merely intended to give a general idea of how formal or casual something is. Any question marks mean that I'm not so sure about it.

Gender

While, of course, nothing outright forces people to choose words based on their gender, there are strong social tendencies and definite gender-based patterns in word choice, particularly in personal pronouns. A male using typically female language will sound strange at best, as will a female using male language (though perhaps less so). Where appropriate, words have been flagged with the following symbols:

Again, these are tendencies rather than rules, so don't be shocked by exceptions. In particular, women seem to be increasingly likely to use traditionally masculine language in recent years.

Honorific 御 (ご, go, or お, o)

Certain words usually have, and many others at least occasionally have, 御 (also written ご or お as appropriate) tacked on to the beginning to increase politeness or bestow honor, especially when talking about someone else. Some words almost never appear without their honorific prefix, such as お茶 (o-cha, green tea). Others vary, with women having a greater tendency to use it when optional, as well as it appearsing more often in more formal situations.

If you can't find a word in a dictionary, try dropping (where applicable) or adding ご (go) or お (o) at the beginning.

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Name Suffixes

These attach to the end of names. The result is frequently used where "you" would be used in English.

Kanji Kana Romaji Usage
(no suffix) 34 May be acceptable in casual conversation
くん kun 3 More often used with boys' names than girls'
さま sama R Very polite, comparable to "Lord", "Lady", or "Sir"
- さん san 2 General purpose
shi 2 Written language, used with family names, comparable to "Mr." or "Mrs."
先生 せんせい sensei R2 Teacher, doctor, (instructional) master
先輩 せんぱい senpai 2 "Senior", used to address upperclassmen, more experienced coworkers, etc.
The converse term, 後輩 (kouhai), is not normally used as a form of address.
- たん tan 34 Seems to be a variant of ちゃん
- ちゃま chama ? A hybrid of さま and ちゃん that conveys both respect and intimacy.
- ちゃん chan 34 Familiar and somewhat cutesy, more often used with girls' names
- ちん chin 34 Seems to be a variant of ちゃん
殿 どの dono 2 Archaic and respectful, often used now to address letters.
- はん han 2 A variant of さん used mostly in southwestern dialects.
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Question Words and Related Pronouns

KanjiKanaRomajiEnglish equivalent
なに or なんnani or nanwhat
だれdarewho
何者なにものnanimonowho, what kind of person, "Who goes there?"
何時 (uncommon)いつitsuwhen
何処 (uncommon)どこdokowhere
此処 (uncommon)ここkokohere
其処 (uncommon)そこsokothere
彼処 (uncommon)あそこasokoover there
何故 (uncommon)なぜnazewhy, how
如何して (uncommon)どうしてdoushitewhy, how
如何いかがikagaR how, in what way
如何 (uncommon)どうdouhow, in what way
-こうkouin this way, like this
-そうsouin that way, like that
-ああaain that way, like that (can be somewhat derogatory)
何れ (uncommon)どれdorewhich
此れ (uncommon)これkorethis
其れ (uncommon)それsorethat
彼れ (uncommon)あれarethat over there
何の~ (uncommon)どの~dono...which ..., whose
此の~ (uncommon)この~kono...this ..., my
其の~ (uncommon)その~sono...that ..., your
彼の~ (uncommon)あの~ano...that ... over there, your, his/her/its/theirs
-どんなdonnawhat kind of, what sort of
-こんなkonnathis kind of, this sort of
-そんなsonnathat kind of, that sort of
-あんなannathat kind of, that sort of (can be somewhat derogatory)
何方様 (uncommon)どちらさまdochira-sama R who
何方 (uncommon)どちらdochira which way, which person
R where
此方 (uncommon)こちらkochirathis way, this person
其方 (uncommon)そちらsochirathat way, that person
彼方 (uncommon)あちらachiraover that way, that person over there
何方 (uncommon)どっちdotchi3 which way
此方 (uncommon)こっちkotchi3 this way, me
其方 (uncommon)そっちsotchi3 that way, you
彼方 (uncommon)あっちatchi3 over that way, you/him/her/them
何奴 (uncommon)どいつdoitsu3 which person, which thing
此奴 (uncommon)こいつkoitsu3 this person, this thing
其奴 (uncommon)そいつsoitsu3 that person, that thing
彼奴 (uncommon)あいつaitsu34 that person over there, that thing over there
何方 (uncommon)どなたdonataR who
此方 (uncommon)こなたkonatathis person (uncommon)
其方 (uncommon)そなたsonatayou (archaic)
貴方 (uncommon)あなたanatayou

You've probably noticed that many of these words fall into sets, with a question word starting in ど (do, a "nearby" こ (ko, a "distant" そ (so), and an "elsewhere" あ (a). I've seen two different explanations for the difference between こ, そ, and あ, depending on the situation. For the sake of example, we'll use この (kono), その (sono), and あの (ano).

The first scenario occurs when referring to something that is both tangible and present. In this case, この refers to one near (or held by) the speaker, その refers to one near (or held by) the listener, and あの refers to one not near either the speaker or the listener. To give a more concrete example, if I'm at a bookstore with you, a book on the shelf in front of me would be この本 (kono hon), one that you've picked up to look at is その本 (sono hon), and one over in the aisle is あの本 (ano hon).

The other scenario occurs when referring to information or anything that is not physically present. In this case, この again refers to one associated with the speaker, either as something the speaker is familiar with but the listener is not, or as something not present that belongs to the speaker. その again involves the listener, either as something the listener is familiar with but the speaker is not, or as something not present that belongs to the listener. あの gets somewhat more complicated; basically it refers to something not present that both speaker and listener are familiar with. For an example, let's say we're talking about incidents that have happened. If I'm telling you about something that happened to me, or something I know about but you don't, it would be この事件 (kono jiken). If I'm asking you about one that happened to you, or one that you know about but I don't, it would be その事件 (sono jiken). If we're talking about an incident that we both know something about already, but happened to both or neither of us, we would call it あの事件 (ano jiken).

In some situations, using an あ term instead of a そ term can be rather derogatory. I think it's something like talking about someone as though they weren't there.


Indefinite Pronouns

Many question words can add the も (mo) particle, after nearly any other particle that applies, to mean "all of" whatever the question word refers to. 誰も (dare mo) means "everyone" (though 皆 (minna) is more common), 何時も (itsu mo) means "always", etc. When used with a negative verb, they instead become more like "none of" (though really the negative is in the verb). 誰も食べない (dare mo tabenai) means "no one eats" (or "everyone doesn't eat"), and 何もない (nani mo nai) means "there is nothing" or "[I] have nothing". Note that 何も (nani mo) is almost never used except used with negatives—全て (subete, all) and 全部 (zenbu, entire) often come up where "everything" would appear in English. 誰も (dare mo) is typically used with a negative as well.

Similarly, many question words can add the か (ka) particle, before any other particle that applies, to mean some member of whatever category the question word refers to. どこか (doko ka) means "somewhere", 何か (nani ka) means "something", and なぜか (naze ka) means "somehow" or "for some reason".

If logic is your thing, it should help to think of も as a "for every" (∀) and か as a "there exists" (∃).

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