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.
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.
- Some Japanese Vocabulary Relevant to Video Games
- Tricky Japanese terms: さすが
- Tricky (or at least often mishandled) Japanese terms: やっぱり (also やはり)
- Tricky Japanese terms: 一応
- Misleading Japanese phrase: とてもじゃない
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...
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. .
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.
- Very formal. The sort of thing you ought to use around deities, emperors, CEOs.... Because you have to choose words fairly carefully in these situations, I've only used this symbol with words that I'm almost positive are polite enough, and not when I'm only pretty sure. Whenever possible, I'm replacing this symbol with the next two, which are more precise.
- Humble (modest), very formal. Use these words in very formal situations when referring to yourself (or your family, business, or other group of people you belong to, when talking to someone not from that group and thus effectively acting as a representative), to be appropriately modest.
- Respectful (honorific), very formal. Use these words in very formal situations when referring to others (especially higher-ups and people you don't know well), to bestow honor and show respect.
- Normal formal. This is what they generally teach you first in classes because you can use it in almost any situation. It's not excessively polite, but not likely to offend anyone either. It can work in casual situations as well, but it may sound rather stiff then, or even rudely distant.
- Casual. The kind of thing that's likely to be used among friends, or when speaking to someone of lesser status (subordinates, children, etc.). Generally to be avoided in more formal situations, but even then it's definitely preferable to....
- Blatantly Rude. Avoid unless you want someone to get mad at you. I list words that are in this category because they do exist and because it's the kind of thing that's fairly common especially in fiction.
- Fairly formality-neutral. Implied when no symbol is used.
- Unknown. These are words I've definitely seen or heard used, but I'm not sure how (im)polite they are.
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.
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:
- Feminine, generally used by females. Often "cute" words.
- Masculine, generally used by males. Often "rough" words.
- Fairly gender-neutral. Implied when no symbol is used.
- Unknown. These are words I've definitely seen or heard used, but I'm not about how they fit into this.
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.Back to top
These attach to the end of names. The result is frequently used where "you" would be used in English.
|(no suffix)||May be acceptable in casual conversation|
|君||くん||kun||More often used with boys' names than girls'|
|様||さま||sama||Very polite, comparable to "Lord", "Lady", or "Sir"|
|氏||し||shi||Written language, used with family names, comparable to "Mr." or "Mrs."|
|先生||せんせい||sensei||Teacher, doctor, (instructional) master|
"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||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||Familiar and somewhat cutesy, more often used with girls' names|
|-||ちん||chin||Seems to be a variant of ちゃん|
|殿||どの||dono||Archaic and respectful, often used now to address letters.|
|-||はん||han||A variant of さん used mostly in southwestern dialects.|
- When you know a person's job or social title, this is often appropriate to use as a name suffix, or even by itself.
- ちゃん (chan) may also be used with a shortened form of the name, which makes it even cutesier, like Ukyo calling Ranma らんちゃん (Ran-chan).
- Name-suffixes are not normally used with one's own name, as it sounds arrogant. The exception is that ちゃん (chan) and its variants, which don't express respect, are occasionally used, normally to sound cute.
- Using a name-suffix that is not respectful enough is impolite, and ちゃん (chan) in particular can be used as an insult.
- Any of these may also be used with nouns in general, particularly those that refer to people.
Question Words and Related Pronouns
|何||なに or なん||nani or nan||what|
|何者||なにもの||nanimono||who, what kind of person, "Who goes there?"|
|彼処 (uncommon)||あそこ||asoko||over there|
|何故 (uncommon)||なぜ||naze||why, how|
|如何して (uncommon)||どうして||doushite||why, how|
|如何||いかが||ikaga||how, in what way|
|如何 (uncommon)||どう||dou||how, in what way|
|-||こう||kou||in this way, like this|
|-||そう||sou||in that way, like that|
|-||ああ||aa||in that way, like that (can be somewhat derogatory)|
|彼れ (uncommon)||あれ||are||that 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||donna||what kind of, what sort of|
|-||こんな||konna||this kind of, this sort of|
|-||そんな||sonna||that kind of, that sort of|
|-||あんな||anna||that kind of, that sort of (can be somewhat derogatory)|
|何方 (uncommon)||どちら||dochira|| which way, which person|
|此方 (uncommon)||こちら||kochira||this way, this person|
|其方 (uncommon)||そちら||sochira||that way, that person|
|彼方 (uncommon)||あちら||achira||over that way, that person over there|
|何方 (uncommon)||どっち||dotchi||which way|
|此方 (uncommon)||こっち||kotchi||this way, me|
|其方 (uncommon)||そっち||sotchi||that way, you|
|彼方 (uncommon)||あっち||atchi||over that way, you/him/her/them|
|何奴 (uncommon)||どいつ||doitsu||which person, which thing|
|此奴 (uncommon)||こいつ||koitsu||this person, this thing|
|其奴 (uncommon)||そいつ||soitsu||that person, that thing|
|彼奴 (uncommon)||あいつ||aitsu||that person over there, that thing over there|
|此方 (uncommon)||こなた||konata||this person (uncommon)|
|其方 (uncommon)||そなた||sonata||you (archaic)|
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.
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" (∃).Back to top