湿る vs 濡れる Shimeru vs Nureru – the wet kanji

What is the difference between 湿る shimeru and  濡れる nureru?

The answer here is very simple. (Become) damp vs wet.

湿る shimeru shows ⺡– “water” falling on the ground and being sucked up by the 日– “sun”. The kanji is often used for atmospheric moisture, but it can refer to anything damp or somewhat wet, as opposed to really soaked.

The main on-reading of 湿る shimeru  is shitsu. You want to know this as it appears in a lot of compounds like 湿度 shitsudo – “humidity level” and 湿気 shikke – “humidity, dampness”.

Note that in 湿気 shikke  the つtsu of しつshitsu is replaced by っsmall-tsu to become しっけ shikke. This is absolutely regular and happens almost all the time when a つtsu is followed by an unvoiced consonant in making a compound word.

So remember that damp things shimmer. And you can think of damp sheets shimmering on the washing line for both kun and on readings.

濡れる means wet. Like soaking. You see there is both ⺡– “water” and 雨 – “rain” and also a 而 – “rake”. Why a rake? Well, it is that kind of wet that if you just raked the ground the grooves turn into little rivers.

If you need a mnemonic, just remember to keep new rare things out of the rain, or they will get soaked and ruined.

What about the on reading(s)? Well, unlike 湿, 濡 does not have many on-compounds that are much used. Most compound words use the kun-reading. So I really wouldn’t bother about the on-readings at the learning-the-word stage*. This is one of the reasons why blindly learning on-readings from lists is inefficient and wastes a lot of time.

Note that both 湿るshimeru and 濡れるnureru have transitive すsu-versions: 湿すshimesu and 濡らすnurasu. If you know the First Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will find this entirely predictable and know exactly what they mean!


*Note: It isn’t necessary or recommended to learn on-readings when learning kanji organically as words, but these articles are primarily intended for tying together and clarifying the main points of words/kanji you already know. Of course if you learn them for the first time here – ♪bing-bong-BONUS

Mastering Transitivity Pairs – Remembering Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs the easy way

transitive-intransitive-verbs“There are no hard-and-fast rules to Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs. You just have to learn them on a case-by-case basis”. This is the conventional wisdom on the subject. Another huge bunch of random facts that you “just have to learn”.

We got rid of most of the “random facts” in grammar by showing how logically the whole language fits together in Unlocking Japanese. An evening with that little book gives you a shortcut through the thickets that take most learners years to master, just by showing how Japanese really works.

Can we do the same with transitivity pairs? To a large extent we can. There are a lot of Google searches for “Japanese transitive and intransitive verb worksheets”. Worksheets! You don’t need worksheets, for heaven’s sake! You need some good information!

So let’s get started!

Transitive and intransitive verbs – what they are

We’ll start off by looking very quickly at what transitive and intransitive verbs are, because some people get confused and mix up intransitive with the so-called “passive” (it isn’t really passive. See Unlocking Japanese, Chapter 7).

As is often the case, the Japanese terms for transitive and intransitive are much clearer than the English ones. The word for “verb” is 動詞 doushi, which means literally “move word”. A word for an action. And the words for transitive and intransitive verbs are

自動詞 jidoushi – self-move word (intransitive)

他動詞 tadoushi – other-move word (transitive)

In English “dance” is an intransitive verb because it is a self-move word. We say “I danced”. We can’t say “I danced Jane”. It describes self-movement, not a movement done to someone or something else.

“Throw” is a transitive verb. We can say “I threw a ball”, but we can’t just say “I threw”. It is an other-move verb and has to have an object.

“Eat” and “sing” can be transitive or intransitive. I can “eat bread” or I can just “eat”. I can “sing a song” or I can just “sing”.

In Japanese we sometimes use a different form of the verb for the transitive and the intransitive (the other-move and the self-move) version of the action.

But by no means always. The examples given above, “eat” and “sing”, work just the same in Japanese as in English. The transitive and intransitive forms are the same.

But there are various pairs like

負けるmakeru – “lose”

and

負かすmakasu – “defeat” (lit. “cause-to-lose”)

where the transitive and intransitive forms are different. And as you can see, rather than being an unnecessary bother they are often a gift. English learners have to learn “lose” and “defeat” as two quite separate words. In Japanese, if you understand makeru, you can understand makasu. Especially when you understand the simple rule that makes one clearly transitive. The rule that I call “the First Law of Japanese transitivity”.

So let’s go right ahead and meet the Three Laws.

The Three Laws of Japanese transitive/intransitive verbs

Aru and suru are the two most basic verbs in Japanese. As you know, they mean “be” and “do” respectively.

Their sounds are used in many ways to indicate that a verb is closer to the “being” or the “doing” end of the scale.

For example, the so-called “passive conjugation” ends in areru/rareru, which has its roots in aru, while the causative ends in aseru/saseru, which has its roots in suru.

Can you guess which side of the scale transitive and intransitive (other-move and self-move) verbs respectively fall on?

Yep. You guessed right. So you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that the First Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

All verbs ending in すsu are transitive verbs. Whether they have an intransitive “pair” or not.

Su-ending verbs are based in suru. They are transitive.

The eru→asu transformation seen above in makeru→makasu is a very common pattern which you already know from

出るderu – “come out”→ 出すdasu – “take out”

There are other patterns such as

落ちるochiru – “fall” 落とすotosu – “drop”

Some are a bit irregular, but that doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if it ends in it’s transitive.

Here is the Second Law:

Verbs ending in aru are intransitive

As you would expect! Aru-ending verbs are based in aru – “be”. This means not just ある-ending words, but words ending with any kana in the あ-row + る.

The most regular pattern here is arueru

上がるagaru – “rise” → 上げるageru – “raise”

下がるsagaru – “descend” → 下げるsageru – “cause to descend”

重なるkasanaru – “lie stacked or piled” → 重ねるkasaneru – “(to) stack or pile”

There are many, many pairs that conform to this pattern. A few have a different pattern, such as

包むkurumu – “wrap” → 包まるkurumaru – “be wrapped”

Again, it doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that if a version ends in aru, it is intransitive.

The Third Law of Japanese Transitivity is:

-u→-eru flips transitivity

As we know, so-called “conjugations” that end in る change a word from whatever it was before into an ichidan verb (sometimes called a ru-verb) – the most basic type of verb, with a different meaning.

This also happens when we flip transitive and intransitive verbs with u→eru. Whatever ending the verb originally had, its final character becomes the え-row equivalent and る is added.

Or in Romaji terms, the final u is removed and replaced by eru.

It is now an ichidan (ru) verb meaning the opposite (in transitivity terms) of what the original verb meant.

The problem here is that (unlike the arueru pattern of the Second Law) this ueru ending can flip transitivity either way. So we don’t immediately know which half of a transitivity pair the –eru version is.

However, there are some tricks that can help us.

Untangling the other Japanese transitivity pairs

There are a few sub-rules that make the “others” much easier.

〜む-mu → 〜める-meru flipped pairs – The honorary 4th Law
The 〜める-meru version is always the transitive verb

There are a lot of these mu→meru pairs. So many that we can almost regard this as an honorary Fourth Law.

I recommend having one example in your mind as a reference-point, such as

痛むitamu – “hurt” (be in pain) 痛めるitameru – “hurt” (cause pain)

The same is true for bu→beru and tsu→teru. The –eru (flipped) version is always transitive. Remember that b is sometimes interchangeable with m in Japanese (as in sabishii/samishii) so they often work in the same way. Unlike mu→meru, there aren’t a large number of these two.

〜せる-seru versions are always transitive
Some pairs have a 〜せる-seru-ending version, such as

乗るnoru – “get onto, ride on” → 乗せるnoseru – “put onto”

This せるseru is a close relation of するsuru and always marks the transitive verb.

This actually covers most of the possible endings. What we are left with is

く、ぐ ku, gu → ける、げる keru, geru

u → えるeru

and る-ru-ending verbs that don’t fit either of the first two Laws.

For these, unfortunately, there are no general rules. They can flip either way. And there are quite a few of them. So the “gotta learn ’em all” school might seem to be around 20% right.

But wait. There is more we can do. We can apply the Basic Concept “rule”.

The Basic Concept “rule” for Japanese Transitivity pairs

For those transitivity pairs that don’t fit any of the above rules, we can use the Basic Concept “rule”, which is less hard-and-fast but actually quite intuitive as you become more familiar with Japanese by immersion.

Remember that –eru flips a verb from intransitive to transitive or vice versa. In other words, one of the two is the “base verb” and the other is the “flipped version” (actually the Japanese themselves tend to look at the extended eru-ending as an auxiliary verb, which I think makes things clearer).

Let’s take some examples:

売るuru – “sell” → 売れるureru – “be sold” (sell as in “sell like hot cakes”)

It is pretty clear here that the base concept is the act of selling (transitive) and that being-sold (intransitive) is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

Conversely, with:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

It is pretty clear that the act of obeying or accompanying (intransitive) is the fundamental idea and that compelling obedience or being accompanied is the extended or “eru-flipped” version.

This method is more “feeling-based” and less hard-and-fast than the other rules, but it works easily and intuitively a lot of the time once you have some immersion experience.

And that is precisely why am a little dubious of things like transitive/intransitive worksheets. What will really give you the feel for how words work is meeting them and making friends with them in real contexts, not learning them from lists or worksheets.

The rules I have given here are essentially “force multipliers”. They make it far easier to grasp quickly what the words are doing. That is why I use and recommend them. But they don’t substitute for making real friends with the real words in the real world (whether that “real world” be an office in Tokyo or a fantasy anime).

Also, learning from lists and worksheets that this or that word is “transitive” or “intransitive” may in fact give a false idea of what the words actually do.

Let’s go back to our last example to explain that:

従うshitagau – “obey, follow, accompany” → 従えるshitagaeru – “subdue, be accompanied by”

Shitagau is the “intransitive version” of the verb. The (J-E) dictionaries mark it as intransitive. The grammar books call it intransitive…

But wait! In English it would be mostly transitive, wouldn’t it? You obey someone, follow someone, accompany someone, don’t you?

But on the other hand shitagaeru is thought of as “more transitive” than shitagau because you are causing someone to shitagau. Surely this is closer to “causative” than “transitive”.

And there are a lot of so-called “transitivity pairs” like this, that actually have no real relation to the Western concept of grammatical transitivity.

The moral of this is, don’t take these Western-imposed grammar terms too literally. Sometimes they fit perfectly, other times they don’t really fit at all when you examine them closely.

If you think in Japanese terms and call them self-move verbs and other-move verbs the whole thing is much clearer. In obeying, following or accompanying someone, you are moving yourself, not that other person. In subduing or being accompanied, you are moving (or causing the action of) the other person.

In truth what Western textbooks call the “transitive verb” of a pair really means “the more suru-like version” and what they call the “intransitive verb” is the more aru-like version. Sometimes this corresponds exactly to Western notions of grammatical transitivity and other times it doesn’t at all.

Understanding this and developing the feeling of real Japanese by immersion makes the Basic Concept “rule” much more effective and intuitive, and puts the whole concept of Japanese “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs into the correct Japanese perspective rather than an artificial Western-textbook one.

How to learn transitive and intransitive verbs

If you want to learn by the immersion-based approach advocated by this site, how should you approach learning “transitive” and “intransitive” verbs?

Don’t try to learn lists of transitivity pairs. That doesn’t serve any very useful purpose. Build your core vocabulary organically, but you will encounter transitivity pairs naturally in the course of this.

Do bear in mind the Three Laws and other rules. Especially, you will soon start noticing: “Ah yes, this word is the transitive すsu-version of that word”. “広がるhirogaru? Yes, that must be the intransitive aru-version of 広げるhirogeru.” You will begin to notice eru-flipped versions and start to get the instinct that meru-versions just feel like other-move verbs.

I recommend keeping one simple “Exhibit A” example of each Law in your mind (such as 出る / 出す for the First Law). This is much easier than remembering it purely as an abstract rule.

By all means leverage the two-for-one advantage of putting both versions on an Anki-card when the opportunity arises, (you may even want to check for a “partner” if a word sounds like, say, the –aru,su or -meru  half of a pair) but bear in mind that if a word is one of those eru-flips not covered by the Laws, your head may be clearer for knowing one of them before you get to the other.

I have used the terms “transitive and intransitive verbs” in this article because they are the usual ones that you find in the textbooks, but also bear in mind that they can’t be taken literally about half the time.

If you are starting to think in Japanese, or even if you aren’t, there is a lot to be said for using the correct words, jidoushi and tadoushi – self-move and other-move words. Because that is what they actually are, and the less you clog up your Japanese with cast-offs from foreign grammar the more easily you will understand it.

A Key to Increasing Your Japanese Vocabulary

increase japanese vocabularyVocabulary is a major task in any language. There are just so many words! But Japanese – viewed through Western eyes – has more words than most languages. Between twice and three times as many as English.

Does that make for a completely overwhelming task? Not when you understand how it really works.

In Unlocking Japanese, you learn how Japanese is a modular language. It doesn’t work like Western languages, and when you try to explain it in Western terms (the way the textbooks do), it seems full of strange, arbitrary “rules” and “exceptions” that you “just have to learn”.

But actually Japanese is far simpler and more logical than Western languages and you can learn in an evening the basic principles that underlie and eliminate 90% of the “arbitrary rules” and “exceptions” and make Japanese crystal clear.

Of course, there is not a “magical solution” like Unlocking Japanese in the case of vocabulary. There is a lot to learn. Learning core vocabulary organically helps a lot. But another important step to increasing your Japanese vocabulary is to realize that the vast number of Japanese words found by comparing the main Japanese dictionaries to their English equivalents actually creates a degree of misunderstanding. Japanese vocabulary isn’t that excessive, and learning the basic principle can help bring order to some of the apparent chaos.

What is the “secret” principle here? Actually it is very similar to the secrets that unlock grammar. Japanese, unlike English, is a modular language, and its vocabulary is modular, rather like its grammar.

The huge profusion of Japanese words comes from the fact that the very concept “word” is different in Japanese and English. Japanese has “words” for things that in English are regarded as two or three words.

For example, “(the) dog I love”, “goods returned to the store”, “new goods”, “new car”, “(the) car I love”, “the 〜 I prefer to use” and many other elements that are phrases in English are called “words” in Japanese.

But they aren’t words in the sense that they are new sounds specially made for these compound concepts. They are in fact built from simple kanji that (if we are at the stage of learning this kind of vocabulary) we already know.

Almost always they use the on-readings of these kanji, and despite the bewildering variety of on-readings you will find in the dictionary for some words if you try to learn them raw (non-organically), those on-readings are usually in fact very consistent and predictable.

Making friends with the Sound Sisters will help a lot in handling and remembering on-readings, making it a lot easier to increase your Japanese vocabulary.

So let’s look at some of the examples I just gave:

愛犬 ai-ken – the dog (I) love, (his) beloved dog
Ai is love. Ken is the regular on-reading of inu – dog

愛車 ai-sha – the car (I) love, (her) beloved car
sha is the regular on-reading of kuruma – car

新品 shin-pin – new goods
Shin is the regular on-reading of atara(shii) – new
Hin is the regular on-reading of shina – goods. The hi always becomes pi when next to ん.

新車 shin-sha – new car

返品 hen-pin – returned goods (or the act of returning goods)

愛用(の)〜 ai-you (no)〜 – (the) one uses regularly / loves to use
you is the regular reading of 用 – usage, business

You see the pattern here. Part of the problem lies in regarding these words as separate pieces of vocabulary. Actually shinpin (new goods) or shinsha (new car) are no more single words than they are in English. They are sets of two very regular and understandable verbal elements that could just as easily be called words.

Japanese does not have word-breaks for a reason. The barriers between “words” are much less clear-cut than in English. If you read Japanese school grammar textbooks (as opposed to Japanese grammar textbooks intended for foreigners), you will be surprised to find that sentences are broken down into various elements with names like tango and bunsetsu, which cut right  through the barriers of what the textbooks and dictionaries teach as “Japanese words”. The concept of the “word” (kotoba) as the basic building block of a sentence – as in English – is largely absent.

There is no need to learn about this, however, in order to take a fresh approach to increasing Japanese vocabulary. Once you understand the modularity of words, you can start to hear and read many “new words” just as easily as you can read a new combination of English words when you know the words that make it up.

For example, I recently heard the word 店名 tenmei (name of a/the store). I couldn’t see the kanji, but it was still quite obvious what they were:  ten, the regular on-reading of mise (shop, establishment) and mei/myou, the regular on-reading of na(mae), name.

This extends to longer, multi-kanji words too. For example,

海水 kai-sui – seawater
Kai is the regular on-reading of umi – sea
Sui is the regular on-reading of mizu – water

From there we find natural compounds like

海水温 kai-sui-on – temperature of the seawater
On is the regular on-reading of the atatakai that means “warm (thing)”

海水魚 kai-sui-gyo – seawater (as opposed to freshwater) fish
gyo is the regular on-reading of sakana – fish

海水浴  kai-sui-yoku – seawater bathing
yoku is the regular on-reading of abi(ru) – bathe

and just from these last two we may be reminded of other regular words that use the same elements, such as

人魚 nin-gyo – mermaid (person-fish)

漁船 gyo-sen – fishing boat
Sen is the regular on-reading of fune – ship, boat

入浴 nyuu-yoku – taking a bath (lit. entering the bath)

Nyuu is of course the regular on-reading of hai(ru) (enter) and is used in countless words such as

入学 nyuu-gaku – entering a new school or university

You can see all these as “words” if you wish, or you can see them as a very efficient approach to building set-phrases or collocations. It doesn’t really matter, except that as in my tenmei example above, it can be psychologically useful to see the elements of a “word” as something closer to words in themselves.

The reason for this is that instead of thinking “a new word to learn” you handle it just the same way as you handle “the dog I love” in English. You know “dog” and you know “love” and you don’t have to worry about the combination as if it were a new and separate problem.

The trick of hearing (or seeing) word-elements in the way that you see English words comes with time and familiarity. But it comes more quickly when you grasp the modular nature of the vocabulary to begin with.

Whether you want to put these combination words in your Anki can be decided on a case-by-case basis according to whether it will help you to increase your Japanese vocabulary. I sometimes do, not because I need to “learn the word” in the ordinary sense, but because I want to familiarize myself with the existence of that particular combination. Other times I don’t because it doesn’t seem necessary.

I also sometimes enter set phrases into Anki when it seems a useful idea. And the distinction between the two – the whole question of where “word” ends and “phrase” begins – is one that hardly needs to be asked and can in fact do more harm than good.

Just let it be fluid and allow your own sense of the language and its structure to develop. That way your Japanese vocabulary will increase naturally.


Further reading:

How to Build a Core Japanese Vocabulary the Organic Way

Meet the Sound Sisters (shortcut keys to on-reading pronunciation)

Learn Japanese Through Gameplay – Megami Meguri

Can you learn Japanese through playing games? Well, the right games can certainly help a great deal. And this week saw the launch of one of the best games for the purpose. And even better – it’s free!

The game is called めがみ めぐり Megami Meguri, which could perhaps be translated as Goddess Tour (though I don’t think any translation really captures the spirit of the title).

From the language-learning perspective, the most interesting things are that it is almost fully-voiced and it involves teaching human language (i.e. Japanese) from the ground up to a new-born Goddess who knows almost nothing.

The game uses artificial intelligence and the “Megami Speak Engine”, an artificial voice synthesis system developed by Capcom and Toshiba, using Toshiba’s voice synthesis engine, ToSpeak G3, as its base. The Megami Speak Engine is used in Megami Meguri by having the character make use of user-input words to converse in a near natural-sounding synthetic voice.

In fact, talking is a major part of the game. As the senior Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, advises at one point:

話して、話して、話しまくることじゃ
Hanashite, hanashite, hanashimakuru koto ja (=da)

The makuru auxiliary verb has been explained as “to do with reckless abandon”. The meaning here could be rendered as “talk, talk, talk ’till you drop”. Because by talking, learning new words and learning all about you, your heroine grows and develops.

This means that you are spending a lot of the game interacting in Japanese and developing the character of your fledgling goddess. Her appearance and voice are your constant companions. And fortunately, since her language-learning process is not really naturalistic (this is entertainment after all) you can’t actually teach her wrong Japanese. She will develop correctly in the language. And in fact, despite not knowing the names of many simple things, she is really quite competent in Japanese from the start.

The game has essentially two overall aims, both concerned with developing the heroine as a person (or rather goddess). One is to develop the relationship between yourself and your heroine through conversations with her, the information you give her and the things you tell her about yourself. The other, as expressed by Amaterasu, is

人間に関する知識は重要だ
Ningen ni kansuru chishiki wa juuyou da
Human-related general knowledge/common sense is of great importance.

This is interesting for those who want to learn about Japanese culture as well as language. “Human-related knowledge” means in fact “Japan-related knowledge”, just as “human language” is Japanese.

You are in fact raising an intelligent and functional person who is nonetheless like a small child in relation to things Japanese – rather like you at the start of your Japanese self-immersion.

You will be traveling all over Japan. In fact, you can visit every one of the 9000+ railway stations in Japan!

Nearly everyone in Japan is a little bit of a 鉄 tetsu (railway enthusiast), and more than other countries, the railway system does still feel like the main arteries of the country. If you have spent time in Japan, just hearing the names of railway stations makes you feel natsukashii (nostalgic).

Traveling to different places you also learn about their special foods. Again, the Japanese are very interested in the 名物 meibutsu or special product of each area – usually food. You can barely mention Kobe to anyone without the subject of beef coming up, for example.

You will be learning about a lot of other things too. Things Japanese people mostly know already, but love to celebrate, presented in a way accessible to people who don’t know these things, because that is what the heroine of the game is.

And you will be learning about Japan, not only in Japanese but through Japanese eyes – learning the things that are salient to the Japanese soul, rather than the perspective of the foreign tourist (or even the foreign “otaku”).

I very much doubt if this game will ever come to the west. It is far too Japan-centric. And if it ever did, far more even than most things, it would be localized out of existence.

Pros and cons of Megami Meguri

I am not going to list pros and cons separately, as one person’s pro may be another person’s con and vice versa. But here are my thoughts.

The voice used by the heroine of Megami Meguri isn’t perfect. Actually it does sound pretty natural in intonation, and the limitations in sound production just make her seem a little nasal/muffly, which actually suits her naïve personality. Everything she says also appears as text onscreen, so understanding is not a problem. In fact she is quite understandable anyway.

There are no furigana in this game, so if you need them that could be a problem. Just about everything the heroine says is voiced, but the explanatory commentaries of Amaterasu are not. There is some good voice-acting for other characters, but not always, so if kanji are a sticking-point the game might not be ideal for you. On the other hand, there is a lot of voiced text.

3D seems to be unused. I don’t know if it will be employed for some effects, but so far I haven’t seen any. Some people don’t seem to like 3D and even turn it off, but I love it, so I found this a small disappointment.

Building a relationship with a virtual character is really the central point of this game. To me this is very important. I actually downloaded a demo of Konami’s LovePlus some time ago. I really liked the idea, though as a doll I wasn’t too interested in playing a boy or having a “waifu“.

This game seems to be doing what LovePlus does, only for a broader audience and with the huge enhancement of having your virtual partner actually talk to you.

The game is free-to-play. The business model relies on in-game purchases, but I don’t think you are ever forced to make any in order to continue. Of course, as you get more involved you may end up tempted into doing so!

It is easy to download if you have a Japanese 3DS. If you haven’t, I can only say that getting one is one of the best immersion investments you can make. People complain that 3DS is region-locked, and while I understand the complaint, from a self-immersion point of view, being locked into Japan is no bad thing, and fortunately it doesn’t lock you by the region you are in but by the region your 3DS comes from.

Obviously Megami Meguri isn’t a game for the absolute beginner, but as a supplementary immersion strategy it has some really important advantages.

Dolly Dialogs – Japanese output: communicating in Japanese

Japanese output: how to communicate in japaneseCure Tadashiku: You have always said that in order to learn Japanese you need to use Japanese, and that means communicating in Japanese, not just having massive input of anime, novels and such.

However, learners seem remarkably loath to do that. You’ve discussed the reasons for that, but the fact remains. How do you suggest tackling it?

Cure Dolly: That’s right. Well, look, if people don’t want to communicate in Japanese, that’s their affair. Many people spend endless time on English-language Japanese forums. Essentially, if that’s what they want to do, if that’s where they get their fun, who am I to complain?

I don’t think it is a good use of time if you really want to learn Japanese (rather than learn about Japanese), but all I am here for is to offer my advice. After that it’s up to the individual to do what she wants to do.

Cure Tadashiku: But you have tried to make ways for people to use Japanese – notably the KawaJapa Forums and now the new Line Group. You seem to be especially interested in the latter at the moment.

Cure Dolly: I think the problem with the Forums has been essentially a critical mass problem. Because only a minority of Japanese learners seem to want to (or reach a level where they can) interact in Japanese, the demand for such a forum is not high, which presumably is why there aren’t other all-Japanese learners’ forums online.

It is quite possible that once people do reach a high enough level, if they are actually interested in using Japanese they move on to online interaction with actual Japanese people, as you and I have done. However, I still think there might be a place for interaction with other second-Mothertongue speakers, partly as an easy entry for beginners (interaction beginners, not Japanese beginners) and partly because we do have things in common that we might want to discuss (which is why there is such a lot of English-language forum activity).

A rather bigger site than ours started such a forum a while back and abandoned it from lack of participation. Ours keeps going in a quiet way, but the problem is that someone comes, is quite enthusiastic, but because not many people are there, understandably moves on. Occasionally a small community starts to form, but it will only be two or three people, so when one of those people gets busy or goes on vacation or something the group dissolves. We don’t reach a critical mass where an active self-sustaining community is formed.

The Forum still works well in its quiet way. We have quite a few visitors per day and it rarely stays quiet for more than a day or two. But it hasn’t reached critical mass.

Cure Tadashiku: So what about the Line group. Do you think it can break this pattern?

Cure Dolly: We’ll see. I think there is a chance that it could. Line interaction is more casual. You can post a picture, say a word or two, share a link. You can have real-time chat if people are there, or slow-motion chat if they aren’t. Importantly, it doesn’t need many people. It is a format ideally suited to a small handful of participants. It may grow, but it doesn’t require critical mass in the way a Forum does.

Cure Tadashiku: So might it eventually replace the Forums

Cure Dolly: Probably not. They work differently and the two may end up complementing each other. A Line group is not an ideal medium for laying out ideas in detail or having an in-depth discussion. Those things want their own thread and a more permanent location. People may well do that on the Forum and link to it from the Line group. We’ll have to see how it all evolves.

Cure Tadashiku: It is certainly an interesting experiment and I have to salute your tenacity in an area where no one seems to have made a lot of headway!

Cure Dolly: You’d be welcome to join the group too you know (-o⌒)

Cure Tadashiku: I don’t have a keitai, and honestly I am less involved with non-native Japanese speakers (as well as non-Japanese speakers) these days. So I guess I am part of the problem. I think there are those Japanese learners who really want to stay based in English, and conversely those who really move into Japanese and out of the foreign-learner circuit altogether.

Speaking of which, how do you see your future in these terms? I know you want to become a writer in Japanese eventually. I know you thought you would never do another English book and then you did Unlocking Japanese.

So where do you see yourself going in the long-to-middle-term? Will you continue to support the Forums, Line group etc? More broadly, will you go on blogging in English? Do another book in English?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Really I don’t. A community may form via the Forums and Line group(s). If so, I guess we may grow together. So far the Line group is attracting people who are pretty darn serious and really want Japanese as a second Mothertongue, I think. That being the case we are likely to grow in Japanese together and stay friends in Japanese.

As to the rest, I did Unlocking Japanese because I realized that I (with the help of you and others) had discovered some really important things about Japanese that no one else has ever put into English – things that can be extremely helpful to Japanese learners. In some ways they revolutionize Japanese learning. For that reason I felt I had to do a book. I would have been failing in a duty not to lay out these discoveries in usable book-form.

I continue to discover more so there may be another book at some point. For the present I continue contributing to this site. I don’t guarantee to do it forever! I really am not that interested in working in English, but I do want to help people tread the same path. I want to share what we have learned. But, yes, there is probably a limit to that.

Cure Tadashiku: So if people who are not dedicated second-Mothertongue people want to join the Line group?

Cure Dolly: Absolutely welcome. So long as people are wanting to interact in all-Japanese we are happy to welcome them. At some point, if it all expands, we may form different groups. If it doesn’t expand, that’s fine too.

Cure Tadashiku: Thank you.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

Links

KawaJapa Line Group
KawaJapa Forums
Unlocking Japanese

KawaJapa Japanese Learners’ Line App Group

japanese-learners-line-groupWe are happy to announce that we have a new group on the Line messaging application for readers of this blog, members of the KawaJapa Forums and Japanese learners in general.

We engage in casual text conversation, sometimes real-time, sometimes not, and some of us play online Japanese games like Pigg Party or synchronize meetings in Doubutsu no Mori.

We are happy to welcome new members. The only rules are, be polite and courteous and only use Japanese.

This is not a group for beginners. You must be able to function at least minimally in Japanese. It is a kind, supportive group, so it’s fine if you are a long way from perfect (none of us is perfect), but if you need to use English for some things, you need a different group.

There are endless resources online for people who want to “play Japanese” in English, and very, very little for people who actually want to use Japanese (it seems not many people do!), so we try to fill that gap.

The Line group is one way of expanding your “Japanese life” in a supportive group that is perhaps a gentler entry-point than native Japanese online locations.

If you want to join, please contact me, Cure Dolly, via the KawaJapa Forums, or the Dollygram (my address is on all Dollygrams, including the introductory one. Just hit Reply).

Or you can just use the comment box below.

Please write in Japanese. There is no test to join the group other than that, but if you can’t write a little note in Japanese, the group would not be of much use to you. Don’t worry, it isn’t an essay – a one-line yoroshiku will be fine!

Once in the group, you are free to interact as you like or just watch. The only reasons we would ever eject anyone is for being rude or unkind to other members, expressing hentai, cruel or hateful things, or using English.

Looking forward to hearing from you and making a new Line friend!

Interview on Line App group and Japanese communication in general→

Moshi Moshi – what does it really mean?

meaning of moshi-moshiEveryone knows that “moshi moshi ” is what Japanese people say when they answer the telephone.

But what does it really mean?

There is a legend that kitsune (shape-shifting fox-spirits) cannot say “moshi moshi ” , so if someone answers with that phrase, you know she must be a real human being – or at least not a kitsune.

However, that isn’t where the phrase comes from. It is actually a contraction/doubling of the word 申す mousu, which is the humble form of 言う iu – “say”.

So “moshi moshi ” is really a polite, humble way of saying “speaking, speaking” or “I say, I say”.

Moshi moshi is not only used on the telephone. It can also be used to call someone’s attention in person. Kind of like saying “Is anyone home?” when someone doesn’t seem to be listening.

The pronunciation of moshi moshi varies somewhat, so it can come out sounding like

moshmoshiii

or

moshimo-osh

Other places we often find the mousu of moshi moshi are in phrases like

(私は)メアリーと申します
(Watashi wa) Mary to moushimas
My name is Mary

What this literally means is “(I am) said Mary” – a bit like the French je m’appelle Mary (I call myself Mary).

The usual way of saying this would be

(私は)メアリーと言います
(Watashi wa) Mary to iimasu

which also means “(I am) said Mary”. By using moushi-masu instead of ii-masu you are turning it into something like “humble little me is said Mary”. You use this on more formal occasions, like meeting your Japanese boss for the first time.

Another common place we find the moushi of moshi-moshi is in the expression:

申し訳ありません
moushi-wake arimasen

which the dictionaries often translate as “I’m sorry”.

A Japanese beginner once wrote to me

びょうき で もうしわけ ありません
(in grown-up Japanese: 病気で申し訳ありません)
Byouki de moushi-wake arimasen

What she meant was “I’m sorry you are sick”.

But what moushi-wake arimasen literally means is something like “there is no excuse I can humbly say”.

It does of course mean “I’m sorry” but not the “I’m sorry” of “I’m sorry you’ve been sick” – well, not unless your bad cooking was to blame for it.

Dictionaries, like textbooks, can be confusing!


Ever wondered what these words really mean?

Urusai, Yurusanai, Oishii, Yatta, Yokatta

Just click one to find out now!

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Unlocking Japanese – a breakthrough in how we learn the language

unlocking-japanese-cover800Cure Tadashiku: Unlocking Japanese isn’t just another book about Japanese. It is a breakthrough in how people can learn the language.

Cure Dolly: Thank you. It’s kind of hard to say that sort of thing about your own work. Everyone thinks her book is important, after all.

But I do think that objectively we have done something here that badly needed to be done and has never been done before.

And that is, simply to explain what Japanese sentences mean, rather than what they would mean if they were English sentences.

By doing this we can cut out endless confusions and false complications. We can cut out all kinds of apparent “exceptions” and things you “just have to learn”.

Japanese is very, very regular and fundamentally a surprisingly simple language. But you do need to look at it through its own “Japanese” eyes, not through the eyes of English.

Cure Tadashiku: And that is where all the standard textbooks go wrong.

Cure Dolly: That’s right.

Cure Tadashiku: Because they are trying to make things simpler for their readers in the early stages?

Cure Dolly: Partly that, but mainly because up to now there has been no model for understanding Japanese that doesn’t lean heavily on English and European grammatical concepts. These concepts don’t fit Japanese well, so they create all kinds of unnecessary complications. By looking at Japanese as Japanese we can cut through most of them quickly and easily.

I suspect that not only does European grammar not fit Japanese, but the fact that early interpreters of Japanese grammar to Europeans were using methods related to European languages also created an expectation of and tolerance for a lot of irrational exceptions that you “just have to learn”. Because European languages really are full of them. Japanese isn’t.

European languages really do have pages and pages of irregular verbs that don’t work the same as other verbs. Japanese famously has just two irregular verbs – kuru and suru – actually a few more if you count minor irregularities, but very few. And that regularity continues throughout Japanese even in places where Europeans have been unable to see it up till now.

Most European languages other than English have “grammatical gender” which calls every object in the world masculine or feminine (some languages, like German, have more than two genders). These genders add nothing whatever to our understanding of the word, but every one “just has to be learned”.

So  when Europeans tried to explain Japanese in terms of European grammar and found places that don’t fit or that are plain irrational, they said “Oh, these must be arbitrary rules you need to learn. All languages are full of those.” But all languages aren’t full of them. Japanese isn’t.

If we understand Japanese as Japanese, it is very, very regular. The problem is that there has been no model up to now for explaining Japanese as Japanese.

Cure Tadashiku: The model wasn’t entirely your doing, was it?

Cure Dolly: No. I owe a huge debt to Dr. Jay Rubin whose work introduced me to some key concepts on which this book is built. What we have done is to take the implications of what he taught and expand them much further.

Rubin-sensei showed how every Japanese sentence has a grammatical subject, whether you can see it or not, how the wa particle never marks the grammatical subject (even when it might appear to), and how the invisible subject works. All this is explained in I Am Not an Eel.

Progressing from I Am Not an Eel, we can draw many other conclusions that follow logically. For example, the fact that there is not only always a subject (which may be invisible) but also that it is always marked by the ga-particle (though obviously that may be invisible too).

From here we are in a position to solve many of the apparently exceptional problems of Japanese. We can see things like what a logical particle is, why the so-called “passive” isn’t actually passive at all and works just like the rest, and why “conjugation” isn’t actually the right word for much of what gets called “conjugation” in the West.

This, for example, solves the problems contained in sentences like

クレープが食べたい
Creepu ga tabetai
usually translated as “I want to eat crepes”

Which have led one very prominent writer to state that there is no grammatical subject in Japanese, which essentially destroys our ability to understand the language.

Even without going so far as this writer, I would say that most learners are confused about how particles work by these apparent illogicalities. And particles are the lynchpins of the language. Misunderstanding them gives the whole language a foggy “voodoo” feeling – essentially because it is being explained as if it were a European language when it isn’t.

In fact there is nothing illogical at all about these sentences – or much else in Japanese – once you can actually see how it works. It all runs in a beautifully understandable and predictable way, all the time.

I know these issues sound a bit complicated when I try to put them briefly here…

Cure Tadashiku: But it isn’t complicated. That’s the whole point. It is the European approach that gets complicated. In the book you explain it very simply, step by step, with very little special terminology. I think anyone can pick up the basis of Unlocking Japanese in an evening, and that evening will be paying off for the rest of one’s Japanese life.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

Cure Tadashiku: But to ask a tougher question: what would you say to someone who asks, “But how can you say you’ve got Japanese right when everyone else has gotten it wrong?”

Cure Dolly: Put simply, I don’t think there is any such thing as “right” or “wrong” in grammar. Grammar isn’t a set of rules by which people speak. It is an attempt to describe what is happening when they use (a particular) language.

European grammar isn’t “wrong” when applied to Japanese. It is just not the most efficient way to describe it and it creates artificial exceptions.

So the test of any model for describing Japanese is “how well does it work?” What we have done in Unlocking Japanese is provide a model that works very regularly and throws up almost no exceptions as compared to the “Europeanized” model.

That is because we were looking at Japanese on its own terms and not as if it were “English gone a bit wrong”. Whether this is the “correct” model is,  I think, a meaningless question. The point is that it works more efficiently and leads us to seeing Japanese as far as possible from within, rather than through foreign glasses.

It’s a bit like riding one of the first bicycles that had no gearing (that is why the front wheel was so huge) and then a geared bicycle. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong. It is that one has looked at the other one, seen where it was inefficient, and found a way to do the job better.

That’s what is meant by a breakthrough and why I think we really can call this book a breakthrough.

Cure Tadashiku: So do you think Unlocking Japanese will eventually revolutionize Japanese learning and teaching in schools and elsewhere?

Cure Dolly: I don’t know. Dr. Rubin’s work has been quite influential, but I don’t think it has actually revolutionized teaching. The textbooks don’t, for the most part, take his ground-breaking insights into account. We have gone a lot further in Unlocking Japanese, so perhaps we have even less chance of being taken up on a general basis.

I do think, because what we do in Unlocking Japanese actually, and quite unarguably, works, that it will become more widespread over the next decade or so. Whether it will force open the ironbound doors of academia, I don’t know. That wasn’t really my aim (though it would be nice).

My aim was to provide a clear and easy path for self-learners (and others) into the beauty and simplicity of Japanese grammar.

I am not trying to replace grammar textbooks (though I have my own views on how to use them) but to give the “walkthrough” that makes real sense of them.

Cure Tadashiku: And that you have done.

Cure Dolly: Thank you.

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The warm kanji: 温かい vs 暖かい. What’s the difference?

As you probably know, the word あたたかい atatakai (warm) can be written in two different ways: 温かい or 暖かい. Is there a difference between them?

Yes there is, and actually it is a fairly obvious one, but I think it is a little less well known to learners than similar differences in other temperature-words.

Of course you know, unless you are a very early beginner, that there are two words for cold: 寒い samui, which means cold weather or ambient temperature, and 冷たい tsumetai, which means a cold object, cold hands, a cold drink etc.

You probably also know that there are two forms of あつい atsui (hot), which correspond directly to the two words for cold: 暑い (atsui with a double dose of sun) is hot weather or ambient temperature, 熱い (atsui with a fire under it) is a hot object.

So it isn’t too surprising to learn that atatakai does the same thing – though not quite as absolutely.

tsume-chan暖かい usually means warm weather or ambient temperature.  I see this one as 爪 tsumechan lifting her 友 friend into the warm 日 sunshine.

Oh – you haven’t met tsume-chan yet, have you? Some day I would like to do a book introducing my personal kanji-element characters.  Tsume-chan is the 爪 element – a happy UFO-catcher claw who rescues her friends from all kinds of danger. For example, she helps 子 childrenfloat when they fall in the 氵water.

ufo-catcherShe looks like a UFO because she works in a UFO Catcher when she isn’t out on rescue missions.

Anyway, enough of that. I do love my characters!

The only other thing to remember about 暖 is that its usual on-reading is dan, as in 暖房 danbou (interior heating) and 暖炉 danro (hearth fire).

温かい is more prone to mean a warm object, warm water etc. From the kanji, warm water might seem to be a primary meaning. It is easy to remember that the 日 sun warms water in a 皿 dish .

The on reading of 温 is on. Easy to remember if you think of 温泉 onsen (a warm-water spring or spa).

The two atatakai forms are not as absolutely distinguished as samui and tsumetai, and there is some crossover between them. 暖 especially seems to cross over into the area of things that warm the body, like a warm coat or a hot (i.e., warming) drink. It also seems much less used than 温 for metaphorical warmth (warm-heartedness etc), just as a cold-hearted person would be described as tsumetai, not samui.

While the two are not absolutely distinguished, if you bear in mind their general tendencies it will help you to use them in a natural-sounding way (for your own use you can treat them as equivalent to samui and tsumetai on the warm end of the scale) and to catch the nuance when you see them used.

Note that both forms of atata(kai) are used to make the two verbs atatamaru and atatameru. This is a regular maru-meru transitivity pair, so if you know the Honorary Fourth Law of Japanese Transitivity, you will know exactly what the words mean!

Kanji Distinctions – 初 vs 始 : Cloak ‘n’ Dagger vs the Lady on the Pedestal

kanjiThere are a number of words in Japanese that have the same pronunciation and roughly the same meaning but can be written with two or more different kanji.

In some cases the two are interchangeable, but often they have a subtle difference in implication and sometimes a distinctly different (though related) meaning.

I am going to be covering some of these over the next little while. So let’s begin at the beginning!

Hajimeru means “begin”. But it can be written in two ways:

始める

and

初める

Does it matter which one we use?

In this case, there is a distinct difference between the two. They both mean “begin”, but they mean it in different senses. Let’s look at them.

 

kanji初 – Cloak ‘n’ Dagger at the Beginning of Time

This one I call “cloak ‘n’ dagger” since it is made up of the kanji elements for clothes and sword.

It means begining in the time sense. The first time something is done or the beginning of something (in a time sense), for example:

初めは怖かった
hajime wa kowakatta
(it was) scary at first / (I was) scared at first

It is often used in the form hajimete, meaning “for the first time”. For example:

日本は初めてですか
nihon wa, hajimete desu ka?
Is this (your) first (visit to) Japan?

The construction actually makes more sense if we render it according to the system in Unlocking Japanese:

“Speaking of Japan, is this (your) first time?”

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Cloak ‘n’ Dagger sounds like an old show, doesn’t it? Useful to remember, because the on-reading of 初 is regularly sho, unlike 始, whose on-reading is regularly shi.

 

kanji始 – The Lady on the Pedestal, Starting to Act

始is made up of the elements 女 (female) and 台 (platform or pedestal).

This 始める refers to action rather than time. It doesn’t mean “the first time I did something” but “beginning to do something”, sometimes a subtle distinction, but quite definite. In

仕事を始めよう
Shigoto wo hajimeyou
Let’s start work

we are taking action. Work isn’t just “starting” at a particular time. We are actively starting to work.

Sometimes the two kanji can be used in similar circumstances, but 初 is always stressing the first time or beginning period of something. 始 is stressing taking action.

So when you see the lady mount the stage or pedestal, you know that she is always about to do something. And shi is also the regular on-reading for this kanji.

It doesn’t always have to be a person acting. It can be a thing. For example:

夜が明け始めた
yoru ga akehajimeta
Dawn began to break

Note that ga. As explained in Unlocking Japanese, it always marks the actor, the subject. Literally, the sentence means “night began to clear”, and night, the actor, is doing something. It is becoming light/clear. Thus the pedestal lady is the correct kanji.

Hajimemashite

So does it matter which one we use for hajimemashite? In my early days I used to write this one in kana because I could never quite remember.

Hajimemashite, sometimes vaguely translated as “pleased to meet you”, actually means “this is the beginning (of our acquaintanceship)”, so the correct kanji is 初 (cloak ‘n’ dagger, the time-beginner).

Armed with this knowledge you will have a clearer idea of the meaning of words using these kanji as well as a nearly-always-correct idea how to pronounce them in two-kanji on-reading words.

始 is very consistently shi, but remember that 初, while mostly sho, is sometimes hatsu, as in 初恋 hatsukoi (first love). People with cloaks and daggers often have hats pulled down over their eyes too!

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