Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lesson 1: Grammar, Syntax and Nouns

Obviously languages function in a certain way so that their speakers can communicate. In English our basic syntax is SUBJECT VERB OBJECT, as in "The cat drinks the milk." In Japanese, the syntax is SUBJECT OBJECT VERB; ミルク飲みます. However, a grammatical particle must be used, in the cases of English and Japanese to show how the subject, object and verb relate to each other. In English, we use the for this purpose. "The" is a definite article allows use to specify a particular subject and item. The verb too allows us to identify a single milk-drinking cat, so conjugation is also important.

In Japanese, there is a lack of definite articles, a pluralization of nouns and conjugation of plural verbs as well as no separate future tense makes this sentence vague; it could become "the cat drinks the milk," "cats drink milk," or even "the cats will drink milk." So what are we to do?

In the case of nouns, we have a system of numbering related items by type. For instance, cats are small animals, so they have a distinct counting word which can also be used for all small animals. That is to say, things like cats and dogs would have a different counting word than cars or boats. This system is not used as often as one might think; it's only used when the number of a noun needs to be specific.
Occasionally the suffixes like -たち will be used. たち (tachi) means "group" and again, is generally used when a specific group needs to be defined. 猫たち would mean "the group of cats," although using just 猫 would be sufficient to imply cats as a whole. Saying 私たち (watashitachi) would be an acceptable use as it sets apart ME (私) and my group (たち), or simply "we."

Verb conjugation in English is difficult because the verb has to agree with number and tense: I drink, I drank, I will drink, I do not drink, I did not drink, I will not drink, You drink.... etc. Japanese's basic verb conjugations are Present/Future Positive, Present/Future Negative, Past Positive and Past Negative: 飲みます, 飲みません, 飲みました, 飲みませんでした. These conjugations also account for I, you (singular and plural), he/she/it, we, and they.

Now, to reflect the parts of speech, we use post-positional particles. In other words, the particle after the word tells us what its doing in the sentence. は shows us the subject or topic of the sentence. Interestingly, a Japanese sentence does not require a subject; so long as the topic has been introduced and hasn't been changed, we can omit it: 猫はミルクを飲みます。一杯を飲みました。太っています。The cat drinks milk. (It) drank a lot. (It) became (and remains) fat; or even (It) is fat. Our direct object particle を, in this case shows us our direct object (what is affected by a verb) and usually goes before a transitive verb (a verb that needs a subject and an object to work).

Hopefully this was enlightening, and I'm going to be editing and adding to this and all posts constantly.

猫 - neko - cat(s)
ミルク - miruku - milk
飲みます - nomimasu - (will) drink (polite)
私 - watashi - I/me (polite)
私たち - watashitachi - We/us (polite)
飲みません - nomimasen - will/do not drink (polite)
飲みました - nomimashita - drank (polite)
飲みませんでした - nomimasendeshita - did not drink (polite)
は - wa - topic/subject particle; sometimes translated as "Speaking of..." or "As for..."
一杯 - ippai - a lot (of a liquid); literally "one (cup, spoon etc) full"
太っています - futotteimasu - to get (and remain) fat
を - (w)o - marks a direct object taking a transitive verb; the "w" isn't usually pronounced

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary

The Kodansha Kanji Learner's Dictionary
Edited by Jack Halpern
1999, Kodansha International
ISBN 978-4-7700-2855-6
$39.99 US, but can be found as cheap as $24 and change

I have nothing bad to say about this book, save it was expensive when I bought it, but it is worth every penny. This dictionary is easy to use, fairly portable and contains 2200+ kanji. The SKIP system employed by the dictionary could not make it easier to find a character, and each entry has several examples per reading of a given kanji. Just browsing the book makes for an interesting read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review: Japanese Step by Step

Japanese Step by Step:
An Innovative Approach to Speaking and Reading Japanese
Nishi, Gene
2000; McGraw-Hill
ISBN 0-658-01490-0
$16.95 US (a new edition will be published soon at $12.00)
New edition pictured; Image from Amazon

I bought this book about 2 years ago and it remains a favorite. I absolutely adore Nishi's code for conjugation, which simplifies the process of conjugating mentally on the fly. His clear, practical and concise explanations are practical and easily bring the student to an intermediate level of grammar. And the index for counters and numbers is a rich resource for the beginning and advanced student.However, vocabulary is somewhat lacking; although it possesses one of the richest compendiums of verbs that I've ever seen, as well as a large index of counter-words,the lack of a comprehensive noun glossary makes this book a little less than adequate for it to remain a core text for self-study.Still, this book is great for a beginner, or if one already knows some Japanese from travel/phrase books and are looking to take the next step without enrolling in a course, or don't want to tackle a textbook.