December 6, 2010 | Japanese
The Verb Plot Thickens
I was foolishly optimistic.
Today I learned that my initial euphoria over Japanese verbs was misguided.
There I was this afternoon, sitting in a café, casually reading along in the same grammar book I have alluded to previously (Master the Basics: Japanese), when I came across this unexpected bit of news: “The Japanese use different sets, or levels, of verb forms, depending on the politeness requirements of the situation, and the relationship among the speakers. For non-Japanese, using the different politeness levels correctly takes a great deal of experience with the Japanese language and culture.”
I Love This Upper West Side Sushi Place, But I’m Hungry Five Minutes After I Leave
The writers go on to explain that the two most common levels are “plain” and “polite,” which are what they focus on in the book. But if those are the two most common levels, of course that means there are others that are less common lurking about.
The whole thing kind of undermined the joy I had felt upon hearing there was a single present tense form, single past tense form, etc. Fine, there may be a single present or past tense form within a given level—but if there are multiple levels, then there are also multiple forms.
And while it’s nice that you don’t have to worry about number and person, you instead have to worry about other stuff, starting with whether you picked an initial dictionary form (that’s what they call the form you find in Japanese dictionaries; it’s a generic form but not quite an infinitive, and is probably not worth explaining at this point, especially since I am not qualified to try) that is polite enough for a given situation.
Trying to figure out whether I am being polite enough for a given situation causes me anxiety.
Besides having to learn the present and past tense forms for each of the levels, you must also memorize a negative form for each of those (no, you can’t just throw in a “not” as in English), and apparently also a “probable” form, whatever that is, and who knows what else may show up along the way.
There is not a future tense, I have been informed by the book’s authors, Nobuo Akiyama and Carol Akiyama. So that’s good. Just past and present. But it sounds as though past and present alone could keep me busy far, far into the future.