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

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.

Comments (4)

Ken • Posted on Sat, December 18, 2010 - 3:04 pm EST

I guess the ‘probable’ form is their subjunctive?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, December 18, 2010 - 3:16 pm EST

Good question. According to the above-mentioned grammar book, this “probable” form (also known as the “presumptive mood”) “has no exact equivalent in English, although it is important in Japanese. It enables speakers to use a verb form that can express probability, belief, or intention without being too direct. The mood has two sets of forms, one indicating probability, the second indicating intention.” There is no listing for subjunctive in the book’s index, even though I see indicative, conditional, imperative, etc.!

Ken • Posted on Sat, December 18, 2010 - 3:19 pm EST

Interesting that it splits off into two forms.  But still, it’s sounding an awful lot like subjunctive, which as you know, most English speakers don’t realize English even has.  Though, I would hope the author of a book like this would know that. :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, December 18, 2010 - 3:24 pm EST

Yeah, I agree, though timidly, because I feel I am treading on very unfamiliar ground with Japanese. The authors of this book inspire a great deal of confidence, fortunately; I think theirs is one of the best books I’ve used to date for this project.

Post a Comment