The Japanese language (日本語 Nihon-go) is considered an extremely complicated language to an English speaker's ear. While certain concepts are simplified (very few real plurals, for instance), the grammar is switched around, and both the words and wording are often grounded in concepts that are either different or entirely external to the English language. And let's not even start getting into things like etiquette and connotation. Unfortunately, some of those concepts are required to understand the full depth of the original script in Japanese-language programming. Such issues are why translators and fansubbers have a "rough" and "not-often appreciated" job on their hands.
Among the various aspects of the language that may or may not have relevance to the foreign viewer are the following:
- Alternate Character Reading
- Anime Fan Speak
- Four Is Death
- Gender and Japanese Language
- Goroawase Number
- Gratuitous English In Japan and other foreign loanwords
- Green Is Blue
- It Can't Be Helped
- Japanese Dialects
- Japanese Honorifics
- Japanese Pronouns
- Japanese Ranguage
- Japanese Romanization
- Japanese Sibling Terminology
- Japanese Stock Phrases
- Japanese Writing System
- Kansai Regional Accent
- Keigo: In point of fact, levels of courtesy, politeness, and social rank are part of the language in almost all aspects of speaking and writing.
- One, Two, Three, Four, Go!
- Seven Is Nana
- Tohoku Regional Accent
- Unsound Effect: Some Japanese onomatopoeias are for things like objects or people being sparkling clean.
- Visual Novel Fanspeak
Some less prevalent, but useful concepts to know:
- Japanese verbs take two basic tenses, past and non-past. There is no future tense, so future actions either rely on conversational context or can be specified with time-related words (This is actually the same in English)
- Japanese has five vowels, of which four are more or less present in English as the tense 'a', 'i', 'o', and 'e'. The fifth vowel is an unrounded 'u' which forms at the same place in the mouth as English 'u', except that the lips are mostly unrounded. Furthermore, 'i' and the unrounded 'u' are subject to devoicing (which sounds to English speakers like becoming partially, but not completely, silent) between voiceless consonants such as p, t, and k. The good news is that this is much easier to actually pronounce than to write about.
- Japanese has a simpler syllable structure than English has. Interestingly, much of the educated vocabulary in modern Japanese was borrowed from Chinese (at various times); since Japanese has neither the contrastive tone nor the more complex syllable structure of the Chinese languages, many of these words are now homophonous in Japanese, where they would not be in Chinese. Humour based on this, such as puns and malapropisms, tends to be easier. This is especially true when noting that the kanji for words that sound the same can make the difference clear. A good example would be the title for Ai Yori Aoshi, which literally translates as "bluer than indigo" but is simultaneously a pun on ai, the word for love (an equivalent meaning would be "true blue love") and an allusion to the main character Aoi-chan.
- Japanese does not mark plural obligatorily - if someone were talking about "kimono", there would be no way of knowing if it were one garment, two garments, ten, or ten thousand, or even All of Them. Japanese does have associative plurals such as "-tachi", which can be added both to regular nouns and proper nouns, and means "and all the rest" (when used for proper nouns this is often translated as e.g. "John and his friends" or "John and his party"). There is also no way to indicate a group of X's in particular; "kimono-tachi" in Japanese could mean multiple kimonos or it could mean a kimono and a bunch of other clothing sitting next to itnote .
- That said, if it is important to distinguish between singular and plural, it is possible to simply add the number, e.g. "one kimono" or "ten kimono" to specify what you want. However, like a sizeable minority of languages out there (but unlike English), Japanese is a classifier language: each category of objects has its own "counter" word (like group, flock, fleet, etc. but for everything) that must be used with the actual number, and you have to learn every one. Examples include -nin (人) for people (3 people = sannin, 6 people = rokunin, though 1 person = hitori and 2 people = futari), -dai (台) for machines and vehicles, -hiki/-piki (匹) for small animals, -hon/-bon/-ppon (本) for long, cylindrical things, -mai (枚) for flat things, -satsu (冊) for books and magazines, -wa (話) for episodes, etc.
- As in many cultures, it is widely believed in Japan that you don't have direct knowledge of what other people are really thinking and feeling (and it's very presumptuous to assume otherwise). Correspondingly, it's uncommon to describe other people's thoughts directly, such as "He likes ice cream" or "She's angry". It's far more common to say "I heard that he likes ice cream" or "It seems like/It appears to be the case that she is angry" or "She is showing signs of wanting to go to the park." It is important to distinguish between information you know firsthand and information you've heard from another source.
- In Japanese, pitch accent can alter the meaning of the word. Ame, for example, can mean either rain or (hard) candy, depending on which syllable takes the higher pitch. However, the Kanto regional accent (the Tokyo accent) uses different pitch-accent than the Kansai Regional Accent. Context is (usually) the important key here. However, not having a good grasp of the pitch system won't lead to a faux pas - 'it's raining candy outside'note is a highly unlikely phrase in real life, after all.
- For the most part, if you can pronounce Italian or Spanish properly, you'll have a really easy time pronouncing Japanese.
- Japanese has no native "v" sound. Many speakers can pronounce [v], but since "v" is a foreign sound (used exclusively in loanwords) and "b" isn't, it's easier to replace instances of borrowed [v] with the far more common [b]. (Hence, the transformation of the Norse "Verdandi" into "Belldandy" in Ah! My Goddess, and the many cases of confusion between "Vulcan cannon" and "Balkan cannon.") This is why glyphs that indicate the consonant "v" only exist in the Katakana syllabary, and not in Hiragana.
- The fact that Japanese lacks the "L"/"R" sounds that English has is now the stuff of legend, of course. However, Japanese does have a flap, which is much more prevalent in the world's languages. (The American English 'r' is an rhotic alveolar approximate and is much rarer.) Many Japanese speakers have a retroflex flap; however, a non-retroflex flap is present in the phonetic inventory of (American) English, but it's usually written as "t," "d," or "dd" (e.g. "city," "ready," "pudding"). When you say the word "pudding" at normal conversational speed, without enunciating carefully, the middle consonant is the same as the Japanese 'r' (indeed, the word "pudding" is written "purin" in Japanese).
- While English verbs have different forms for tense and aspect, Japanese includes very specific verb forms encoding relative social standing of speaker and listener, and honorifics/humilifics. Person (first, second, third, etc.) is never grammatically marked on the verb, but can be inferred from all the other information.
- Trailing off at the end of a sentence and not saying something when the listener should understand it, or aposiopesis, is extremely common in (spoken) Japanese, especially following the conjunction "soshite" (which loosely means "and then").
- There are two ways of "alphabetizing" lists by phonetic readings. The modern order, gojūon-jun ("50 sounds order," though fewer than 50 sounds are actually used), is logical and proceeds first through the vowels (in order: [a, i, u, e, o]), then through the nine initial consonants ([k/g, s/z, t/d, n, h/f/b/p, m, y, r, w]note ), also in [a, i, u, e, o] order; though not in general use before World War II, gojūon-jun is in fact the older system, having been inherited from Sanskrit via Buddhist scriptures. The pre-reform system, iroha-jun, is much weirder and orders the characters according to a poem that uses each of them once (kinda like "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"); it gets its name from the initial 3 characters I, ro, ha ("ee", "row", "hah"), which translate as "as for the color." No one uses this system for much anymore, but the term iroha is still often used much like "ABC" in English.
- An example would be the Dojin created by the Genshiken crew. Its title is Iroha gokko, which could mean roughly "Playing at ABCs". However, "Iro" doesn't just mean "color". It also is used in a bunch of combinations to mean things like "sensual", or "sexy" (same character). "Playtime" is obviously a bit naughty (well it is a dojinshi).
- In Ranma ½, the sign on the wall of the Tendo Dojo reads "iroha", although it is sometimes shown in reverse in the anime.
- In Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE-, the heroes go to the country of Oto, which uses the first line of the "Iroha" poem to sort the demons according to their strength.
- Irohazaka, which shows up in Initial D, comes from "Iroha" and "zaka", the latter meaning "trail", from a series of distance markers along the original road which were Hiragana letters placed in the old alphabetical order. If the name was translated, it would be something like "Alphabet Road". The original is a scenic road in the famous resort town of Nikko, Tochigi prefecture, which leads from the Tokugawa Ieyasu's mausoleum in the foothills to the lake Chuzenji and Kegon falls up in the mountains. It has 48 (which is why they are marked by Hiragana letters) extremely tight hairpin turns that are extremely challenging to drift through and this is the reason for its inclusion into the Initial D franchise.
- Japanese does, contrary to popular belief, have "official" swear words, that is, words that in their basic, non-mangled forms are inherently offensive. An example is くたばれ (kutabare), which can translate out to such charming things as "fuck off" and "drop dead". This is, as one might guess, an inherently offensive word. However, most Japanese "swear words" are indeed mostly contractions, corruptions or manglings of other words that aren't inherently offensive (unlike most Western swears), which has led to the myth that the Japanese language does not have any "real" swear words.
- Note that some words that do literally translate to cuss words, for example "kuso," which literally means "shit", don't carry the same negative social baggage as they do in the US or the UK. In fact, anime aimed at children may say "kuso," "chikushou" or "shimatta" (which tends to be translated as "dammit"). The only words that Japanese publications must bleep out are related to genitalia.
- Japanese has a good bit of reduplication; there's even a character used to indicate repetition of the previous kanji (々). As such, you end up with words like 時々 "tokidoki" (sometimes, "time-time"), 黙々 "mokumoku" (mute, "silence-silence"), 中々 "nakanaka" (rather), 次々 "tsugitsugi" (one after another, "next-next"), or 我々 "wareware" (we, "I-I").
The Japanese language is a part of the Japonic family which includes the divergent Hachijō dialects (sometimes considered a separate language) and the Ryukyuan languages. The language family is traditionally considered independent although there were attempts to connect it Korean due to their grammatical similarities by placing both in the hypothetical "Altaic family" - this has been largely discredited as it is believed the languages only developed similarities as a result of areal features rather sharing a common ancestor. Some linguists have proposed that Japanese was related to the now extinct Gaya language from the Korean peninsula (which may have been Japonic instead of Koreanic like Baekje, Silla or Goguryeo were), Ainu (Ainu is generally considered a Paleo-Siberian language like Korean and the similarities are more likely due to the influence the dominant Yamato exerted on the Ainu), Sino-Tibetan (Japanese made some phonological shifts because of Chinese but the two are seen as unrelated in mainstream linguistics), and even Dravidian (as an extension of the Dravido-Korean hypothesis).
Newer research indicates that the Japanese language may actually be Southeast Asian in origin or a creole of a Northeastern Asian language superstratum imposed on a Southeast Asian substratum. A 2015 analysis using the Automated Similarity Judgment Program resulted in the Japonic languages being grouped with the Ainu and then with the Austroasiatic languages. Other Southeast Asian language families that have been suggested include the Austronesian and Kra-Dai languages. Some of this debate stems from the genetics of Yamato as they have an unidentified Southeast Asian component which means the Japanese people have more genetically in common with Southeast Asians populations than other East Asians like the Chinese or Koreans do.