SOV Madness

Introductory guides to Japanese grammar love to talk about word order in Japanese.

Read this in your best professor voice:

Languages like English are ordered Subject-Verb-Object. So we say something like "I ate pancakes."

In Japanese, however, sentences are ordered Subject-Object-Verb. So they say "I pancakes ate."

Next time you have a conversation in your native language, try to blink every time you say the subject of a sentence. Then try again for the verbs of your sentences, and finally the objects.

Unless you're a lot smarter than me, you'll find that this is very hard to do. Your brain is not good at identifying parts of speech while you're also busy making sentences and moving the many muscles required to create comprehensible sounds. So, how in the world do you plan to do that in Japanese?

If you're expecting me to now introduce some amazing alternative to studying word order in Japanese, you're out of luck. Let's just not dwell on this topic for too long. You'll learn to arrange the words in your Japanese sentences naturally over time. Trust me.

Oh, also, more often than not, a Japanese person will just say "pancakes ate":

パンケーキ食べた。
パンケーキ たべた。
I ate pancakes.
Literally: "pancakes + ate."

(↑The translations and phrasing of that sentence would change depending on a number of factors, all of which we'll get to in due time.)

Your Japanese teacher might have a panic attack if she sees me teaching the above sentence, because I dropped the "object-marking particle." Do you remember which particle that is?

を! !

So the full sentence is:

パンケーキを食べた。
パンケーキ を たべた。
I ate pancakes.
Literally: "pancakes + を + ate."

I take that back. The full sentence is:

私はパンケーキを食べた。
わたし は パンケーキ を たべた。
I ate pancakes.
Literally: "I + は + pancakes + を + ate."

The above sentence is a great example of why I find it odd that books and blogs put so much focus on the SOV stuff. The subject isn't even appearing in that sentence! It's not appearing in the casual, natural-sounding version we saw first, and it's not appearing in the final, textbook-friendly version including 私は and the particle を.

But isn't the subject 私 (わたし), since it means "I"?

We're going to have some long and likely confusing discussions about this later in the course, but I suppose I can give you a preview of my explanation as to where the subject of this sentence has disappeared to. We're getting into some opinion-laden explanations here, so keep in mind that other people might take issue with the way I explain this...

We have two options for determining what the subject of a Japanese sentence is:

  1. Saying the subject is always the word before が.
  2. Saying the subject is never explicitly stated in a Japanese sentence.

These two explanations of subjects in Japanese sentences overlap a bit, and they differ in slight ways that I probably shouldn't get into. I go back and forth on which approach is better and easier to understand. Here, let's play with the "が always marks the subject" idea.

Here is our sentence:

私はパンケーキを食べた。
わたし は パンケーキ を たべた。
I ate pancakes.
Literally: "I + は + pancakes + を + ate."

Where's ?!?!?!

As is often the case with pieces of Japanese sentences, our subject is not stated because it is clear from context. We can infer that the full sentence in the English sense of what constitutes a full sentence, is the following:

私は( I が)パンケーキを食べた。
わたし は ( I が) パンケーキ を たべた。
As for me, (I) ate pancakes.
Literally: "I + は + I + が + pancakes + を + ate."

In case you were wondering, no, Japanese people don't randomly insert English pronouns like "I" into their sentences. ^_^

Rather, this example is just for illustrative purposes. We're going to look at these ideas about unspoken subjects and particles and whatnot in an upcoming lecture. For now, let's go back to our SVO versus SOV discussion.

Now that we've got all of the parts of our sentence assembled, we can talk about the structural differences of English and Japanese sentences.

I ate pancakes.
Subject Verb Object
I ate pancakes
(I が) パンケーキ (を) 食べた。
Subject Object Verb
(I が)
(I)
パンケーキ
pancakes
食べた
ate

Is your head hurting yet?

Mine is. Let's go learn some stuff we can actually use. We can relive this grammar nightmare in another section of this course.




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