What about は?

In the last lecture, we saw this sentence:

キリンは首が長いです。
kirin wa kubi ga nagai desu.
As for giraffes, their necks are long.
Literally: "giraffe + は + neck + が + long + です."

You'll see that I translated キリンは (kirin wa) as "As for giraffes." Like all Japanese particles, は (wa) is pretty versatile, so the following is not an absolute rule, but I have found that it is helpful to think of "X は" as meaning "as for X."

は is typically referred to as the "topic-marking particle." While が, they say, marks the subject of a sentence, は marks the topic of a conversation. This has always confused me. I think the reason is that the concept of "a topic" seems a bit elusive. I don't know what it means to "introduce the topic of a conversation." And I certainly don't understand why "the subject of a sentence" (marked by が) is not "the topic of a conversation" (marked by は).

Thinking of it this way may help: は is used to add context to a conversation. When you say "X は," it's like you're a cartoon character pulling a fat serving platter out of your pocket, saying "As for X." And the conversation, which may be one or several sentences long, then takes place on top of that serving platter."

That's why we can make the following awkward translations (with the subzero pronouns in parentheses):

私は(I が)ニコです。
watashi wa (I ga) niko desu.
Literally: "I + は + (I + が) + Niko + です."
Literal Translation: “As for me, (I) am Niko.”
Natural Translation: “I am Niko.”

これは(it が)ピザです。
kore wa (it ga) piza desu.
Literally: "this + は + (it + が) + pizza + です. "
Literal Translation: “As for this, (it) is a pizza.”
Natural Translation: “This is a pizza.”

ピザは(it が)美味しいです。
piza wa (it ga) oishii desu.
Literally: "pizza + は + (it + が) + tasty / delicious + です."
Literal Translation: “As for pizza, (it) is delicious.”
Natural Translation: “Pizza is delicious.”

彼女は(she が)日本人です。
kanojo wa (she ga) nihonjin desu.
Literally: "she + は + (she + が) + Japanese (person) + です. "
Literal Translation: “As for her, (she) is Japanese.”
Natural Translation: “She is Japanese.”

Rather than looking at how and when は is used, I think it is easier to understand by looking at how and when it is not used.

We have established that the particle は can introduce the topic of a conversation, yeah? And we have also established that "introducing a topic" equates to "adding context." Accordingly, we do not need to say "X は" when "X" is already understood from context.

Consider how the above sentences would change when they are the responses to questions....

(Note: With much hesitation, I am still including the subzero pronouns in parentheses, but we won't always do this throughout the course. The idea is to get a good grip on where the subzero pronoun would be if it were spoken. Perhaps this goes without saying, but in natural Japanese, the parts in parentheses would not be stated.)

(Another Note: The following dialogues contain language that we haven't covered yet. Technically, we haven't even covered asking questions yet. Please don't concern yourself with becoming able to make sentences like this just yet. We'll get there. For now, we're just trying to understand how particles are and are not used in Japanese sentences.)

名前は(it が)何ですか?
namae wa (it ga) nan desu ka?
Literally: "name + は + (it + が) + what + です + か?"
Literal Translation: “As for name, (it) is what?”
Natural Translation: “What is your name?”

(It が)ニコです。
(It ga) niko desu.
Literally: "(it + が) + Niko + です."
Literal Translation: “(It) is Niko.”
Natural Translation: “It's Niko.”

Using は in the answer to this question is unnecessary because the topic of the conversation, "name," has already been established. We just say:

名前は何ですか?
namae wa nan desu ka?
What is your name?
Literally: "name + は + what + です + か?"

ニコです。
niko desu.
It's Niko.
Literally: "Niko + です."


We can see something similar occurring in the following dialogues:

それは(it が)何ですか?
sore wa (it ga) nan desu ka?
Literal Translation: “As for that, (it) is what?”
Natural Translation: “What is that?”

(It が)ピザです。
(It ga) piza desu.
Literal Translation: “(It) is a pizza.”
Natural Translation: “It's a pizza.”


彼女は(she が)何人ですか?
kanojo wa (she ga) nanijin desu ka?
Literal Translation: “As for her, (she) is what nationality?”
Natural Translation: “What is her nationality?”

(She が)日本人です。
(She ga) nihonjin desu.
Literal Translation: “(She) is Japanese.”
Natural Translation: “She's Japanese.”


I'm about to use these words, so you might want to take a few moments to look them over:


watashi
I; me
Note: There are many ways to say "I" in Japanese. This one, while perhaps the most common, is primarily used in polite language. Both males and females can use 私.

マイケル
maikeru
Michael

アメリカ
amerika
(United States of) America

アメリカ人
amerika-jin
American (person)

学生
gakusei
student

英語
eigo
English (language)

教師
kyoushi
teacher; tutor

英語教師
eigo kyoushi
English teacher


Now, here are a few sentences using the "A は B です" formula we looked at in an earlier lecture:

(Note: We're ditching the subzero pronouns! If you're a nerd, try to guess what they would be.)

私はマイケルです。
watashi wa maikeru desu.
I'm Michael.
Literally: "I + は + Michael + です."

私はアメリカ人です。
watashi wa amerika-jin desu.
I'm American.
Literally: "I + は + American + です."

私は英語教師です。
watashi wa eigo kyoushi desu.
I'm an English teacher.
Literally: "I + は + English + teacher + です."

Now, those sentences are all fine in isolation, but they would sound very strange if you said them one after another. For example, this would sound very strange:

✕ 私はマイケルです。私はアメリカ人です。私は英語教師です。
watashi wa maikeru desu. watashi wa amerika-jin desu. watashi wa eigo kyoushi desu.
✕ I'm Michael. I'm American. I'm an English teacher.

↑ Any idea why that sounds strange?

Think about it. I'll give you a few seconds.

A...

few...

seconds...

It sounds strange because we don't need to include 私は in the second and third sentences. The topic/context, 私, is established in the first sentence. Since that topic is not changing, we don't need to repeat it in the second and third sentences.

Instead, we'd just say:

私はマイケルです。アメリカ人です。英語教師です。
watashi wa maikeru desu. amerika-jin desu. eigo kyoushi desu.
I'm Michael. I'm American. I'm an English teacher.

Imagine that you pulled a serving tray out of your bag, held it up, and spat a sentence on it, almost like you're saying, I present you with our next topic of conversation. (Say it in a fancy British accent.)

So yeah, the "serving tray" is は. It's where we put our new topics and show them to our guests (err, conversation partners).

In our sentence above, 私 is already on the は-serving-tray after we say 私はマイケルです (watashi wa maikeru desu). So there is no reason to bust out another は-serving-tray. We can just keep using the one we already have.

You're going to mess this up. And that's OK. No one cares if you mess up but you, anyway. (Your teachers are just pretending to care because they get paid for it.)

The reason that it's so easy to mess this up is that you have to develop a sense of when the topic of a sentence is clear. In the example above, it's obvious that the topics of the second and third sentences are clear, but discerning this can get very difficult very fast. To look at a slightly more difficult case of this, let's play around with making questions in Japanese...


Using は with Questions

To turn an「AはBです」sentence into a question, all we have to do is add か to the end of it:

マイケルさんは学生です
maikeru-san wa gakusei desu.
Michael is a student.
Literally: "Michael-san + は + student + です."

↓ ↓ ↓

マイケルさんは学生ですか
maikeru-san wa gakusei desu ka?
Are you a student? // Is Michael a student?
Literally: "Michael-san + は + student + です + か?"
Note: Even if we are talking directly to Michael (i.e. if the question in English is "Are you a student?"), we don't use the word あなた, which means "you." Mastering the usage of "you" words (there are several) in Japanese is quite difficult, but the first rule is: Don't use any word for "you" in formal/polite situations unless you don't know the listener's name. Instead, use "Name-san." Also, note that the translation of our sentence in English can be either "Are you a student?" or "Is Michael a student?" depending on context.

A Note About Question Marks

In the Japanese question above, we are putting a question mark after か:

マイケルさんは学生ですか?

If you have an old-school Japanese textbook, you may find that it only puts question marks at the end of questions that do not end in か and that it simply uses a period for questions that do end in か:

マイケルさんは学生ですか。

...and we know that it's a question simply because it contains か. In the real world, however, Japanese people typically put question marks at the end of questions, even if they contain か. So, that's what we're doing, too.

OK, so adding to a です makes it a question. And we don't use "X " when the topic "X" has already been established. Gotcha.

You sure about that?


Suddenly, A Quiz

Because to study is to suffer.

Let's say that your name is Michael and you're a student. Someone asks you this question:

マイケルさんは学生ですか?
maikeru-san wa gakusei desu ka?
Are you a student?
Literally: "Michael-san + は + student + です + か?"

How do you answer this question?!

💀 ↓ Thinking Space ↓ 💀
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Hint #1: The first word of your answer will be はい, which means "yes."

💀 ↓ Thinking Space ↓ 💀
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Hint #2: The rest of your answer can be formed using words that appeared in the question.

💀 ↓ Thinking Space ↓ 💀
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Answer:

はい、学生です。
hai, gakusei desu.
Yes, I'm a student.
Literally: "yes, + student + です."


Level Up Time!

As I'm sure you're starting to realize, context is king in Japanese.

But the words we can drop with context are not limited to those attached to は. In fact, you can drop pretty much anything in Japanese if it's clear from context.

Consider the following conversation...

Person A = Miho
Person B = Michael

A:
マイケルさんは学生ですか?
maikeru-san wa gakusei desu ka?
Are you a student?
Literally: "Michael-san + は + student + です + か?"

B-1:
はい、学生です。
hai, gakusei desu.
Yes, I'm a student.
Literally: "yes, + student + です."

B-2:
みほさんは?
Miho-san wa?
How about you?
Literally: "Miho-san + は?"

See that third sentence? It's OK to think of it as an abbreviation of:

みほさんは学生ですか?
miho-san wa gakusei desu ka?
Are you a student?
Literally: "Miho-san + は + student + です + か?"

But all we need to say is みほさん's name, plus the particle は.

That lesson might be a bit difficult if you're just getting started, but it's extremely useful. Particularly if you want to use casual Japanese.


So what do you think? Are は and が starting to make sense?

Let's see a super-condensed version of what we've learned so far...




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