Unique Elements: Particles

Remember the following sentences that we saw earlier?

窓は汚かった。
まど は きたなかった。
The windows were dirty.
Literally: "window + は [topic marker] + was dirty."

今は綺麗。
いま は きれい。
Now they are clean.
Literally: "now + は [topic marker] + clean."

I mentioned that the は in these sentences is not pronounced ha like it normally would be. Instead, it is pronounced wa because this is the particle は.


What's a particle?

"Particles" are called 助詞 (じょし) in Japanese. 助 is the kanji for "help" and 詞 means "language; word; (manner of) speaking."

Similarly...

  • Verbs are called 動詞 (どうし) or "movement (動) + language (詞)."
  • Nouns are called 名詞 (めいし) or "name (名) + language (詞)."
  • Adjectives are called 形容詞(けいようし) or "describing (形容) + language (詞)."
  • Adverbs are called 副詞(ふくし) or "assistant (副) + language (詞)."

The closest equivalent we have to 助詞(じょし // particles; helping language)in English is in the form of prepositions. Actually, a lot of conjunctions and prepositions get translated into particles:

ピザビール
ピザ と ビール
pizza and beer
Literally: "pizza + と + beer"

東京行く
とうきょう に いく
go to Tokyo
Literally: "Tokyo + に + go"

会う
えき で あう
meet at (the) station
Literally: "station + で + meet"

In the examples above, と means "and," に means "to," and で means "at." However, particles tend to be much more versatile than prepositions, so their meanings can change depending on the sentence they are being used in. For this reason, students tend to have a hard time with Japanese particles. I wouldn't worry about them too much, though. You'll get used to them gradually over time.

Some 助詞 (じょし) don't really have any equivalents in English, like は, が, and を.

東京広い
とうきょう は ひろい
Tokyo (is) big
Literally: "Tokyo + は + spacious"

東京広い
とうきょう が ひろい
Tokyo (is) big
Literally: "Tokyo + が + spacious"

寿司食べる
すし を たべる
eat sushi
Literally: "sushi + を + eat"

The particle を is used to mark objects in sentences with transitive verbs. So, in the example above を is "marking" 寿司 (すし) as the object of the verb 食べる (たべる). Confusing, perhaps, but not as confusing as は and が.

It's common to refer to は as a "topic marker" and が as a "subject marker." I think "topic marker" is an OK label for は, but I have mixed feelings about calling が a "subject marker." We'll be exploring both of these particles very early in this guide... which is a bit ironic because I think that students tend to spend far too much time worrying about these particles, especially early in their studies.

If I had to explain は and が in thirty seconds, I would say this:

は is used to introduce a new conversation topic. The closest English equivalent is saying "as for." The new topic is the word directly before は and the emphasis of the sentence is on whatever comes after は.

が is used to "point" to a noun in order to focus on it or to identify it. The closest English equivalent is putting a word into italics and/or saying it with extra emphasis (which is why "Tokyo" is in italics above). The emphasis of the sentence is on the word coming right before が.

In the above explanation, I use the phrase "closest English equivalent," but I want to point out that no perfect equivalent for these particles exists in English. These comparisons are just to help you get a sense for the particles early on. Once you get to a high level of Japanese, using particles will just sort of make sense.

Stressing about the meanings of these particles is a waste of your time. We'll look at them gradually throughout this and other courses, but the best way to really master them is simply to pay attention to how they are used as you progress through your studies, never worrying about how to use them correctly.

Also, you might feel better knowing that Japanese children in elementary school tend to have trouble with は and が, too.




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