175 - What are you talking about?

Sometimes I think Japanese teachers just want to scare us.

They say we'll never learn kanji--They're so difficult!--and we'll never master the art of dropping the subject--What a foreign concept!

The notion that Japanese is an inaccessible, overly difficult language seems to have been adopted by all of Japanese society.

I'm not sure I agree.

I mean, I used to. It's fun to complain about something being hard when you're studying. Kind of like it's fun to complain when your puppy chews up your favorite pair of shoes.

But now that I'm not really "studying" Japanese anymore, I've developed a somewhat different viewpoint.

A lot of the stuff that I used to think was "unique" or "strange" is really just simplistic.

One item, in particular, is the practice of dropping off subjects.

I can hardly go one lesson without talking about the importance of context in Japanese. Because context is king! Anytime that context can delete words in a sentence, it should.

But measuring context is kind of a subjective practice.

If I've been writing a long essay for school all day, then when it's finally done, I might proclaim "It's finished at last!" to the person sitting next to me.

It's obvious to me that "it" is "my essay," but the person listening doesn't know this.

Confusion results.

...and this happens in Japanese all the time.

Japanese people don't have a magic Subject-Dropping Radar.

They drop subjects when they probably shouldn't all the time.

(To be fair, they don't add them when they shouldn't nearly as often as non-native speakers, but that's a lesson for another day.)

Here is the pattern used for a context-lacking subject drop:

1) Person A says a short sentence but leaves out some key information.

2) Person B asks them to clarify, usually by saying:
"[Question Word] + [Particle]."

Examples follow...

Let's say that you've been writing that essay for the last two hours. Once you're done, you might say:

やっと おわった!
I've finally finished! // It's finally over!
Literally: "at last + finished."

But your friend has no idea what is finished, so she says:

なに が?
With what? // What is?
Literally: "what + が?"
Note: Like I've said before, が is the "pointer particle." And by saying it after なに, "what," the speaker is asking the listener to "point" to "what" they are talking about.

It's OK to think of B's sentence as a contraction of:
なにが終わったの?(なにがおわったの? // What is finished?

But you don't need to say the whole thing.
And later in this lesson, you'll see that adding Person A's verb after Person B's particle does not always work so nicely.

Imagine it's morning, and you have a big date tonight. Only problem is that you don't have any clean clothes!

"I've gotta do the laundry today," you think. But then you look at the clock, and it's not morning--it's actually lunchtime!

So you say:

はやく やらなきゃ。
I have to do it soon.
Literally: "soon / quickly + have to do."

Your roommate then frowns and says...

なに を?
Do what?
Literally: "what + を?"

This fits the contraction pattern we looked at in the last dialogue, too:
なにをやらなきゃ?(You have to do what?

But don't say this whole thing. Just say なにを?

You're looking at the calendar on your phone when you notice that it's almost a family member's birthday. You say...

もうすぐ たんじょうび だ。
It's almost her [his] birthday.
Literally: "very soon + birthday + だ."

Your friend doesn't know who you're talking about, so she says...

だれ の?
Whose birthday?
Literally: "who + の?"

It's OK to think of this as a contraction of:
誰の誕生日?(だれ の たんじょうび? // Whose birthday?

You're at lunch with your friend. Suddenly he drops his chopsticks and proclaims...

てがみ かく んだ。
I'm going to write a letter.
Literally: "letter + write + んだ."

Understandably, you tilt your head and ask...

だれ に?
To who?
Literally: "who + に?"

So this 誰に can be considered a contraction of:

だれ に てがみ を かく の?
Who are you going to write a letter to?

You're sitting watching TV with your significant other. Later tonight you're planning to make delicious pasta together. But you just remembered that you don't have any milk!

At first you think your life is ruined, but then you remember that you can just go buy milk at the nearby convenience store.

So you stand up and say...

いって くる!
I'll go there real quick.
Literally: "go (te-form) + come!"
Note: A semi-literal translation of this sentence would be "I'll go and come back," but that sounds a little stiff in English. You can use 行ってくる if you're going to go somewhere and come back relatively quickly.

どこ に?
Go where?
Literally: "where + に?"

Consider this a contraction of:
どこに行くの?(どこ に いく の? // Where are you going?

So up until now, I've been saying that Person B's sentence can be considered contractions that are leaving out words from Person A's sentence.

Sadly, it's not always so simple.

So, without further ado, I give you a sample convo that Rei made for us.

A convo that, I must admit, I would have been unlikely to use with my inferior non-native brain...

Imagine a mother and her daughter are at a restaurant. The daughter is looking over the menu and is simply overwhelmed with the array of options. She doesn't know what to order! So she turns to her mom and says...

おかあさん は どう する?
What are you gonna, Mom?
Literally: "mom + は + how + do?"
Note: どうする? is a common question when asking someone what they're going to do (or what we should do) about some sort of dilemma.

なに が?
About what?
Literally: "what + が?"

So it would not make sense to say that this is a contraction of:
✕ なにがどうする?

...because that wouldn't make sense. (We could say どうするって何が?, though.)

The simplest explanation is that this なにが? is kind of like saying, "What are you talking about?" in English.

Let's just memorize it as-is.

If you want to hear Japanese people use short sentences asking for clarification, then just starting dropping all tons of subjects from sentences that probably need them.

It's kind of fun confusing people, after all. ^_^

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