Japanese Verb Myths: Part 1
The road to understanding Japanese in littered with lies. These
lies aren't intended to harm. The fact is, in the beginning the
lies seem natural and helpful. They help make the language
'feel' closer to our native language (English, most likely).
Unfortunately, the more knowledge you try to pile on the top of
these lies, the more your house of learning resembles a home
built on a foundation of sponges. Instead of helping, these
myths only make life harder.
At points, they can make you wonder: "Why can't I understand
Japanese?" "What's wrong with me?" "I must just be stupid." When
I started taking a formal Japanese class a few months ago, I
realized how harmful those 'friendly lies' can be. I noticed
that a class full of people who had completed almost three
quarters of a textbook still couldn't conjugate verbs in a
negative plain form. I realized that it was difficult for my
classmates to naturally conjugate an adjective. It was more than
simple memory slips - my classmates genuinely didn't understand
how verbs worked. Though they had the benefit of a native
Japanese teacher, and classroom conversation time, still, the
basic verb seemed to evade them.
I realised, as the class progressed, that my classmates were
victims of a number of myths that I had also faced. These myths
seem inherent in most of the learning materials for students.
Unless you are the kind of person who looks at an inconstancy,
and really searches to find out why that inconsistancy is there,
it's easy to drink in these lies, until they grow so big they
claw their way out of your brain, and go skittering into the
So over the course of the next week, I'm going to post up all of
the myths I've learned about Japanese verbs, and how you can
defeat them. Hopefully you'll find them helpful.
Know Your Verb! (Some myths about Japanese Verbs as seen from a
student of Japanese)
Desu = Is
If you think 'desu' = is, congratulations, you are about to
defeat your first big myth about Japanese.
Let me make this clear:
DESU DOES NOT MEAN IS!
Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Desu is a word that has no
equivilant in English. In short, it makes what you are saying
more polite. This is exactly, word for word, what a Japanese
friend told me.
Okay, but what about:
Kore wa penu desu This is a pen. (This is possibly the most
inane sentence ever)
Doesn't desu mean is in that sentence?
Now we get to the real secret of desu. Desu will sometimes
pretend to mean is, if it is the last word in the sentence, and
if there isn't a more active verb at the end of your sentence.
It's exactly the same thing as using the masu form of a verb to
make a verb more polite (The Masu Myth we will defeat next).
So why does believing that desu = is give me problems?
Because, a whole bunch of the time, desu doesn't mean is at all.
Further, if you try to think 'desu' means 'is' it will only
confuse you to what's really going on in a sentance.
Kore wa penu ja nai. This, a pen, is not. (casual)
Kore wa penu ja nai desu. This, a pen, is not (more polite - not
normally heard, but gramatically correct and equivilant to penu
Kore wa penu ja nai 'n desu. This, a pen, is not. (I'm saying
this to explain something - see previous post: no da/no desu.
Polite. Seen often.)
If you believe (as I did) that ja nai means 'is not' and desu
means 'is', the last two sentances are a complete mind-twist.
Lit: This, a pen is not, is ...WTF!
You may convince yourself: well, something like that is just an
exception to the rule, and memorize it. But if you are forced to
memorize everything that is an exception to the desu = is myth,
eventually, you will quickly experiece desu burnout. You also
really run into trouble when you meet the word has a meaning a
lot closer to is: (what the Genki textbook calls the 'plain
form' of desu, though calling it a plain for of desu is more of
the 'desu' = 'is' crap)
Da Is (in the sense of 'this is a pen')
I say a lot closer to is, because the word 'is' in English is a
lot different than 'is' in Japanese. Japanese has a bunch of
different kinds of words to express existence. The most common
ones you will meet are:
da, aru (inanimate objects exist), iru (animate objects exist)
Also, because you tend to drop redundant parts of the sentence
in Japanese, sometimes the word 'is' will be left off entirely.
Finally, the word 'is' is wrapped up in every other verb,
depending on how you conjugate it (which is why you don't need
to use a 'to be' verb to say, I am going to the store - Mise ni
itte iru) We will get into that more as more myths are busted.
I hope this helps clear up points of confusion with desu/da.
Future myths busted: The Masu Form (it's not the real deal)
Adjectives and Verbs: One and the Same How to conjugate verbs
and adjectives without sweating blood.