Introduction to the japanese language

How did the Japanese language come into being? How is it structured and what makes it unique? And, most importantly: Is she really as hard to learn as is always assumed?

An exercise book with hiragana – the comparatively simple syllable system.

Where Japanese comes from is not entirely certain, but it is thought to belong to the Uralo-Altaic language family. This family includes the Finno-Ugric languages on the one hand (Finnish, Hungarian u.a.) and the Altaic languages on the other hand (Mongolian, Korean, but also Turkish u.a.). Korean is the closest to Japanese.


Japanese is a syllabic language. There is only one free-standing consonant (n ん), all other syllables are composed of a consonant and a vowel (z.B. k + o = ko こ). As in German, there are the vowels a, i, u, e and o. That’s why the Japanese alphabet is called A-I-U-E-O (あ-い-う-え-お).

The pronunciation of Japanese is, compared z.B. with Chinese, simple. Long vowels should be watched out for, z.B to ō and ū (it is now called kōkyo, kokyō, kōkyō or kokyo?). Differences in accentuation (so-called pitch accents) are rather rare. For example, the word hashi. Depending on the stress, it can mean bridge (橋), edge (端), or chopstick (箸).

In Japanese there are many homonyms, words with the same pronunciation but different meanings. Example: kōkai. Has over 11 meanings. Either you understand the correct meaning from the context or from the characters. The high number of homonyms produces puns like the following: sumomo mo momo no uchi (李も桃も桃の内, "Plum and peach are among the peach family").


The good news first: There is (exceptions) no plural, nouns are never declined, articles and gender as well as cases do not exist either. And the verb is always at the end of the sentence. Now the bad news: Somehow the grammar has to be regulated. In Japanese, this is done with particles like ha (は, say wa), where (を, speak o), ga (が), no (の), de (で) and ni (に), to name the most important ones. The particle joshi (助詞) are now almost always written in hiragana. An example of the function of particles – here no as a genitive particle:

田中さんの犬 – Tanaka-san no inu

Tanaka-san = Mrs/Mr Tanaka, inu = dog, between them the genitive particle no = the dog of Mrs. Tanaka. As a mnemonic device no present like the genitive s: Mrs/Mr Tanakas Dog.

Japanese agglutinated, d.h. all relevant endings are added to the end of the verb. The verb can thus become very long! Example: au (会う, to meet) becomes aitakunakattara (会いたくなかったら, "If I didn’t want to meet her/him". Thus, for the most part, Japanese sentence structure is entirely different from that of Indo-European languages.

Another sample?

私はあなたが好きです。 – Watashi ha anata ga suki desu.

word-by-word translation: I – subject particle – you – object particle – gladly – politeness phrase. "As for me, I like you" – respectively "I like you".

One has also in Japanese personal pronouns (dairi meishi, 代理名詞). In fact, there are quite a few: for I alone, there are different ones, depending on the social position and role of the interlocutor: watashi (私, neutral), watakushi (私, polite), washi (わし, older men), atashi (あたし, young women), ore (俺, young men, seems a bit aggressive), boku (僕, middle-aged boys/men )..

It is interesting to note, however, that these personal pronouns are used much less than in German or English. Strictly speaking, this even often dispenses with a subject completely (shugo) 主語:

Question: どこに住んでいますか? – Doko ni sunde imasu ka?
Literally "where to live?", in German "Wo wohnen Sie?".

Reply: ベルリンの近くの小さい町に住んでいます。- Berurin no chikaku no chiisai machi ni sunde imasu.
Literally "Near Berlin small town to live in", resp. "I live in a small town near Berlin."

No subject – no "I" or "you". Why also? If you look at the person, it is clear who is meant! In some cases, it would even be impolite to address the other person as "you" or "you’re". Throwing "you" towards.


The many characters make learning Japanese very difficult for non-Asian foreigners (Chinese and Koreans have an advantage, of course). Japanese itself was once scriptless, and so scholars from the 5. century the Chinese characters in Japan are a. Unfortunately, Chinese has nothing in common with Japanese, so the characters had to be phonetically adapted in a very lengthy process. These characters are called Kanji (漢字), Chinese characters.

Due to the lengthy adaptation of the characters, different readings formed for the Japanese Kanji. The on-reading (音読み) borrows from the reading in Chinese, but there is also the purely Japanese kun-Reading (訓読み). Chinese consists exclusively of the complex characters, but there are usually only one, rarely two readings, which makes Chinese easier to learn.

In addition, there were created in Japan from the 9. to 11. In the twentieth century there are two syllable alphabets (Kana, 仮名): First the roundish Hiragana (once women’s writing), later the angular Katakana (developed by monks). You can translate any Japanese word with these Kana (46 characters each) write. However, as mentioned at the beginning, since there are so many homonyms, only with Cana Written sentences often hard to understand.

Example: The above sentence sumomo mo momo no uchi (李も桃も桃の内, "Plum and peach are among the peach family") would be seen in Hiragana thus: すもももももももものうち。
Since there are no spaces between words in Japanese, there would be no "I" or "you" between all the mo (も) no more sense to see. That’s why Japanese needs the Kanji.

Written Japanese of today is a colorful mixture of Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Katakana are mainly used to render words that have entered Japanese from foreign languages. In addition to English vocabulary such as エアコン (eakon, short for Air Conditioning), the air conditioning system, you can also find many German words like フランクフルト (furankufuruto), frankfurter.

The article by Matthias Reich appeared on the blog Tabibito and was edited for the online edition.

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