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Nai - Meaning in Japanese

Saturday, March 11, 2017
One very basic word in Japanese, that's not even really a word, is the suffix nai ない. It appears often appears after the particles dewa では, as in dewanai ではない, or after verbs, shinjirarenai 信じられない, and sometimes even completely alone, just nai 無い by itself. So, the question is, what does nai mean in Japanese? And why you hear it so much?

The most alert anime-watchers probably have already figured nai means something negative. Pretty much every time nai is to be found something is not to be found. Example:
  • shinjirareru 信じられる
    Believable.
  • shinjirarernai 信じられない
    Unbelievable.
  • de aru である
    Is.
  • dewanai ではない
    Is not.
  • iru いる
    Is here.
  • inai いない
    Is not here.

What happens is that, in Japanese, the nai suffix turns a verb in its negative form. This is difficult to notice if you rely only in subtitles and doesn't have some understanding of Japanese, because the translations are never literal (which is good) and that means that the "not" word doesn't necessarily show up in English when there is a nai in Japanese.

Literal Nai and Translated Nai

For example, shinjiru 信じる means "to believe." Technically, "to not believe" would be shinjinai 信じない, but nobody says that. Instead, they say shinjirarenai 信じられない, which is literally "can not believe." This rare られ comes from the potential form of the verb, which is shinjirareru 信じられる, "can believe."

Now, nobody is actually going to write some stupid phrase like "can believe" or "can't believe" in a translation, because scenes with these words usually carry a lot of emotion and it's more like "I TRUST U" or "OH MY GOD Y DID U DO DIZ 2 MEEeeee."

So even though nai always makes the verb negative in Japanese, you can only realize this if you understand Japanese. In the English translation that won't be reflected all the time, which it makes nai look like it has multiple meanings.

This specially shows up in the verb iru いる:
  • iru いる
    It's here. We got (the thing). We have it in store. Yep, here.
    That person you looking for? Here. He's here.
  • inai いない
    It's gone. It disappeared. Where is (the thing)?!! WHERE IS IT?!?!?!
    He's away. He left. Nobody's home.
    (lit.: is not here.)
  • iru 要る
    It is needed. I need it. It's required.
  • iranai 要らない
    No, thanks. I'll pass. (when offered something)
    (lit.: does not need.)

Nai with Desu Copula

One of the most common and impossible to notice uses of nai is with the desu copula. In English, our copulative words are "is," "are," and "be" (and their variations). So the negative of that would be isn't, aren't and not be. All of this achievable in Japanese with the desu nai combo.

Except not.

Because there is no desu nai in Japanese! That doesn't exist. It's actually janai じゃない or dewanai ではない! You might not have noticed it, but every time you hear janai or dewanai in anime, it's actually desu and nai mixed together!
  • neko da 猫だ
    neko desu 猫です
    It is a cat.
  • neko janai 猫じゃない
    neko dewanai 猫ではない
    It is not a cat.

nai 無い - Does Not Exist

When the word nai is not used as a suffix (almost never happens) it's then an -i ~い adjective meaning... "nonexistent."

Now, if you are like me, an average Joe, I'm pretty sure this is the first time in the year you see the word "nonexistent" being used. This is because when something is "nonexistent" you don't say it is "nonexistent," you say something else. See:
  • uchi dewa terebi ga nai 家ではテレビが無い
    TV is nonexistent in my home. (robot way)
    There's no TV in my home. (normal way)
  • terebi no nai seikatsu テレビの無い生活
    Nonexistent TV livelihood. (robot way)
    Livelihood without a TV. (normal way)

See? It's all matter of how you translate things. That's why nai is so confusing. You can translate it in a way it's closer to Japanese, then you get to see nai's real meaning, or you can translate it in a way it makes sense in English, then you a bunch of random words inserted in the phrase.

aru 在る

The antonym of nai 無い is aru 在る. One is an adjective, the other is a verb. It makes no sense but it's true. See:
  • teberi ga nai テレビが無い
    There is no TV.
  • terebi ga aru  テレビが在る
    There is TV.
You can only tell it in phrases like the above. Most of the time, aru ある is written without the kanji. One common word with the aru 在る, "to exist," kanji is sonzai 存在, "existance," which only servers to show how these two kanji (在 and 無) are pretty much antonyms.

無 kanji

Though I've been using the 無 kanji for nai in this part, the nai word like this is rare (the suffix is far more common) so I'd like to note that most of the time, if you see the 無 kanji written somewhere, it's probably not the word nai but something else.

Good thing, though, is that mu 無 (on'yomi reading) has a very strong meaning: it means "nonexistent." (ha! Who could guess!) So every time you see this kanji 無 you should know that something is "nonexistent," though it may not appear so at first glance. For example:
  • muyou 無用
    Useless. (no use)
  • muryou 無料
    Free. (no charge, no cost, no price)
  • mugen 無限
    Infinite. (no limit)
  • muri 無理
    Impossible. (no logic, no basis)
  • mukou 無効
    Ineffective. (no effect)

Nai With Other Suffixes

The way the Japanese language works allows you to put nai in any verb and almost any conjugation of any verb. Which means its meaning compounds with different conjugations.

For example, a verb in the present goes like this:
  • taberu 食べる
    Eat.
  • tabenai 食べない
    Don't eat. Doesn't eat.

If it's potential or passive, it becomes like this:
  • taberareru 食べられる
    Is eaten. (passive)
    Can be eaten. (potential)
  • taberarenai 食べられない
    Is not eaten. (passive negative)
    Can't be eaten. (negative potential)

If it's causative, it goes like this:
  • tabesaseru 食べさせる
    To make (someone) eat (something). Force-feed.
  • tabesasenai 食べさせない
    To not make (someone) eat (something).
    To not let (someone) eat (something).

If it has the -tai ~たい suffix, it becomes like this:
  • tabetai 食べたい
    Want to eat (something)
  • tabetakunai 食べたくない
    Don't want to eat (something)

So, basically, the nai suffix can be added to literally every verb in almost every of its conjugations, which is why it's such a frequent word.

Shinai しない

One special note: the word shinai しない is the negative of the suru する verb. Every verb that ends with suru can be turned into negative by saying shinai instead of suru.

Nai Conjugations

The word nai is technically an -i ~い adjective and as such it can be subjected to the way -i adjectives are conjugated.

For example, if samui 寒い means "cold", and samukatta 寒かった means "was cold," then tabenai, "doesn't eat" can become tabenakatta, "didn't eat."

This can be a little troubling to understand because in English we use the auxiliary verbs "don't" and "didn't" in order to create present negative and past negative forms. In Japanese, the nai suffix is adjective-like, and you conjugate it like an adjective to make that past negative form.

So, despite it looking inverted, tabenai is "don't eat" while tabenakatta is "didn't eat."

Verbs' Polite Conjugations

The word nai is normally used to make a verb negative, but sometimes it's not ideal. Outside of anime, in that thing called real life, it's often the case where a certain kind of speech, polite speech, should be used instead of casual speech.

In these cases, negative verbs tend not to end with nai but with masen instead. So, only when it's a verb suffix, nai is replaced by masen, and nakatta replaced by masen deshita in polite speech.
  • tabemasen 食べません
    Doesn't eat.
  • tabemasen deshita 食べませんでした
    Didn't eat.

Although these have nothing to do with the word nai itself, they are actually conjugations of the masu suffix.

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