Monday, January 9, 2017

"Good" and "Bad" in Japanese

In Japanese, the words that mean "good" and "bad" are ii いい, yoi 良い, and warui 悪い. As you may have already guessed, these words aren't as simple as the words "good" and "bad" in English, because the article barely started and we already have a problem: there's three of them!

"Bad" in Japanese

The word that means "bad" in Japanese is warui 悪い. This is an i-adjective, and is conjugated as such:
  • warui 悪い
    Bad.
  • warukatta 悪かった
    Was bad.
  • warukunai 悪くない
    Not bad.
  • warukunakatta 悪くなかった
    Was not bad.

"Good" in Japanese

The words that mean "good" in Japanese are ii いい and yoi 良い. These are also i-adjectives, which means we should be able to conjugate them following the same pattern we used to conjugate warui up above:
  • ii いい
    yoi 良い
    Good.
  • yokatta 良かった
    Was good.
  • yokunai 良くない
    Not good.
  • yokunakatta 良くなかった
    Was not good.

Wait a second? There's something missing here! We have the inflections of yoi but not the ones of ii!

Since the past of yo-i is yo-katta, it makes sense the past of i-i would be i-katta, right?

Yeah. That makes sense. But this is Japanese we're talking about here, and Japanese doesn't make sense.

What happens is that, although grammatically speaking the past of ii いい would be ikatta いかった, in practice that word is literally never used. Likewise, the negative inflection, ikunai いくない, is also never used.

The only inflections that are used are the ones from yoi: yokatta, yokunai, yokunakatta.

Does that mean you just use yoi then and never use ii? Actually no. Because that would be easy and Japanese hates you.

Normally, you use ii in the non-past, non-negative tense. In the past and negative tenses you use the inflections of yoi. And you just don't normally use yoi altogether.

Conjugation of Japanese words warui, ii and yoi: warukatta, warukunai, ikatta, ikunai, yokatta, yokunai

いい vs. 良い

And if you thought that was confusing, get ready to be more confused: when ii いい is written with kanji, it's written as ii 良い.

That's right, it's literally the same way you'd write yoi よい. The words ii and yoi are homographs: they're written the same way. And the reason for this is simple, the kanji they're written with means "good," since both words are synonymous, they're both written with the same kanji.

So how do you tell ii 良い and yoi 良い apart?

いい vs. よい

Normally, ii いい is written without kanji, and yoi 良い is written with kanji. So, normally, you'd read the kanji version as yoi 良い, not as ii 良い.

Although both words mean literally the same thing, there's actually a difference between ii いい and yoi よい: the word yoi よい tend to be more literary. This means that characters like kings, old men, speaking solemnly, would use yoi よい, while the average person would use ii いい.
  • ii koto da いいことだ
    It's a good thing. (peasant version.)
  • yoi koto de arou よいことであろう
    It's a good thing. (blue-blooded version.)

They're pretty much interchangeable save for the fact above.

いい vs. 言い

Beware that there's a difference between ii いい and ii 言い. The first one is what this article is about, the word for "good." The second one is a conjugation of the verb iu 言う, "to say." You'll find it in some compound nouns and verbs like:
  • iikata 言い方
    Way of saying.
  • iiwake 言い訳
    Excuse. (not an apology, an explanation. A pretext.)
  • iikaesu 言い返す
    To talk back.
  • iidasu 言い出す
    To start saying.

Basic Adjective Usage

Now that we finally figured out how to tell the words apart, let's see how they're actually used.

Since ii いい and warui 悪い are i-adjectives, they work just like other adjectives in Japanese. That means they can be used in two ways: as attributive adjectives, or as predicative adjectives.

Attributive adjectives are those that describe a random noun in a phrase. In Japanese, attributive adjectives come right before the noun. Predicative adjectives are those that describe the subject of a clause. These would come after the noun. For example:
  • ii katana いい刀
    Good sword. (attributive.)
    • The adjective ii comes right before the noun katana.
  • kono katana ga ii desu この刀がいいです
    This sword is good. (predicative.)
    • The subject-marking particle ga comes after the noun phrase kono katana, marking it as the subject, which is then described by the adjective ii.

Now, if Japanese was a sane language, like English, we'd be able to finish the article here. After all we already know these adjectives work and what they mean, so we should be done, right Unfortunately, Japanese is weird, so there's a lot more to talk about.

Negative Adjective Usage

The first problem is about antonyms. What's the antonym of "bad"? That's "good," obviously! What kind of stupid question is that? Well, but what if, I mean, what if instead of saying "bad," we just said, you know, like, "not good"? Wouldn't that be fun?

It wouldn't be fun.

But in Japanese, sometimes "not good," yokunai 良くない, is preferred over "bad," warui 悪い. And, similarly, sometimes warukunai 悪くない, "not bad," is used instead of "good," ii いい.

For example:
  • kenka wa warui 喧嘩は悪い
    Fighting is bad. (you don't say this.)
  • kenka wa yokunai 喧嘩は良くない
    Fighting isn't good.
    • Since fighting isn't good, we may as well say:
    • Fighting is bad.
    • But we don't. At least not in Japanese.

Generally speaking, when referring to other people's behavior, the word yokunai tends to be used instead of warui, since saying someone is doing "bad" feels too straightforward. So "not good" is used instead, as it's less direct.

This awkward usage of adjectives isn't exclusive to Japanese. English also does this sometimes. For example, say you're eating something that was offered to you. They ask how it tastes. You say:
  • warukunai 悪くない
    Not bad.

We, people, do this because saying something is "good" feels like a stronger level of approval than we're usually committed to give, so we settle for the mere "not bad."

There's also the matter of context. If someone says something is "good," you don't say it's "bad," you say it's "not good." Because the point is to deny their statement, not make a different, opposite statement.

Examples

For reference, some examples of ii and warui being used in Japanese.
  • ii hito いい人
    Good person.
  • warui hito 悪い人
    Bad person.
  • ii ko いい子
    Good child.
    Good dog. Good cat. Good pet. (see ko 子 for details.)
  • warui ko 悪い子
    Bad child.
    Bad dog. Bad cat. Bad pet.
  • ii koto いいこと
    Good thing.
    Something good.
  • warui koto 悪いこと
    Bad thing.
    Something bad.
  • kore wa yokatta これは良かった
    This was good.
  • kore wa yokunai これ良くない
    This isn't good.
  • kore wa warukatta これは悪かった
    This was bad.
  • kore wa warukunai これは悪くない
    This is not bad.

Phrases and Expressions

  • kore de ii これでいい
    "By this is good." (literally.)
    It's better this way. (when a way different than expected occurred)
  • ii ne いいね
    "Good, [isn't it]?"
    That looks good to me. That sounds good to me. (when shown something)
  • buji de yokatta! 無事でよかった!
    "Being unhurt was good."
    I'm glad you are safe! (and not injured)
  • yokatta ne, sasowareta 良かったね、誘われた
    "It was good, [that you were] invited."
    That was a good thing, right? You were invited.
  • watashi ga warui 私が悪い
    "I'm bad."
    It is my fault. (when deciding the blame)
  • warui na 悪いな
    wari wari わりぃわりぃ
    "Bad."
    I'm sorry for making you do this. Thanks for doing this to me.
  • watashi ga warukatta 私が悪かった
    "I was bad."
    It was my fault. I'm sorry.
  • warukatta 悪かった
    "Was bad."
    I'm sorry. (short of above)
  • are wa warukatta あれは悪かった
    "That was bad."
    I'm sorry for that.

Sometimes, words that end with -nai are used to ask stuff like "isn't it like that?" And so on. This also happen with yokunai and warukunai.
  • sore wa yokunai? それは良くない?
    "That's not good?"
    Isn't that good?
  • sore wa warukunai? それは悪くない?
    "That's not bad?"
    Isn't that bad?

A common situation is "(something that was done) yokatta" and "(something that was done) warukatta." These often mean "it was a good thing that X" or "it was a bad thing that X," as in, they were good or bad choices.
  • kokuhaku shite yokatta 告白してよかった
    It was a good thing that I confessed my love.
  • yappari nigenakute yokatta やっぱり逃げなくて良かった
    As I thought it was a good thing that I didn't run way.
  • renraku shinakatta no wa warukatta 連絡しなかったのは悪かった
    It was a bad thing that I didn't make contact. (contacting would have been better)

This form is also often used with -nakereba ~なければ and -nakya ~なきゃ to express regret, "it would have been if I hadn't... (done something)."

Use of yokatta 良かった in the manga JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken ジョジョの奇妙な冒険: chikushoo soudan shinakya yokatta... チクショー相談しなきゃ良かった… "Damn it! It would've been better if I hadn't asked it."

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