Saturday, March 11, 2017

nai ない, 無い

One extremely common and very basic word in Japanese is nai. It appears after the particles dewa では, dewanai ではない, after verbs, shinjirarenai 信じられない, and sometimes completely alone, just nai 無い. So, the question is: what does nai mean in Japanese? And why do you hear it so much?

Negative Nai

The most alert anime-watchers probably have already figured that nai means something negative. Pretty much every time there's a nai there is not something else. For example:
  • shinjirareru 信じられる
  • shinjirarenai 信じられない
    Not believable.
  • samui 寒い
  • samukunai 寒くない
    Not cold.
  • de aru である
  • dewanai ではない
    Is not.
  • iru いる
    [Is] here.
  • inaiない
    [Is] not here.

What happens is that the nai suffix is an auxiliary adjective that turns verbs into their negative forms. So every time you have a nai, you're basically denying what you just said.
  • yomu 読む
    To read.
  • yomanai 読まない
    Not to read.

This can be a little difficult to notice if you rely on subtitles and don't have some understanding of Japanese. That's because translations aren't always literal, which is good, and that means sometimes you have a nai in Japanese that's not translated as "not" in English.

Multiple Ways to Translate Nai

To understand how nai can be translated in various ways, let's see an example:

The word shinjiru 信じる means "to believe." It's potential form, "can believe," is shinjirareru 信じられる. If you add a nai to that, you get the negative potential form shinjirarenai 信じられない, denying that you can believe, that is: "can't believe."

But nobody is going to actually 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 TRUSTED U" or "OH MY GOD Y DID U DO DIZ 2 MEEeeeeeee..."

As you can see, nai always makes the verb negative in Japanese, but translations won't always literally make the verb negative in English. This is why it seems like nai has multiple meanings, even thought it doesn't.

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.)

Desu Copula Plus Nai

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, which is a contraction of 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.

Isn't It?

Not every time there's a nai we're denying a statement. Sometimes, the nai is used to form a question that asks for agreement, or, in other words, it's translated as "isn't it?" This is specially the case when it's used with adjectives. For example:
  • samishii 寂しい
  • samishikunai 寂しくない
    Not lonely. (literally.)
  • samishikunai? 寂しくない?
    [Are] not [you] lonely?
    Aren't [you] lonely?

Nakatta なかった

The word nakatta なかった is actually the past form of nai ない. Since nai ない is an auxiliary adjective, that means it's treated as an i-adjective and can be inflected like one.
  • tanoshii 楽し
    (tanoshii is an i-adjective.)
  • tanoshikatta 楽しかった
    Was fun.
    (past form.)
  • tanoshikunai 楽しくない
    Not fun.
    (nai auxiliary is an i-adjective.)
  • tanoshikunakatta 楽しくなかった
    Was not fun.
    (past form.)
  • taberu 食べる
    To eat.
  • tabenai 食べない
    Not to eat.
  • tabenakatta 食べなかった
    Did not eat.

Now, you might be feeling a little trouble since some words showed up out of nowhere. Like, we have a "was" there, but "was" in Japanese is deshita or datta. And there's a "did" but "did" in Japanese is shita.

Well, the fact is, the examples above, in Japanese, are in the past tense. We need to translate that past tense to English somehow. And we can't do that without adding some extra words. Which's why we have one word in Japanese that translate to two or more words in English.

Wasn't It?

The nakatta version can also be used in questions, in which case it becomes "isn't it?"
  • samukunakatta 寒くなかった
    [It] wasn't cold.
  • samukunakatta? 寒くなかった?
    Wasn't [it] cold?

Nee ねぇ, ねー

The words nee or nee are colloquial variants of nai ない. That is: nai pronounced wrong. These colloquialisms are often used by more gang-looking characters. Certainly not what the more fine characters would use.

To have a better idea:
  • dewanai ではない
    Is not.
  • janai じゃない
  • janee じゃなぇ

Shiran 知らん

Another colloquialism can be see in the word shiran 知らん, which basically translates to "dunno." This is literally shiranai 知らない, "to not know," contracted: shiran 知らん.
  • shiranai kedo 知らないけど
    But [I] don't know.
  • shiran kedo 知らんけど
    But [I] dunno.

This same pattern can be see in some other words:
  • wakaru 分かる
    I get it.
  • wakaranai 分からない
    I don't get it.
  • wakaran 分からん

Nai With Other Suffixes

Because of how verbs work in Japanese, you can add nai after almost any conjugation of any verb. Which means its denying meaning compounds with different conjugations.

For example, a verb in the non-past goes like this:
  • taberu 食べる
    To eat.
  • tabenai 食べない
    Not to 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
    Not want to eat (something.)

You can even inflect the nai to its past form nakatta.
  • tabetakunakatta 食べたくなかった
    Did not want to eat (something.)

Shinai しない

One special note: the word shinai しない is the negative form of the suru する verb. Every verb that ends with suru can be turned into negative by saying shinai instead of suru.
  • ai suru 愛する
    To love.
  • ai shinai 愛しない
    To not love.

Nai Desu ないです

When desu comes after a nai, like, nai desu ないです, it usually has an assertive function. That's because generally you don't need to add a copula in Japanese, so when you do add it, it emphasizes what you're saying.
  • shikata 仕方
    Way of doing.
  • shikatanai 仕方ない
    No way of doing.
    [Can't be helped.]
  • shikatanai desu 仕方ないです
    There's really no way of doing. That's a pity. Shame, really. So sad. Very unfortunate. Much anxiety. Can't be helped. At all. *profound sigh*

Nainda ないんだ

The word nainda ないんだ, or rather, nai-n-da, is the combination of nai ない, the contraction of the nominalizing particle no の, which is n ん, and the plain copula da だ.

Basically, it's literally the same thing as nai desu, except it's not polite. So it just emphasizes or asserts what you just said.
  • shikatanai 仕方ない
    It can't be helped.
  • shikatanai-n-da 仕方ないんだ
    shikatanai no da 仕方ないのだ
    *sigh* it just can't be helped.

By the way, the reason why you need the particles n ん or no の is that nai is an adjective and you can't put the copula da だ right after an adjective, so you need to turn it into a noun first. With the polite copula desu that's allowed so you don't need the particles.

Polite Form

If you're studying Japanese, you may be aware of polite speech and that Japanese verbs have a "polite form" in which they get the masu suffix added to them, and you might be wondering: what is the polite form of nai?

Well, there isn't one, 'cause nai ain't no verb. It's an adjective.

What you might want, however, is the polite equivalent of nai, which would be masen ません. And the polite of nakatta would be masen deshita ませんでした.
  • kaku 書く
    To write.
  • kakimasu 書きます
    To write. (polite.)
  • kakanai 書かない
    To not write.
  • kakimasen 書きません
    To not write. (polite.)
  • kakanakatta 書かなかった
    Did not write.
  • kakimasen deshita 書きませんでした
    Did not write. (polite.)

Nakute なくて

The word nakute なくて is the te-form of nai. There's nothing special about it. When nai is affixed to an adjective, it works just like the te-form of adjectives. See:
  • samukunakute ii tenki 寒くなくていい天気
    Non-cold and good weather.
    Because it's not cold, it's a good weather.

Likewise, with verbs:
  • korosanakute sumu 殺さなくて済む
    To not kill and end it.
    To end it [without] killing [anyone.]
  • iwanakute ii kara 言わなくていいから
    Not saying [it to me is] good.
    You don't need to say it. You don't need to tell me.
  • yomenakutemo wakaru 読めなくても分かる
    Even if [I] can't read [it], [I] understand [it].
    [I] understand even if [I] can't read [it].

Naide ないで

The phrase naide ないで is the combination of nai plus the de で particle. Most of the time, it means "don't do [something]." A negative request. For example:
  • akirameru 諦める
    To give up.
  • akiramenaide! 諦めないで!
    Don't give up!
  • akiramenai-de kudasai! 諦めないでください!
    Please don't give up!

See the article on naide ないで for details.

Nai 無い, "Nonexistent"

In some rare cases, the word nai 無い is an adjective meaning "nonexistent" instead of an auxiliary adjective that makes negative forms that deny stuff.

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)
    • The ga nai が無い became no nai の無い here.
    • This happened because it's a relative clause,

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.

無い!無い無い!何が無いっていうの・・・?さあ transcript from manga Uchouten Kazoku 有頂天家族
Manga: Uchouten Kazoku 有頂天家族
  • Context: a character searches for a thing in the wreckage.
  • nai!
    nai nai!

    無い! 無い無い
    [It's not here! Not here! Not here!]
  • nani ga nai tte iu no...?
    What's [he] saying that's not there...?
  • saa さあ

Aru 在る

By the way, the antonym of nai 無い would be aru 在る. Which is weird, because 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, "existence," which only serves to show how these two kanji (在 and 無) are pretty much antonyms.

Aru 有る

By the way, the antonym of nai 無い would be aru 有る. Which is weird, because I already wrote this before?

Oh! The kanji is different!

See, what happens is that aru 在る means "to exist," but aru 有る means "to have" a possession. Since they're antonyms, that means nai 無い can also mean "to not have" a possession.
  • kane ga aru 金が有る
    To have money.
  • kane ga nai 金が無い
    Have no money.

Without Kanji

Note that, generally speaking, nai 無い and aru 有る, or aru 在る, are written without kanji, making them indistinguishable from each other or their auxiliary variants.
  • kyoumi ga aru koto 興味があること
    Something [you] have interest [in].
  • kyoumi ga nai koto 興味がないこと
    Something [you have] no interest [in].

Sore wa Nai それはない

Sometimes, the word nai ない is used when someone is presented with such an absurd idea the only response they can have for it is:
  • nai ない

This one can be a bit tricky to get since the word nai is alone, showing up out of the blue.

More technically, it's an answer to the question: is this okay? Proper? Valid? Possible? Is something like this even allowed? Nope! No way! "That's not!!" Sore wa nai!!

今日のご飯は? はい!! それはですね… えっと… 私のしっぽ焼きです ないわ え? ないわ えぇ!? transcript from manga Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon
Manga: Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, Kobayashi-san Chi no Meidoragon 小林さんちのメイドラゴン
  • kyou no gohan wa?
    Today's [dinner] [is]?
  • hai!!
    sore wa desu ne...

    はい!! それはですね…
    Yes!! That's, [you see]...
  • etto...
  • watashi no

    私の しっぽ焼き です
    My roasted-tail.
  • *Kobayashi.exe freezes for a moment.*
  • nai wa
  • e?
  • nai wa
    No way.
  • ee!?

Sore wa Ari それはあり

By the way, the opposite would be ari あり. This one usually shows up when someone questions the legality of an absurd situation. Specially when there are rules in place, or one assumes there should be rules against something because of how absurd it is.

For example, in a 1-vs-1 robot-fighting championship, can a robot be actually two robots that split in two mid-fight turning it into a 2-x-1 fight?
  • sore wa nai それはない
    That's nonexistent.
    That's not okay. Not valid.
    That doesn't happen.
    That's illegal.
    That's not allowed.
    That's against the rules.
  • sore wa ari それはあり
    That's existent.
    That okay. Valid.
    That does happen.
    That's legal.
    That's allowed.
    That's not against the rules.
  • ari ka yo!? ありかよ!?
    [It's] allowed!?

In manga and anime, it tends to show up when an opponent has some technique that seems to be "against the rules," even in contexts like wars, etc. where there aren't any actual rules in place. The enemy ability is so bizarre the character questions how something like that can be allowed.

It can also happen when the characters come up with a dubious solution for a problem that makes people question whether something like that is legitimate. Not from a police point of view, just from a "is the author even allowed to do this?" point of view.

こういうの…ありなの? こういう場合はありなの! transcriptiong from anime SSSS.Gridman episode 5.
Anime: SSSS.Gridman, Episode 5
  • Context: the computer is outside, but it needs energy, so they plugged it to an extension cord.
  • kouiu no... ari nano?
    This sort of [thing]... is it [valid]?
    Is this sort of thing allowed?
  • kouiu baai wa ari nano!
    In this sort of circumstances it's [valid]!
    In this case it's allowed!


The word mu 無 isn't a word. It's a prefix.

As you can see, it's written with the same kanji as nai 無い. But nai has the kun'yomi reading while mu has the on'yomi reading. The meaning of the kanji stays the same, however: "nonexistent."

When mu 無 is part of a word, it basically makes whatever the rest of the kanji mean nonexistent. For example:
  • muyou 無用
    Useless. (nonexistent use)
  • muryou 無料
    Free. (nonexistent charge, cost, price)
  • muri 無理
    Impossible. (nonexistent logic, basis)

An interesting thing is that for some words you actually have antonyms featuring antonym kanji from before.
  • mugen 無限
    Infinite. (nonexistent limit)
  • yuugen 有限
    Finite. (existing limit.)
  • mukou 無効
    Ineffective. (nonexistent effect)
  • yuukou 有効
    Effective. (existing effect.)
  • muzai 無罪
    Innocent. (nonexistent guilt.)
  • yuuzai 有罪
    Guilty. (existing guilty.)
    (getting this on Gyuakuten Saiban means game-over.)

ない vs. 無い

The word nai ない can be written in two ways: nai ない and nai 無い. With kanji and without kanji. But why is that? What's the difference between ない and 無い?

It's simple, really. When nai ない is used as an auxiliary adjective, which is almost always, it's written without kanji.

When nai ない is a normal adjective, meaning "nonexistent," it can be written with kanji. That doesn't mean it will be written with kanji, it just means it's allowed to write it with kanji then.

This happens because it's an orthographic rule that auxiliaries are always supposed to be written without kanji. The same thing happens with dekiru できる, for example, which is spelled without kanji when it's the potential for suru, but can be spelled dekiru 出来る when it means "made of."

Nasasou 無さそう

The phrase nasasou 無さそう means "seems to not have" or "seems to not exist," while nasasou なさそう is "seems to not be."
  • baka janai 馬鹿じゃない
    Not an idiot.
  • baka janasasou 馬鹿じゃさそう
    Seems to not be an idiot.
    Looks like [he] isn't an idiot.

This nasasou is how you put the sou そう suffix, "seems to," "looks like," in the nai 無い adjective. Technically, you're putting the sou suffix goes after the sa-form, "-ness" form," of nai. See:
  • kane ga nai 金が無い
    To not have money.
  • kane no nasa 金の無さ
    The nonexistence-ness of money.
    How much [I] don't have money.
  • kano ga nasasou 金が無さそう
    It seems there's not money. It seems [he] doesn't have money.
  • kane ga nasasou-na hito 金が無さそうな
    A person [who] looks like [they] don't have money.
    • nasasou-na 無さそうな
      The sou suffix works as na-adjective.

This is irregular. The only other adjective that gets sou added to the sa-form is ii いい, or yoi よい, which becomes yosasou 良さそう. Normally, the sou suffix is added to the stem instead:
  • samui 寒い
    [It's] cold.
  • samusou 寒そう
    [It] seems cold.

Nakunai なくない

Since you can put nai ない after i-adjectives to negate them and nai ない is an i-adjective itself, it makes sense that, grammatically, you can add nai to nai itself, creating nakunai, a double negative.
  • sugoi! 凄い!
  • sugokunai 凄くない
    Not incredible.
  • sugokunakunai 凄くなくない
    Not not incredible. (yes, incredible.)

Nakunakunai なくなくない

Likewise, you can add a nai ない to nakunai なくない, creating a nakunakunai triple-negative aberration, because why not?
  • sugokunakunakunai 凄くなくなくない
    Not not not incredible. (not incredible.)

Nakunakunakunai なくなくなくない

And yeah, of course you can add a nai ない to nakunakunai なくなくない too, obviously, I mean, that's just nakunakunakunai, a quadruple-negative monstrosity, no big deal.
  • sugokunakunakunakunai 凄くなくなくなくない
    Not not not not incredible. (yes incredible)

And if you are wondering: is there even a point in doing this? Or: do Japanese natives even do this? The answer is easy: OF COURSE THEY DON'T DO THIS BECAUSE THERE'S ABSOLUTELY NO POINT IN DOING THIS AT ALL!!!!1

I mean, yeah, grammatically speaking, it makes sense, in every other manner of speaking, however, it makes no sense. Why would you even do any of this? So don't do any of this. This kind of negative suffix stacking only ever shows up jokingly.

マヨイ「これ、あたし・・・・なんだよね。やっぱり、あたしが撃ったんだ。霧崎先生のコト・・・・」 ナルホド「そんなことないよ。」 マヨイ「そんなことなくないッ!」 ナルホド「そんなことなくなくない!」 マヨイ「そんなことなくなくなくなくなく」 ナルホド(・・・・最初から、こんな写真見せるんじゃなかったな・・・・) transcript from game Gyakuten Saiban 2 逆転裁判2 (Ace Attorney)
Game: Gyakuten Saiban 2 逆転裁判2 (Ace Attorney)
  • Context: Naruhodo ナルホド (Phoenix Wright's Japanese name) shows Mayoi マヨイ a photo of her shooting dead Kirisaki-sensei 霧崎先生 (a.k.a. Turner Grey.)
  • Mayoi マヨイ
  • kore, atashi.... nanda yo ne.
    This, it's me... isn't it?
  • yappari, atashi ga uttanda.
    As I thought, I did shoot.
  • Kirisaki-sensei no koto....
    Dr. Turner Grey....
  • Naruhodo ナルホド
  • sonna koto nai yo.
    It's not like that.
  • Mayoi マヨイ
  • sonna koto nakunai'!
    It's not not like that!
  • Naruhodo ナルホド
  • sonna koto nakunakunai!
    It's not not not like that!
  • Mayoi マヨイ
  • sonna koto nakunakunakunakunaku...
    It's not not not not not...
  • Naruhodo ナルホド
  • (....saisho kara, konna shashin
    miseru-n-janakatta na....)
    (....from the start, a photo like this shouldn't have been shown....)
    • i.e.: it's not something you should show, I shouldn't have shown a photo like this.


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  1. Thank you very much! I'm starting to read manga, but I couldn't find anywhere explaining what is naku until I found you! Now I can understand (at least I think I can understand) all the nais and nakus when I'm reading.