Thursday, August 3, 2017

The, an, a: Definite & Indefinite Articles in Japanese

This article will explain about articles in Japanese. In English we have "a" and "an," indefinite articles, and "the," the definite article. How do we translate them from English to Japanese? What is their Japanese equivalent?

Well... huh. This is awkward, but Japanese does not have articles. At all.

The end.


You still there? Alright. Let me elaborate.

English has articles. Three articles, "a," "an," and "the." They are found in a ton of phrases, so we end up assuming articles are quite important. (Portuguese has four of them! Varying in gender and number!) However, not all languages think articles are such a big deal. At least Japanese doesn't. So there is nothing we put before a noun to indicate whether it's definite or indefinite. See:
  • neko
    A cat.
  • neko
    The cat.
  • guntai 軍隊
    An army.
  • guntai 軍隊
    The army.

To begin with, as a native Portuguese speaker, English articles are a mess. I mean, "a" and "an" depend not on grammar, like whether the noun is plural or not, but instead purely on phonetics, whether the next syllable starts with a consonant or not. This is already pretty silly, but the fact that English spelling / pronunciation is so unreliable all the time only makes it worse. So Japanese no-articles rule is far better imho.

Sentences Examples

Nouns don't get articles even when used in sentences. See:

Example of definite and indefinite article ambiguity in Japanese: monstaa ga arawareta モンスターがあらわれた can mean either "a monster appeared" or "the monster appeared" in Japanese. Phrase extracted from the anime Mahoujin Guru Guru 魔法陣グルグル

Above we are saying a monster appeared... or are we? If we were playing a RPG game and a monster suddenly appeared, it is indeed a monster, because it just showed up out of nowhere and we didn't know about its existence previously in the discourse.

However, if there is only one single monster in the whole story, you don't expect a monster to show up, you don't expect any other random monster to show up, you expect only the monster to show up. On top of that, if a monster has appeared before, there's a chance the monster will appear once again. So the sentence monsutaa ga arawareta モンスターが現れた is indeed ambiguous on whether it's a monster or the monster that is showing up.

(to find out which is it, go watch the anime)

Anyway, the point is that there is no word to tell whether something is known (definite) or unknown (indefinite) in Japanese. You can't just tell whether "noun" is the "noun" that appeared before or a "noun" you didn't know about just by looking at the words of a sentence. You can't tell if it's definite or indefinite that way.

How to Tell If a Noun is Definite or Indefinite

Just because there are no articles in Japanese that doesn't mean it's impossible to tell the definiteness of a noun. To do this we must use a special technique, popularly called "the common sense," which enables us to just figure it out from the context by assuming certain levels of sanity. For example:
  • hito ga shinda 人が死んだ
    [A] person died.
    [The] person died.
  • watashi ga jyuusu wo nomitai 私がジュースを飲みたい
    I want to drink [a] juice.
    I want to drink [the] juice.
  • kokuou wo ansatsu suru 国王を暗殺する
    Assassinate [a] king (of [a] country)
    Assassinate [the] king (of [the] country).

If the story is boring and predictable rehashed garbage normal and sane, then it's a person that died, a juice they want to drink, and the king that should be assassinated.

Of course if it's an intriguing, well-written, deep, twist-filled masterpiece a tale with no regards for common sense, then it could be the person, as in the only person living among non-persons, like in "The Boy and The Beast" Bakemono no Ko バケモノの子 ("Monster Child"), or it could be the juice which, I don't know, maybe the legendary juice that tastes better than anything in the world but is also extremely expensive and most people can't afford it twice in their lives, and it could be just a king, like there's this group of mercenaries that go around the world doing missions and the requirement to join them is to kill a king, doesn't matter which king, so not necessarily the king, a king.

It could be those things. Most likely it won't be, but if it is, you'll be able to tell. So you probably won't have any trouble understanding phrases just because there are no articles in Japanese.

So that's how articles, or rather, the lack of articles, work in Japanese.


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  1. What if it is a common situation (not anime) and the person acts vague. Is your only options interrogation or beat it out of them? How about swingy anime character only sometime insane like the main characters of Full Metal Panic season 1 and 2.

  2. Hell, there're no articles in japanese!! I'm screwed...
    Oh wait, there're no articles in my native language as well. Whew... Who needs them anyway?