Thursday, August 3, 2017

The, An, A

How do you say "a," "an," and "the" in Japanese is a common question by learners who already know English.

After all, those are the definite and indefinite articles, used everywhere in English grammar to determine the definiteness of nouns: "a" cat and "the" cat mean different things.

However, in Japanese, such articles do not exist. You read that right: Japanese does not have articles, at all.

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

Definiteness of Nouns

In Japanese, the definiteness and plurality of a noun is implicit. That means you can't tell without context if a noun is singular or plural, or if it's definite or indefinite. A single Japanese noun can be translated in five different ways. For example:
  • neko
    A cat.
    The cat.
    The cats..

On the plus side, you don't have to figure out if you use "a" or "an" in a word in Japanese, because those things don't exist.

On the minus side, you can't tell if a word is plural, definite, or not, or neither.

The problem becomes even worse when you have two nouns, in which one is a no-adjective for the other. For example:
  • neko no mimi
    1. Cat's ear.
    2. A cat's ear.
    3. The cat's ear.
    4. Cats' ear.
    5. The cats' ear.
    6. Cat's ears.
    7. A cat's ears.
    8. The cat's ears.
    9. Cats' ears.
    10. The cats' ears.

Sentence Examples

To have a better idea, let's see a couple of examples of how nouns work in sentences.
  • monsutaa ga arawareta
    [A/the] monster[/s] appeared.

The phrase above is common in RPGs, used when the player gets a random encounter with a monster.

Clearly, in that case, it should be "a monster" appeared. Since we didn't know of "the" monster until it appeared.

But the same phrase is also used if multiple monsters appear, in which case it would be "monsters appeared," or maybe "some monsters appeared."
  • hito ga shinda
    (context reliant.)

The simple phrase above can have various interpretations depending on context. For example:
  • If we were carrying out a world-domination plan that was meant to not cause harm to anybody, but then...
    • A person died.
  • If we are a bunch of monsters who live in a monster-community like from the movie "Monster Child," Bakemono no Ko バケモノの子 (The Boy and The Beast), and there's, like, one human among us, we all know about him, but then...
    • The person died.
  • If our world-domination plan failed much harder than previously thought.
    • People died.
  • If we were talking about a kingdom where man and machine lived harmoniously, but then a virus killed all living beings, the inorganic machines survived, but:
    • The people died.

As you can see, it really depends on context.

Usually you won't really have trouble with this, so don't worry.


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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?

  3. It should be noted however, that there are certain situational articles such as this (kono) or that (ano.) For example, someone may ask, "which person here is Japanese?" Koko ni, dono hito ga nihonjin desu ka? to which one may answer, "THAT person [over there] is Japanese." Ano hito ga Nihonjin desu.

    1. Those aren't articles, though, they are demonstrative pronouns. I think the term "determiner" would include both articles and demonstratives.

  4. Couldn’t the お before some words be considered an article? For example in お酒 and お仕事. I know plays the role of making of making it more formal, but that could just mean that articles only exist in polite speech.

    1. No. That's just a prefix that makes things polite, and has several functions, see

      An article has a special function. Some consider articles a type of determiner. For example, observe you say a/the/no/each person, or some/any/all people, but you don't say "THE some/any/all people" or "A some water," and so on. That's because all these words have the same the same purpose but different function, each specifies a noun in a different way, so you can't combine them.

      In Japanese, no/each/some/any/all would be expressed through prefixes and adjectives, and nothing for the articles a/an/the, so those end up being ambiguous.