Sunday, December 31, 2017

Spaces in Japanese

One question people learning Japanese may have is: does Japanese have spaces between words like English? The answer is: no, not really, but sort of, yes.

Most of the time, Japanese does not use spaces between words. All words are written without any sort of explicit division between them. The only thing in common with English is that words aren't broken in the middle when a line ends; lines often end in a word and start with another word.

You may think this is insane because, after all, how would you be able to tell the words apart without spaces?! But in Japanese you can tell the words apart based solely on the alphabet used to write them (hiragana, katakana or kanji) and on certain word patterns you get used to after a while, so spaces aren't really necessary in the written language.

However, there are still cases where a space is put between words in Japanese, rare cases, yes, but they exist.

For example, the way words are usually told apart in Japanese relies partially on the idea that most words are written with kanji, not without, and plenty of them end in kana (called okurigana), so you if you saw a pattern of kanji-kana-kanji-kana, you could assume there are two words, each starting with kanji, ending in kana.

Use of spaces to separate words in Japanese written with kana as a means of disambiguation. Example from manga Jojo no Kimyou na Bouken

But this strategy doesn't work when you have two words written entirely with kana one after the other, be it two words normally written with hiragana, or normally written with katakana. In this case, the author may put a space between these two words to show where one ends and the other starts, just like we'd do in English.

Another case is when a space is used to represent a pause in Japanese, usually when a character hesitantly tries to say something.

Usage of spaces between words in Japanese as a pause in an interjection. Example from manga Nichijou

This kind of pause may also be used when a grammatical particle was simply left unspoken.

For example: boku wa reo desu 僕はレオです, would be a grammatically correct to say "I'm Leo," but you can omit the desu, so boku wa reo also works, then maybe you omit the wa, replacing it with a pause:
  • boku (pause) reo 僕 レオ
    I (pause) Leo.

Another example:
  • boku mita 僕 見た (boku ga mita)
    I (pause) saw.


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  1. The only thing in common with English is that words aren't broken in the middle when a line ends

    …except when they are. A lot of website layouts etc. don’t care if it’s the end of a word or not, they reach the end of a line – they add a linebreak.

    1. That's true. Browsers don't have the technology yet to figure out when to break lines automatically. But when it's up to a writer or editor to decide when to break up a line, they don't break it in the middle of words. If they do, it's usually a suffix like ない that ends up in the next line.