Sunday, July 14, 2019

Contrastive は

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, the contrastive wa は refers to the wa は particle when it marks the contrastive topic. Normally, the wa は particle just marks the (non-contrastive) topic, hence why this distinction is important.

The contrastive wa は is easily spotted when you have two topic-comments joined by a conjunction. For example:
  • neko wa doubutsu da kedo
    banana wa doubutsu janai

    猫は動物だけど
    バナナは動物じゃない
    Cats are animals but
    bananas aren't animals.

Above, the comment "are animals" regarding the topic "cats" contrasts with the comment "aren't animals" that regards "bananas."

The simplest contrast is just "is" versus "is not," but you can have all sorts of contrasts, like antonyms, for example:
  • neko wa suki da kedo
    inu wa kirai da

    好きだけど
    嫌いだ
    Cats are liked but dogs are disliked.
    [I] like cats, but [I] dislike dogs.

The big problem of the contrastive wa は are its implicatures. As the name implies, we're contrasting one topic with a second topic. In the phrases above, we have both topics in the sentence. However, the contrastive wa は can contrast with an out-of-sentence topic.

For example, if I asked you: "do you like cats and dogs?"
  • neko wa suki da
    好きだ
    Cats are liked.
    [I] like cats.
    • Implicature: not-cats are not-liked: dogs are disliked; I dislike dogs.

Even though we didn't mention "dogs" in the sentence, we implied something about them.

Implicatures are cancellable. We didn't actually say we dislike dogs, we merely implied it. For example, the speaker could say the following phrase and he wouldn't sound like he's contradicting himself:
  • kedo inu wa motto suki da
    けど犬もっと好きだ
    But dogs are more liked.
    But [I] like dogs more.

Due to how these implicatures work, a compliment can turn into a discompliment if you use the contrastive wa は instead of the ga が particle by accident:
  • kanojo wa atama ga ii
    彼女いい
    Her: head is good.
    She is smart.
    • This would be the normal way of saying it.
  • kanojo wa atama wa ii
    彼女いい
    (nuanced meaning.)
    • Implicature: her not-head is not-good: her looks are bad, her personality is bad, her taste in anime is bad, etc.

For further reference, see when to use wa は vs ga.

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