Hard-earned Immersion Learnings

After I started immersing seriously a few years ago, I compiled some Japanese that felt so weird to me at the time. Since then, everything makes sense, but to this day, I have not seen any resources that explain these concepts. I say these are hard-earned learnings because the only way I could learn these concepts was by immersing, as explanations were scantly available anywhere on the English-speaking corner of the web.

What I hope to accomplish here is to reduce the amount of brain wrestling you will need to understand the underlying factors at play when you immerse yourself. Essentially, I hope to be the resource I didn’t have.

Instead of starting with the general principles, what I will do is start with specific learnings I had from specific examples. Only after I have done this will I connect it to a more general principle and tie it with other recurring aspects of the language.

Exhibit A) Using ない and ある on their own to refer to floating/unstated norms and expectations.

  1. 空いた食器を下げるとか あるだろ

(Lit: Lowering empty dishes, exists y’know /
Translation: Y’know, there’s that norm that you should lower empty dishes)

Here, the word “norm” or an equivalent is never used. It just says that such a thing exists. (So it makes me wonder if they just imagine a floating set of norms that you can point to as existing at any time.)

  1. ちょっと 聞いといて その言い方はないでしょ

(Lit: Listen up, that way of talking, doesn’t exist right? /
Translation: Listen up, you know that’s no way to talk, right?)
It’s weird that they say “言い方がない” to say that this is not an established norm/way of talking that conforms to societal standards that exist.


Exhibit A Learnings: There is always a default context

I can assure you that in the context of the shows in which those sentences showed up, words like “norms” or “expectations” never once showed up. Instead, it seems like one can always simply point to these norms or expectations at any time, because they are part of the default conversational context.

I’m sure you all already know about how in Japanese, as you speak, the conversational context can shift around and expand or shrink. When you need to point to something that isn’t expected to be in the other person’s mind already as part of the context, you use は to introduce it. However, these examples show something different: on top of being able to introduce new conversational contexts, there is always a default context. Conversational contexts don’t start from a blank slate.

That’s why they can lightly refer to norms and expectations without ever once mentioning these words: they are already expected to be part of the default conversational context.

Exhibit B) Tendency to describe things and situations (nouns) rather than actions

As far as sounding natural, one “ah-ha” moment for me was when I realized that English sentences are motivated by verbs – A does B. Japanese is motivated by nouns or passive phrases – Phrase B is A.

Instead of: 日本に行きましたか? You went to Japan?
It’s normally: 日本に行ったことがありますか? Does the went to Japan thing exist?

Now for some examples from immersion:

  1. そのペースじゃ 貴様は 永遠にブタのままだな!

(Translation: At that pace, you’ll remain a pig forever!)

For some reason, in my English brain, if I were to form the same sentence, I would probably say it like this (adding a strikethrough to emphasize that this is not natural sounding):

そのペースじゃ 永遠に豚である状態が続くよ

  1. 全員に100万渡しても 余る額だぜ

Notice that this is simply stating a described noun, rather than introducing the noun and describing it. Initially, my English brain would have been tempted to say it like this instead:

この額は、全員に100万渡しても残る

(Everything in my soul is screaming for me to add a noun at the end now, but the above is indeed how I would have phrased things before I got more accustomed to this principle of describing things).

Exhibit B Learnings: Japanese figuratively points at things in the world

In general, the Japanese mentality differs from English in that in Japanese, it seems like the default way of communicating is to thing-isize everything, and simply make declarative statements about them.

Thus, Japanese simply describes the world around them. It has a penchant for pointing at something in the conversational context and elucidate a little more about it.

This is why the explanatory の is so prevalent. For example, if you see me with a cast for the first time, I could pre-emptively say,

家の段階で倒れて怪我したんだ

That んだ=の(だ) is using の to point at something in the shared conversational context. As soon as I see that you see me seeing you, I know that the situation of my having a cast has entered the conversational context, without a word needing to be uttered. Therefore, I can point to that and describe the “cast-having me” thing with の since I know it is in our shared context.

Even more general, the way that these grammar points like の and わけ function is simply to explain something in the conversational context.

You can see this at play in this BunPro example:

熱のわけではないけど、体がだるい。

Now that you understand that わけ is pointing at something in the conversational context, what you can immediately infer is that this sentence would be uttered in a situation where you were clearly disturbed by some ailment, and this is clearly visible to others, and you can see that others are apt to notice it.

In that situation, you don’t even have to introduce the fact that you are feeling unwell, as this is apparent; you simply describe the “ailment-causing thing”, and say that the source of this occurrence is not fever.

Notice that when you think like this, you lose the temptation to rephrase this (incorrectly) in the English-thinking way below (again striking it through to emphasize that this would probably not be as natural sounding):
熱があるわけではないけど、体がだるい。

See, if you were to add the がある to it, now you would be pointing to yourself in the conversational context, whereas in the original, you’re more pointing at the ailment-causing thing itself.

Anyway, more generally, you can see that Japanese is a language focused on describing the things in the world (rather than a language that is focused on interacting with it) by seeing examples that have been before your very eyes from the very start with examples like:

本が好き

Surely by now you know that 好き is an adjective, but did you know that the reason that this is how we say “I like books” in Japanese is not because Japanese lacks the concept of the verb “to like”? In fact, the verb does exist: 好く and it is transitive. So you could actually (rather unnaturally) say, “本を好く” or “本を好む”.

In actuality, this simple example that you have gotten used to is simply an illustration of the general principle that in Japanese, it is preferred to describe the things in the world, rather than talk about how we interact with it. Literally, you are just pointing at the thing (books) and describing them (they are liked).

This bias toward description rather than action can be seen in the fact that, generally, when there are transitive/intransitive verb pairs (such as 付く and 付ける), natural Japanese sentences will prefer using intransitive verbs when possible, because this is more in line with describing the 出来事 (occurrence of things in the world) rather than interacting with them. This is why we use

気が付く instead of 気が付ける - realizations get attached to you; you don’t do the attaching yourself.

I’ll even add one more thing without giving much proof by example: whenever you do see a transitive verb being used, it’s often used to figuratively describe what inanimate things are doing. This is why you will see this pattern a lot in J-J dictionaries: “…という意を表す” (it is literally saying that the word in question that is being defined, expresses a meaning, rather than that the meaning is expressed by the word).

Thus, it seems that even when transitive verbs are used, they’re mostly used to describe the things in the world, rather than to describe the actions taken onto the world.


There’s a lot more to write about, but I don’t have the patience to go through everything, compile it, and explain it. I was going to delete this, but I figured I might as well not be greedy and share what I’ve already written so far.

19 Likes

Wow, thank you so much for this – I’m so glad that you didn’t delete it! Your insights about describing objects using の was especially stimulating/useful.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I thought about 物の哀れ as I was reading your write-up about how Japanese is a language that describes the world in nouns/objects.

2 Likes

I’m super glad that you found it helpful!

For future reference, if I end up writing further, here are some of the other topics I was thinking of covering:

AてもB is not always contrastive. Sometimes, it is just て + も.

偽がヘマをして捕まり、デスノートの存在を知られてもまずい

遺書もなく、隣の人は口論を聞いてもいない。

This implies that て is actually a word (follow the thread down to @Asher 's responses). You can use this knowledge to decipher many “grammar points” that use て (e.g.: ~ていない、~てくれる etc.). This is especially useful in understanding the point ては as the negative conditional.

Other times, instead of being contrastive, ても is actually emphasizing that things are going according to your expectations!

そんなこと言われても、困る。

決めつけ過ぎても窮屈になるだけです

Adjかった is probably a contraction of Adjくあった. Because of this, you may sometimes see Adjくはあった, which may imply that く may have functioned as a word at one point, and this is a remnant where we can interrupt it with は to add more contrast. Speaking of contractions, だ is probably a contraction of である, which can actually be used to describe other nouns like XであるY. Coincidentally, な is also a connective form of だ. Also, you can see this type of contraction at play with だろう probably being a contraction of であろう.

Speaking of おう, you probably learned that this is the volitional, and that you can use ~おう・ようとする as trying to. But there are also examples where inanimate things are described with ~おう・ようとする. There is a true meaning behind the volitional, but it requires stepping outside of the “interacting with the world” mindset and into the more Japanese style of world describing.

雨が降ろうとしている

Once you get it, you will see that だろう is simply using the so-called volitional form with no special change in meaning or anything like that. But before fully grasping that, you also have to realize that it is a lie that ある must always be used to describe inanimate subjects:

私は今、キラ事件の捜査本部の指揮を取る立場にある

Once you understand this usage of ある, and that く can be interpreted as a word that connects to い-adjectives that means something like “in the manner of”, then Adjくあった => Adjかった just literally makes sense and is no longer so much of a conjugation rather than a conglomeration of other words.

OK, finally the “rude” commands like 風邪をひけよ are actually not literally commands. They are, again, descriptions of the world. Such a strong description that it is pretty much normative. Kind of like how we can use “should” normatively and descriptively: “kids should be at school during the daytime” is ambiguous (is it saying it is likely, or that it is desirable?). Japanese commands are the same - they are descriptive at heart and have come to be understood as commands. However, understanding the descriptive nature may help in understanding some more obscure grammar points.

EDIT: If anyone knows where I’m going with any of these threads of thought, feel free to add them here, and/or make new posts. I don’t think I’m gonna take more of my time to fully explain this shit out, but hopefully even being aware of some of the things I lightly mentioned in this follow-up will help you increase your awareness if you don’t already know what I’m getting at with each point.

2 Likes

I really hope you’ll be writing more – it’s helping me to understand grammar in a more thoughtful and metacognitive way.

You’re exactly right about parsing ても as て + も. It really helps to broaden our understanding of the different contexts in which ても can be used. For anyone interested, an example to add onto what @NickavGnaro is saying:

John: " 明日の集会は、口うるさいMarcusさんが来て、大変な会になるだろう。"
Mary: “ひねくれ屋のUrsulaさんが来ても、また大変だ。”

The “来ても” suggests a parallel condition, where Marcusさんが来る–> 大変だ is paralleled with Ursulaさんが来る–> それも大変だ, and so it makes more sense to parse Mary’s use of “来ても” as 来て+も instead of “even though” or “even if.”

I just think it’s really useful to think about grammar in this nuanced way, since it prevents us from memorizing it in a way that may lend itself to singular definitions, like “~ても・でも means “even if” or “even though.”” And it’s fun haha.

2 Likes

Hello,

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I find this tread really interesting, though I’m far from the level required to fully grasp it.

I did want to chime in, however, as this sentence brought to my mind an article I recently re-read on いる and ある. Somewhere down the article, it says that, “In classical Japanese, ある was used for everything, regardless of whether it moved or not. (…) The first known use of いる was later, in around 1070AD, and it originally meant “to set off on a journey”. Later on, it’s thought that いる began to be used for inanimate objects in motion, like a boat moving across the river. From there, it spread to all things that move.”

I don’t know if this helps any or contributes to the OP, but I thought it worth mentioning.

2 Likes

Thank you, that was very informative.

2 Likes

I don’t remember if I saw this in Bunpro, I read it on Kanshudo I think.
So in English, we like to take the plural version with the loan word. That’s why I like comics (with s) but I like manga (no s).

In Japanese Na adjectives are all nouns. That’s why it’s 綺麗じゃない (not pretty) is the same as 日本人じゃない(not Japanese), but different than 冷たくない(not cold). When importing a word, Japanese don’t want to import the verb conjugations- so it’s a noun now.

This is why 熟語/音読み, more Chinese looking words are more likely to be nouns with でした・じゃない than 訓読み/送り仮名 more Japanese looking words.

1 Like