Most attempts to teach Japanese to foreigners start off with long lists of words to learn and endless drills practicing how to say things like "Suzuki-san, konnichi-wa." But with an appropriately nerdular mind, none of this is necessary. The nerd can simply study the formal Backus-Naur definition of the language, and then treat all the individual words to be learned the same way he would learn a long list of manifest constants #define'd in some C library. This article is a pioneering attempt to provide that Backus-Naur definition.
Let's start off with one of the most basic Japanese words of all: na-i, which means "does not exist", pronounced "nigh". It's sort of like the "zero" in some Japanese-language version of abstract arithmetic. The cool thing about nai and all the other words in its whole class is that it is a complete sentence standing all by itself. It is not only a valid sentence but occurs all the time in everyday conversation.
How can that be? You have to say what does not exist, right? Well, in Japanese, you do not. Just think of the subject as a kind of optional parameter to the nai() function call. So what is the default, then? Whatever it needs to be. So nai could just as easily mean "there's nothing in the fridge" as "God does not exist."
Where things get interesting is the ways that nai can be subclassed. All of these involve taking just the leading na part, and overriding the i on the end with something else.
The IF statement
For example, the IF statement of Japanese just replaces the i with kereba, giving na-kereba. Like all Japanese words, this is pronounced exactly like it is written--giving Italian pronunciations to the vowels, and equal emphasis to all syllables.
The time has come to make our first complex Japanese sentence:
This is a pop quiz. Translate it now!
And the correct answer is:
If there's none, there's none.
A surprisingly useful sentence, allowing you to amaze your Japanese friends with both your linguistic fluency and your philosophical depth.
The second transformation is to replace the i on the end of na-i with ku, giving na-ku. Just between us nerds, let us think of this as meaning the "state of not existing". Just like in group theory you can build up a whole number system from a bunch of zeroes, we can build up a whole linguistic structure from all these na-i variants. For instance, consider the phrase na-ku na-i.
Did you get it? The state of not existing does not exist, right? So it is "not absent". Which means it is present...but with the same nuance that the double negative gives you in English, as in "I do not not have the money."
OK, here is another pop quiz for bonus points. Translate the following:
- It is not that I do not not have it.
- If I do not not have it.
Negative temporal translation
- Neg(Neg(Neg()), which is naku naku nai
- Cond(Neg(Neg()), or naku nakereba
The third basic transformation is Past(), which replaces the final i with katta, giving na-katta. (The double t in Japanese is pronounced by saying the first t, holding it for an extra beat, and then proceeding, something like "nah cot tah".) Now you may be getting worried at this point: are we about to enter a French-like hell of dozens of weird tenses like passé pluparfait? Relax. Japanese essentially has two tenses: present and past. For what we call the "future tense" in English, they just use the present. It works much better than you might think. As you can see from this, Japanese is a very simplistic language. Conceptually, it has not really advanced much since the Jomon people were living in huts 4000 years ago. They still have not gotten around to plurals or genders, to take just two examples.
Finally, subjects and topics
Oops. We have neglected to tell you how to specify the optional parameter value for "subject". Syntactically Japanese is basically an S-O-V language, so the subject comes before the predicate. The word that nerds would use for "I" is boku.
So "I don't have it" would just be boku nai.
You might wonder why this sentence doesn't mean "I do not exist". Well, it could. Except that would not be too useful except right after some big Zen realization moment. And, to get technical on you, this form of existential negation cannot be used for an agentive-type entity such as a human, which you presumably are. I used the word "subject" above, but it is better to call this a "topic". So a semi-literal translation of boku nai would be "on the topic of me, it does not exist".
But I thought that...
Japanese had a really complicated writing system. Yes, it does. But that's not what we're talking about here, right?
Japanese had all these different formality levels. Yes, it does. But that's also not what this article is about, and frankly, its importance is exaggerated. At some point in your study of Japanese, you will learn how to say "eat" in eight different ways. In the meantime, would you rather be able to communicate or not?
Japanese grammar is really complicated.Well, no it is not. But we have certainly not covered it all here. Wait for the second article in this series, bozo.
There were these wa and ga particles in Japanese. Yes, I have indeed omitted big pieces of this picture, such as the topic particle wa which could come after boku. But it is not at all necessary for communicating with the cute Japanese girl tourists you're trying to pick up at Starbucks. In fact, leaving it out will make your Japanese sound a lot more fuckable. In any case, I will cover particles in a future installment. Intrepid reviewers of this article have pointed out that in a programming paradigm these particles correspond to operators in a programming language. And so they do. We'll take them up soon.
Review and wrap-up
Let's review the basic forms we have learned today:
- na-i, not existing
- na-kereba, if not existing
- na-ku, state of not existing
- na-katta, not existing in the past
To conclude, we will use all we have learned to create an entire conversation. But first, we will need the Japanese word for "money", which is kane, literally "gold". Second, we will need to learn how to make questions in Japanese, which turns out to be something of the utmost simplicity: just raise your voice at the end of the sentence, and you have a question. No need for complicated word order rearrangements like in English. So here is the conversation, in absolutely real street Japanese you might hear strolling down the sidewalks of Shibuya:
- Kane nai?
- Boku naku nai.
Give yourself a second to see how well you can do translating this.
- Got any cash?
- I'm not completely out.
For homework, run through difference transformations of these other useful Japanese words which work just like nai:
- sugo-i, cool, as in sugo-i puroguramu (program)
- hido-i, horrible, as in hido-i bagu (bug)
Next: Japanese for Nerds (II): Verbs