Tokyo Damage Report

Verbs are gandams!


I swear to god the Japanese got their idea of Gandam Fighters from their verb grammar.

Gandams are these robot toys that you can customize as if they were lowriders. . . they have hundreds of modular, interchangeable accessories: first you’re adding armor to the shoulders, then you add some guns that are as big as the whole robot, then you add like 15 jet-packs, then more armor, and pretty soon you can’t even see the robot anymore; it’s totally floating in this NIMBUS OF WEAPONRY. Japanese verbs are just like this, except the weapons are all pointed at foreign students.


First you start with a simple verb like ‘norimasu’.

It means, ‘to board’ (as in, board a train / plane / submarine (of which more later (kidding)). Hey, that isn’t so hard, right?


But then if you want to CHANGE trains you add ‘kare’. As in, ‘noriKAREmasu.. that’s right, you’re adding the suffix in the middle of the word, why not. Then, if you want to say, ‘if I change trains. . .’ you have to add ANOTHER suffix: RAREBA. So now it’s….



But if you want to make this a NEGATIVE, simply add on yet another suffix: NORKARERANAI. But as it happens, if you are using the ‘if/then’ grammar,THEN you can’t just say NAI….. you have to also add ‘…..KEREBA’ so the finished product (the nimbus of weaponry surrounding the verbal Gandam as it were) is like this:



And, now you want to EMPHASIZE norikarerarenakereba.




In fact, even the EMPHASES modular and ‘stackable’! it’s not uncommon to see ‘newa’ or ‘neyo’ or ‘dayo’…… but of course it’s totally against the rules to do ‘neyo’. DUH.

So if you want to really really emphasize that IF you CAN’T change trains….


SEE? you can’t even see the damn robot in the center anymore– he’s TOTALLY obscured.

And I’m not even dealing with PREFIXES here. I have mercy.

so, you may ask, what practical problems does this present for the Tokyo Damaged student of Japanese?

. . .Let’s start with a simple word like OOKII. This means ‘big.’

But 99% of the time you will never see ‘big’ in a book, magazine, or conversation.

It’s always altered in some way. for instance, OOKINDESUYO. (really big!)
Or OOKIKUTE (big and… Some other adjective)
Or OOKIKATTA (past tense (yeah, I don’t get it either) of big)
Or OOKIKUNAI (not big)
(different from ‘small’)
or OOKIKUNAKUTTE (was not big)
or, much more common, OOKIKUNAKUTTENDESUYO (it was really not big)

and it gets even more nutty when they string adjectives together, and you have no idea where one adjective ends and the next one starts, because THERE ARE NO SPACES BETWEEN WORDS.

With any remotely sane language you would , at this point turn to your dictionary. You would say, "ok, dictionary, here is a word I do not know. What does it mean?"

But with Japanese, you will not find OOKIKUTE. Nor will you find OOKIKATTA or OOKINDESU. And you certainly will never find OOKIKUNAKUTTENDESUYO.
This is because the dictionaries only have the ROOT FORM of the word. In this case, ookii. And of course the root form is defined as ‘the form which is never used in books or conversation.’

So here is the conundrum: if you don’t know the word, you can’t look it up unless you know the root. And if you know the root, what the hell do you need a dictionary for?

This is my beef with dictionaries. And it is phat.

Ironically, my pal Pom the Computational Linguist said that there ARE dictionaries that have every possible form of every word. They are called MORPHOLOGICAL DICTIONARIES.. the punchline is, they don’t say what the words mean. HA HA HA fuck you God.


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  1. Dave January 28th, 2012 4:40 am

    Thank you for articulating just how frustrating the verb system is in Japanese. I swear, every time I feel like I'm finally understanding how shit works in Japanese, I get smacked in the face with ANOTHER complication. In the end I just say fuck it and hope that in time I'll just osmotically come to understand it all. I love your language stuff on this site though.

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