Sunday, May 21, 2006

です is not a word

It's not.

It doesn't mean "to be", either. I think that it's easy to confuse yourself if you think so. If it's not a word, what have we been saying since our first Japanese lesson --「はチンです」?

I believe that です simply makes utterances more polite and carries tense when the preceeding clause is unable to.

温かい」 -- "[it's] warm" -- is already complete sentence. It does not require any word for "is" because Japanese adjectives already encapsulate this notion. When you say 「温かいです」, you're simply making what you say more polite. です, therefore, more similar to the 〜ます inflection of a verb. Both act to make what you're saying more polite, and nothing more.

The following sentences may make this clearer.
  • ケーキを食べた。 [verb stem + tense]
  • ケーキを食べました。[verb stem + polite + tense]
  • ケーキを食べたです。 [verb stem + tense + polite]
These sentences all mean, "[I] ate the cake," and only differ in their level of politeness. The second two only differ in the order that each part is applied. The third sentence is, literally, the first sentence with です tacked on to be more polite.

です also carries a sentence's tense when there's no other place to put it. Verbs and adjectives can inflect to indicate tense (〜た), but nouns can't. So, to say that it was raining yesterday, you say 「昨日でした」. です inflects to become でした since 雨 cannot carry tense itself.

How do these two ideas help us better understand Japanese? Well, it's taught me that translating です as "to be" is incorrect. I found it difficult to understand sentences with subordinate clauses until I stopped thinking this way. です indicates a level of politeness and the tense of a sentence, but it's just not a word.

So, what does 「私はチンです」 mean to me? "As for me, Chin [politely]."


Most textbooks and teachers introduce「知る」 as "to know" in English. As many people probably know, this is not entirely correct. I must say 「英語を知っている」 to indicate that I know English. Why is this? My Japanese teachers explained 知る as an "enduring state", so after you first "knowed" English, you always "know" it. Hence the use of the 〜ている form. Requests for more explanation in class lead to further confusion.

I think that English is to blame for this mess. "To know" functions as a verb, but actually describes a state (of having knowledge). Japanese is not like this.

Consider the verb "to learn", a verb that is actually a verb. Would you ask someone, "do you learn English," or, "did you learn English," when you want to find out if someone has (at some point) studied English? Most people would ask, "are you studing English," or, "have you studied English." Notice the structure of these sentences and their similarities to the 〜ている form. Both convey a sense of on-going action. The 〜ている form is, in fact, often translated into an English gerund form.

I find it easier to equate 知る to an English verb that indicates the acqusition of knowledge (e.g., "to learn"). In this fashion, 「英語を知っている」 translates more literally to, "[I] am 'knowing' English." Japanese requires 〜ている form for similar reasons that English requires the present perfect tense ("have learned") to express the action of "learning" at some point in the past.

First Post

I've recently graduated from university after having formally studied Japanese for a year and informally for a couple more. I've started this blog to serve as a place to collect my revelations about the Japanese language.

Along the way, I've encountered a number of confusing subjects and rules that teachers and textbooks have never explained to my satisfaction. I've noticed that I automatically try to reduce many complicated rules to a smaller set of universal principles. I will attempt to share these ideas as thoroughly as I can.