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I’ve been doing my Japanese homework, and the topic should give you some idea of the level I’m at: “What I Did Last Week”. The results are pretty mundane at points:

げつようび ごご きうじ に にほんご じゅぎょう から うち で かえりました それ から テレビ で C.S.I. みました その しんしつ で ねました。

On Monday evening after Japanese class, I went home, then I watched C.S.I. on television.

Note that it’s Hiragana (with bits of Katakana and English): I could have used the computer to convert to Kanji where required, but that’s not what’s being tested here. Besides, neither I nor any of my fellow students are currently able to read the results of that conversion. The spaces between words are not normal, either. No, we’re really testing if I use the verb tenses correctly, as in the following example:

書く kaku (かく) to Write: dictionary form
書きます kakimasu present affirmative
書きません kakimasen present negative
書きました kakimashita past affirmative
書きませんでした kakimasendeshita past negative

It’s also an example of something any Western Japanese student really needs to get his or her head around, in the long term: if we take the verb for writing, we can see that the common component in all these different forms (and there are more to come!) is the bit reperesented by the kanji 書 – which if we look it up, does mean “to write”. Fair enough – when written correctly.

But when spoken, this core component is “ka” (か) in all these forms. Could I hear a spoken word, figure out that it’s a verb (from the suffixes), then look it up in a dictionary? Not reliably, not yet anyway. I know “kakimasu” means to write, but look at these possible interpretations of “kakimasu” from spoken Japanese:

書きます write
描きます sketch, compose
画きます draw, (brush stroke)
掻きます scratch, rake, comb
欠きます fail, fall short

These five different Kanji are those returned by the Microsoft Windows XP dictionary when I type “kakimasu” in – there may be more. My main Japanese tool, JWPce, isn’t as good at suggesting meanings for spoken Japanese from what you actually type in. (It only seems to handle Dictionary verb forms correctly, and seems to assume you can do the conversion yourself from spoken Japanese.) To be fair, the first three are related, and possibly the fourth, since writing Kanji correctly in a formal sense does imply some artistic skill…

Written by brian t

July 18, 2004 at 3:36 pm

Posted in culture, japan, language

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