Concerns over the Japanese language

Granted, I am not yet in a position of understanding, but watching some japanese clips lately, it seems, and I probably won’t articulate this well, but hope I can be understood nonetheless, it seems like a choppy, and in the ways that one can express himself almost restrictive language.

Yes, you can be formal or informal, but the frequent lack of pronouns, apparently only a handful of words to express one thing/concept and all that.
It does also make for a good language for poetry, but is the observation I have made, of it is understandable in this way, accurate, or am I grasping at straws?

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if you want to get good at this language you have to learn to accept it for what it is. every language has upsides and downsides. the japanese poetry, lyrics and wordplay i’ve witnessed is beautiful.

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Some ideas are easier or more difficult to express in different languages. People actually think differently depending on their language.

I personally don’t think Japanese is restrictive. I just know that at my level I don’t yet know how a Japanese person would express a certain idea and that’s why I’m struggling to explain something.


I am merely trying to find out if my observation is true, not at a stage where I could accept or not, yet.

Also, feel like that is a very impolite way of going about it.

I don’t really get what you mean to be honest. It’s a practical real world language, so it’s clearly expressive enough, and if you think it’s good for poetry/literature then you clearly think it’s quite an expressive language…

if you don’t need the pronouns you don’t use them. If anything that increases your range of expression because now you have the option to convey something by using them when you don’t need to.

This is just not true. There are some concepts which have more words than other languages and others that have less…plus words are generally a terrible way of measuring expressivity, especially in agglutinative languages.

What it is though, is “high context” and ambiguous - people will say the bare minimum necessary and expect their partner to fill in the blanks based on (assumed) shared knowlege.


What Japanese clips have you been watching? What in particular seemed choppy or restrictive? Perhaps it’s the resources themselves?

Apart from that, no I’m sorry I don’t understand what you mean. I’ve never felt like I wasn’t able to express myself. I hope you overcome the feeling! :slight_smile:


Are you sure you’re not referring to cultural differences? Where stereotypically, Japanese people are more reserved in expressing themselves compared to, say, the United States. Americans are stereotypically more outgoing and vocal with their thoughts and opinions.

I do recall reading somewhere of a Japanese man feeling like he could express himself better in English, but it seemed more due to the cultural mindset than any actual language restrictions.

Apart from that, I have yet to encounter anything akin to what you seem to be describing.


I woudn’t say it is limited by any means. It’s just different from what we are used to in our native language. Perhaps things that we are used to having many ways to express only has a few in Japanese but it also goes the other way.


I think one of the issues with the way Japanese is taught, they often start out with very concrete ideas and objects. Simple things like “I want to buy a t-shirt” etc. Very practical but not very beautiful or expressive. However, if you ask people on here what some of their favorite words and phrases are I’m sure you’ll find a lot of expressive stuff.

Some of my favourites:
めんどくさい - something you have to do which is burdensome.
自信を持って - to have self confidence

If you look up “japanese words with no english equivalent” you find all sorts of interesting things :blush:


I think it‘s good for poetry, because it is so vague.
The ~frog jumps in pond haiku has produced different translations by every translator, which are so completely different.

I am currently struggling with trying to find out what is is, that I want to say and which is my gripe.
But If you refer to, what I think you refer to, than I would disagree, because I feel a need a multitude for words for every sort of object and action, which are almost class related terms.
I also, right now, can’t find a list, that I‘m sure I had seen at a previous point. My guesses as to where I’ve seen it range from Wikipedia to the Introduction of Marx‘s Kapital though, so it might take a while to find it.
It’s about comparing languages in a analytical sort of way, looking at their advantages and disadvantages.

Maybe it is the last thing you mentioned, people restricting themselves to the bare minimum, which I also tend to do in any language of mine (with people I don’t know, at least), funnily enough.
It might’ve been that I was again upset over understanding that you will never wield another language quite like the one you grew up with though,
I don’t know.

Question Mark.

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Japanese has room for a lot of nuance. Moreso in writing than in speech, but even in speech there are a lot of possible synonyms to be used, for example these words may all be translated as "to eat’:


And some more.

Maybe also have a look at The Nuance Thread :notebook_with_decorative_cover:? Not comprehensive yet, but it might give you an idea.

Also they can do a lot with grammar, where a simple word can give a whole different meaning to a sentence, just because it’s between some other words.


Once you have more control over the language you’ll likely find you can express yourself in ways you hadn’t imagined before, because those expressions may not exist in the languages you know now. So it’s definitely worth it to keep studying :slight_smile:


Where did you get that impression? Every friggin time I try to read a book, I get hit with new ways to express concepts I already know.


Even if a language has these “limitations” you’re worried about… So what?
Either you continue to learn it or you don’t… That’s the ultimate outcome right?
Either way I think one should learn more about the language before one judges it. Maybe that you feel you can’t articulate your point properly proves you need to learn a little more first?
Just some thoughts, not a criticism


To respond to this, first of all, I’ll quote something that’s already been said:

This is fairly accurate. It’s not really about saying the bare minimum though. It’s more like… only saying what you need to be clear in context and get your point across? Sentence elements aren’t really chosen on the basis of ‘necessity’: people definitely still choose the words they think best suit what they want to say, but they tend to leave out what’s obvious to the other people in the conversation. The reason pronouns are hardly used is exactly the same. It’s a bit like Spanish in that sense: pronouns only get added for emphasis in Japanese. The difference is of course that in Spanish, verb conjugation allows you to figure out who’s being discussed with much less ambiguity. Japanese doesn’t have that. As for how I know what it’s like to speak a context-heavy language even though I’m not Japanese, well, I’m a Chinese speaker. Also, I speak a dialect of English (Singlish, which is spoken in Singapore) that essentially runs on Chinese grammar and drops words, plural forms and so on willy-nilly so long as context makes things clear. That’s what it’s like, and it’s perfectly normal.

Secondly, while it certainly might seem like the concision of Japanese makes it a good language for short, witty poetry, that’s not the only sort of expressivity Japanese is good for. It is perhaps choppy, but my way of seeing it is that Japanese may just be carrying a slightly higher information load per syllable, which makes long sentences unnecessary in casual conversation. For example, ‘he was heard’ and ‘he was listened to’ can both be translated as 聞かれた, which is just four syllables: the first suggests what verb it might be, the second confirms it and starts the passive form, the third rounds off the passive form, and the fourth turns it into a past form. However, long sentences are not rare: take a look at NHK articles, or listen to speeches from Japanese officials like former Prime Minister Abe or the Governor of Tokyo. The only parts of their speeches that may seem a little choppy are the pauses, and the reason they pause that way is because for some reason, it’s considered appropriate to raise your tone and pause on a grammatical particle in formal speeches in Japanese. If you want examples of more flowing sentences, you can try watching informal interviews with voice actors and actresses, or videos in which they respond to fan mail. Another feature of Japanese that may encourage pausing (or at least make it seem like Japanese people pause more) is the presence of sentence-ending particles like ね or よ, which can be used for things like seeking agreement or expressing emphasis. As such, it may be necessary or helpful to pause in order for the impact of the particle to sink in. European languages don’t have these particles, which means we have to use our tone or specific words to express our meaning.

As for the apparent restrictiveness of Japanese, I think that’s quite inaccurate, even if there are undoubtedly cases where Japanese only has one word for something, whereas another language has several. It’s just that Japanese expresses things differently. Here’s an example from Tobira: in English, we have words like ‘laugh’, ‘chuckle’, ‘chortle’, ‘giggle’, ‘titter’ and ‘smile’. Japanese only has 笑う to express all these actions indicative of joy or mirth. That, however, doesn’t mean that Japanese is unable to express the same nuances. It just uses adverbs: にこにこと笑う (to smile broadly) and くすくすと笑う (to giggle/titter) are among the possibilities. These adverbs, which are generally onomatopoeia, serve to express an impression using a sound, and Japanese very possibly has more of them than any other language. ざらざらする, for instance, is a verb that expresses the fact that a surface is rough. すべすべする is its counterpart, meaning ‘to be smooth’. Also, while I can’t speak for ‘native’ Japanese vocabulary, I know for certain that the Sino-Japanese vocabulary (aka all the phrases that Japanese took from Chinese or which Japanese made from kanji, as opposed to simply assigning kanji to existing phrases) is extremely nuanced. Kanji phrases allow you to split hairs, because simply changing one of the kanji allows you to change what the phrase is appropriate for and what its focus is. For example, what’s the difference between 適当 and 適切? I won’t dive into all the nuances, but one huge difference is that while both can mean ‘suitable’, the first has a double meaning: it can mean ‘suitable’ in the sense of doing ‘just enough’ or ‘the bare minimum’, in an offhand, uncaring, irresponsible fashion. Completely different from what one might expect, since the two phrases look so similar in meaning.

You might say that some sound combinations have endless meanings, which is true (look at きく or かける), but that’s the reason kanji are used in the first place: to find a means of writing Japanese down while also differentiating different meanings. If it were that easy to do so with just an alphabet, I think all kanji would have been phased out by now. It’s been done in Korea, so why not in Japan?

Finally, while I find it extremely annoying that the world has chosen to teach Japanese as a collection of ‘grammar points’ instead of simply focusing on equipping students with key bits of grammatical knowledge that would then allow them to acquire such expressions naturally… the fact that so many ‘grammar points’ exist – and that they’re genuinely called 文法 (‘grammar’) in Japanese – proves a point about Japanese, which @Saida pointed out: you can really do a lot with Japanese grammar. The fact that grammar points exist reflects the fact that Japanese has tons of different idiomatic structures, each of which have their own nuances. Do you know of any other language that allows listing in so many ways:
Each of these has a different nuance, as opposed to English’s ‘or’ and ‘and’, which are more or less the same everywhere. Also, the fact that Classical Japanese continues to be commonly studied in schools and used in proverbs means that Japanese has multiple ways of expressing similar ideas, each with a sense that is more or less poetic, more or less formal and so on. Compare
Both forms are valid in Japanese and mean almost the same thing, but the first is the actual proverb: ‘even if the wind blows, the mountain [remains] unmoving.’ The difference, I believe (someone correct me if I’m wrong, please) is that 動か is usually used as an adverbial form in modern Japanese, meaning that the final verb in the sentence may actually only be implied in the original proverb, and could be translated as ‘remains’, ‘stands’ or ‘looks on’, simply because there’s nothing there to finish the sentence. Even formality and politeness aren’t as simple as they seem at first glance: ある can be transformed into both ござる and いらっしゃる. もらう can become either いただく (which is more common) or たまわる, and you can even combine たまわる with 受ける to get one of the longest compound verbs (whose kanji form will probably make you wonder whether it was made to torture students): うけたまわる is written 承る (yes, five syllables for a single kanji), and can be used to express humble acceptance or attentive (and humble) listening. That in turn overlaps with うかがう, which is another humble word meaning ‘to listen’.

Japanese may not have all the words that we are used to in European languages, but much like Chinese (and in some senses, possibly more so), Japanese has enormous recombination potential: combine two verbs using a masu-stem, and you get a new compound verb meaning something in between. Combine two kanji, and you get something that’s often more than the sum of its parts. Iterate a particular expression (like the ば conditional), and end up with a whole new structure (in this case, it’s a concessive structure that means something like ‘whether… or…, [something is true/happens]’). Japanese is every bit as expressive as other languages, but how you access those nuances is different: English and most European languages are very explicit and only assign a few nuances to each word, creating new words as necessary. Japanese – and Chinese, for that matter – express new concepts and complex nuances not only by adopting new words, but also by expressing them using elements that already exist in the language.


I find it very weird that I seem to be the only one to examine his choice over such a commitment regularly, to make sure that my time isn’t wasted, but others might learn it for different reasons, and not just as a hobby, so there’s that.

That’s a fair point, yeah. Just doing what I articulated in this response :wink:

I can’t ever imagine a situation where educating yourself and learning something new can be considered as ‘time wasted’, especially something as deep and rich as learning a language, particularly as it’s so embellished by culture, so I don’t think you need to worry about that, personally haha


That’s going to be the case with any two significantly different languages.