The Hitchhiker's guide to Real Japanese

I think the information below is very useful for learners of all levels so I would like to share it. I would be really happy if other people would also share some of their observations regarding Japanese that is not covered in the JLPT textbooks and language schools!

Very Casual Japanese / Rearranged Sentence Order

One striking aspect of very casually spoken Japanese is that the sentence order is sometimes different to the textbook sentence order.
In order to transport emotion/ emphasize you can put the part of the sentence you want to emphasize at the beginning.

The following samples are taken from a textbook from a German University (Duisburg).

Important input from @Jonapedia:
“This so-called 倒置法 (sentence inversion)”

  • Emotions, warning, criticism first

この道一人で渡っちゃ危ないよ。> 危ないよ、この道ひとりで渡っちゃ。
試験受かって、よかったね。> よかったね、試験受かった。
忙しいから、邪魔しないで。 > 邪魔しないで、忙しいから。
彼って、すてきね。 > すてきね、彼って。
あなたなんか嫌い。> 嫌い、あなたなんか。
おれのビール飲むな。> 飲むな、おれのビール。
甘い物食べると、歯がとっても痛むの。> 歯がとっても痛むの、甘い物を食べると。

  • most important information first

明日一緒に映画館にいかない? > 映画館にいかない、明日一緒に。
この雑誌もう読んじゃったから、君にあげようか。 > 君にあげようか、この雑誌もう読んじゃったから。
安くておいしいイタリア料理の店の電話番号教えたゲル。 > 電話番号教えたげる、安くておいしいイタリア料理の店の。
社会の窓(が)開いてるよ。 > 開いてるよ、社会の窓(が)。

  • question first

君いつ来たの? > いつ来たの、きみ。
それどこでかった? > どこで買った、それ。
この本だれの? > だれの、この本。
この町の市役所ってどこ? > どこ、この町の市役所って。
そこに置いてある物なあに? > なあに、そこにおいてある物。(なあに is a rather female expression where a male would say なんだい instead)

  • effect before cause

頭痛かったから、仕事休んじゃった。 > 仕事休んじゃった、頭痛かったから。
漢字よめなかったんで、隣の学生に聞いたの。 > 隣の学生に聞いたの、漢字読めなかったんで。
朝飯食ってねえから、すげえ腹減っちゃったよ。 > すげえ腹減っちゃったよ、朝飯食ってねえから。

  • adverb goes to the end (because it is not so important)

これからもときどき来てね。 > これからも来てね、ときどき。
この本きっと返してくれよ。 > この本返してくれよ、きっと。
頭痛かったから、三日間も仕事休んじゃった。 > 頭痛かったから、仕事休んじゃった、三日間も。
ここに名前と住所読めるようにきれいに書いてね。 > ここに名前と住所読めるように書いてね、きれいに。

Researching about it more I found that it can be used also in other context for different purposes and there is more to it than just casual speech.

30 Likes

I think it’s worth knowing that this can happen, both so people aren’t surprised when they encounter it, and when emphasizing certain things is important.

But I think it’s an exaggeration to say that non-inverted sentences are “alien” or something.

It’s totally fine to say 明日、映画見に行かない? or something. Note that that sentence does have other elements of casual Japanese in it, like omitting certain particles.

Also, my experience in using more formal / less casual Japanese with people is they tend to be complimentary and (at least say that they are) impressed. Back when I didn’t know much casual or colloquial Japanese. Obviously the closer you get in a relationship with someone, the more strange it will be to only use more formal Japanese, but they are generally aware that you’re not a native and understand that there are going to be certain things that are unintentionally different from native speech.

18 Likes

It is not “wrong” but if you know how to use the reshuffling to really get the nuance where you want it to be you sound very natural. Really every Japanese does that and all foreigners I ever talked to don’t.

If this was really true, that every single sentence is always inverted, no one would be surprised by it and everyone would get used to it right away. It seems strange to me to suggest that it happens all the time.

Sometimes nothing is emphasized, it just is a sentence with everything at basically neutral weight. If you want to emphasize then position starts to become important.

Again, I’m not saying that inversion is rare or that Japanese people don’t do it. But the next time a Japanese person doesn’t invert their sentence to me, I’ll think of this thread :slight_smile: I imagine I won’t have to wait terribly long.

14 Likes

If people who you are talking to (casually) really are using the textbook sentence order too often it could be that they are doing this intentionally to be understood better because in their impression your Japanese level is not high enough to understand natural casual communication.

Like you mentioned before, there is a certain amount of formality if you don’t know someone well and to put the important things at the end is one method to make it sound formal rather than casual.
I think that is the reason why it is hard to find an information about the reshuffling in casual speech (important first) in textbooks, because Japanese natives (who write these books) are afraid, that a foreigner who does not know about the necessity to be formal to appear polite as a standard could mess up things. That’s why you start learning the masu and desu level.

I doubt there is a sentence like that, you always want to emphasize something in casual communication otherwise you wouldn’t say anything. That makes it very different to formal conversation where you add a lot of “cushion” words and phrases with no other meaning than to sound formal and distanced.

1 Like

That must be it. My level does leave something to be desired.

BTW, I didn’t say they are doing it “too often” or specify any particular rate. Just that I know I’ve heard Japanese people say things uninverted to me, to each other, on TV, etc. If it was “alien” then that wouldn’t be the case.

Obviously I don’t disagree that more learners should be aware of this, so I’ll stop derailing the thread with my nitpick about that one word.

14 Likes

I agree with you that sounding alien is not correct. It does not sound alien but formal in an unintended way. (Sorry, I am not an English native so it is a bit hard to get the nuances right) Thank you for the input, I changed it in the initial post.

Sounding formal in an unintended way has the problem that people start to being more careful about approaching you, feeling maybe rejected and keep a larger distance.
While this does not matter sometimes if you want to make friends it is better to know about it from an early stage I think.
If on the other hand you want to intentionally keep people at a distance being abruptly formal works very well.

Sometimes people just want to say something without placing special emphasis on something in particular though. Japanese has a “neutral” order to place various pieces of information. Shifting parts around adds emphasis to some parts over others, but (relatively) neutral orderings do exist. This doesn’t suddenly not exist just because you’re speaking more casually.

But formality is a spectrum. You can speak casually with someone without every sentence sounding like you’re saying the first thing that pops into your head such that you have to add additional context afterwards. If I was talking to someone and every sentence from them sounded like your examples, I think it would be quite exhausting. Obviously (in fairness to you), this type of inverted sentence structure does exist and is used. But I highly doubt most people talk that way exclusively, no matter how casual the environment is.

9 Likes

Formality and casualness is on a broad spectrum. I don’t agree with what you’re saying if you mean to say that 明日、映画見に行かない? is actually on the “formal” side of the spectrum. Such that it would push people away from you.

I’ll ask some natives later what they think about the whole topic. (If I can get them to understand my substandard Japanese :wink: )

11 Likes

I didn’t say it is more formal but it puts emphasize on “tomorrow”.

I guess I just am not following the conversation then. I thought I was responding to you saying it becomes more formal in an unintended way (because this is closer to a “textbook” sentence order).

The level of formality is defined by 行かない?
This is unformal language. By putting the 明日 in the beginning there is some intention of you making tomorrow the topic rather then going to the cinema.

But you can also shuffle a formal sentence. It seems that many people have problems with the sample sentences of wanikani because they are shuffled sometimes to put emphasize on a certain part of the sentence. So during the discussion I remembered this lecture and thought other people could benefit from it.

You don’t need to use it but if you are aware that something like this exists you can understand nuance better.

I think that is a common misconception caused by textbook Japanese.
Nothing is neutral in Japanese once you start speaking.

There is a wide range from casual (Kids speech, closest people like best friends/family speech, being intentionally rude) to formal (talking to the Tenno, being intentionally distanced or cynical)

Every spoken sentence places you in relation to the person you are speaking to on a point on that scale that has a certain level of formality/casualty PLUS a certain deviation from the point on that scale the person you talk to is choosing (and expecting).

In the textbooks you learn something like range 40-60 (which seems to be considered save for foreigners) and you position yourself on this limited area on the scale. That could be either rude or too formal depending on the context.

There is also the common misconception that Japanese is a very polite language.
I think there is no other language existing where you can insult someone as deeply with just using basic grammar as a weapon.

2 Likes

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this misconception. Beginners are often taught that forgetting desu/masu is a terrible offense.

And that is exactly the problem, because depending on the context you could as well offend people by USING it. Or at least sound very strange.

I’m aware, but there’s no misconception that Japanese is exclusively a polite language.

2 Likes

There is a misconception that Japanese people are always trying to be polite.

1 Like

That does not seem to be what you were expressing in your earlier post.

3 Likes

But it is what I wanted to say.

Dear Amimononohitsuji,
thank you for this thread. My reading skills are not yet good enough to understand every word in every one of your sample sentences, but I get the gist. .
My teacher only ever teaches keigo.
When speaking to my tandem partner, I have been painfully aware for some time
that my language is much to formal for the level of friendship we share.
Reading your thread has motivated me to ask her (insist) to teach me the more informal version.
About something completely different: I have noticed that the tone of communication on this thread has become a little abrasive in some parts.
Noticing Duisburg Universitiy, I’m guessing - and please correct me if I’m wrong - that you are German just like me. Maybe, by using the word “you”, you may have unintentionally insulted one of the other participants…
Also, concerning the cushioning thing:
A lot of languages, like english for example, do use “empty” cushioning phrases in their conversation, to the extent where the actually important part is only mentioned en passant and near the end, which is why they would say something even when they don’t have any information to impart. But I don’t have the faintest idea how that would influence word order in casual spoken japanese :wink:
Keep up the good work!

4 Likes