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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Japanese Plural and Singular

日本語 単数 複数

The Japanese language does not place as much importance on singular (tansuu) and plural (fukusuu) as European languages do. Most of the time, the listener/reader is left to guess. This is counter-intuitive to, at least, English speakers, and at first glance comes across as a major “gap” in the Japanese language.

Yet, when you think about it, in many, if not most, situations, the singularity or plurality of the object doesn't really need to be expressed. For example, “Got a pen?” How strange it would be if the question was “Got pens?” Or, to put it another way, in response to the question, “Got a pen?”, no one would reply “Are you sure you want just one?”  It is so blindingly obvious that the questioner wants something to write with, that, for all practical purposes, the issue of expressing singularity or plurality is irrelevant.

There are countless other similar situations where a grammatical suffix expressing singularity or plurality adds nothing in practical terms to the intelligibility of the utterance. An obvious example is: “My mother likes Lady GaGa, too,” or “There are eight planets in the solar system.” “mother,” in this case, cannot be made plural, even if you try, and any noun that follows the word “eight” is, in real life, plural by definition, whether it has a grammatical indicator like an “s” on the end or not.

Having said that, a certain degree of panic at the absence of “s” can be said to be justified in some cases. For example, “My friend likes Lady GaGa, too” compared with “My friends like Lady GaGa, too.” To be sure, the difference between “friend” and “friends” can say quite a lot. “My friend likes Lady GaGa, too” does not say much about the speaker, whereas “my friends” does. That is, a single friend liking something is unlikely to be interpreted as necessarily coinciding with what the speaker likes, whereas multiple friends liking something makes it much more likely that, as someone who hangs out with them, the speaker will like it, too. However, in the context of the Japanese language, there are surely myriad other ways, just as subtle, by which Japanese speakers can acquire clues about the speaker from what he or she says about his or her friend(s).

I was recently translating a passage in Japanese that spoke of heya (a room, or rooms) in a house, and about how, in Japan’s Edo period and before, the wife in old, established families in the Osaka and Kyoto region would stay “heya no naka” ("in room(s?)" nearly every day, all year round, hardly ever going out except for a bath, maybe, every 5 days or so.

I had to ask a Japanese colleague for an opinion as to whether this was likely to be a single room in which the wife confined herself, or several. My Japanese colleague hummed and hahed and said it would probably be plural, but that cases of it being a single room were by no means unlikely. In other words, having to either add an “s” or not created a problem that was basically insoluble, and distracted from the main message, i.e. that Japanese women used to stay indoors. Leaving it nicely indeterminate about numbers would avoid bringing up this rather insignificant “problem” altogether.

My Japanese colleague and I continued with a discussion of the singular/plural divide in English, and the colleague asked, rhetorically, why, if English made such a big deal about whether the noun being talked about was single or not, it suddenly lost interest in the matter after that and couldn’t care if the “s” on the end represented 2, 22, 318, 6,000, 15,818, or half a million? In other words, why the obsession with unitariness, with the number 1? Why, does “1” get such special treatment (i.e. the particle “a/an” and an exemption from “s”) when each of the other equally real numbers is lumped under the suffix “s”? Good question, I thought.

However, the story doesn’t quite end there. Here’s a secret: Japanese actually does use plural forms in certain cases: either the suffix -tachi, or a repetition of the noun. For example, hito, meaning “person,” is pluralized either by saying “hitotachi” or by saying “hitobito” (the “b” technically being an “h” that is voiced because it comes in the middle). But the big difference with English here is that there is never any grammatical compulsion to express the plural just because the topic may involve more than one thing. Use of the plural here is completely at the speaker’s discretion, used to convey the idea of “several” or “a lot,” on those - not so plural - occasions when it really would clarify the message.

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  1. Thanks for your post; I enjoy thinking about these sorts of linguistic issues. I just wanted to add, on behalf of the gay parents I know (and those I don't), that in the sentence "My mother likes Lady GaGa, too," the word "mother" can absolutely be made plural.

  2. Katie, how true. With JapanVisitor.com having as much Japan gay and lesbian information as it does, that should not have escaped us, of anyone. Thanks for pointing out, and no offense intended.


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