I Can’t Know What You Want

What fascinates me about Japanese is how certain forms that would merely be politely evasive in English are built into Japanese grammar. For example, when I speak of desire, I use different words when speaking of my own desires in contrast to a third party’s desires. I can know about my own emotional state but I can only guess what other people are feeling.


In English, I want a new car. He wants a new car. Same verb.
In Japanese:

Watashi wa atarashii kuruma ga hoshii n desu ga…
(lit) Talking about me, it’s that a new car is desirable, but…
I want a new car.

Murakami-san wa atarashii kuruma wo hoshigatte iru.
(lit) Talking about Mr. Murakami, it appears he wants a new car.
Mr. Murakami wants a new car.

The same holds true for things I want to do (which is a different form in Japanese than things I want to have.) Verb stem + tai for my own desires; Verb stem + tagaru for a third person’s desires.

Conviction, Expectation, Opinion, Probability, Possibility, Hearsay

Like English, Japanese has a lot of words that you can tack onto the end of a declarative sentence to hedge your bets. These are fairly equivalent to English but the Japanese use them a lot more (than Americans, anyway). An American will say unequivocally, “Damn! It’s going to be hot tomorrow.” A Japanese person can’t know the future. So he adds, “No doubt,” (ni chigai nai); “I expect,” (hazu da); “I think,” (to omoimasu); “Probably” (desho); “Possibly” (kamoshiremasen); “So I heard” (so da).


Just to drive home the point that we can never be certain, Japanese has multiple ways of expressing conjecture depending on how reliable my sources are and how much conjecture is involved.

Solid Conclusion Based on Observable Evidence

If, looking at the observable evidence, I’m able to form a fairly solid conclusion, I use (yo da) or (mitai). For example, I might see some puddles on the ground and conclude it has recently rained.

ame ga futta yo da.
It appears to have rained.

Immediate Impression Which Requires More Proof

In contrast, based on a first impression that doesn’t require much thinking or indicates an impending action, I use (so da). [Not to be confused with the “so da” used for hearsay.]

ke-ki wa oishiso da.
The cake looks delicious. (I can’t know it’s delicious until I taste it.)

Assumption Based On What You’ve Heard

And then there is a conclusion based on second hand information. (rashii). Maybe you heard that Mr. Murakami wasn’t at his desk.

Murakami-san mo kaetta rashii desu.
(Based on what I heard) it seems Mr. Murakami has already gone home.


Like ~garu, these forms of conjecture are also used to distinguish between what I know about my own emotional state (I’m irritated) and what I’m guessing about yours (He seems to be disappointed.)

If you speak a language other than English, I’d be interested in knowing how you express certainty, uncertainty, and conjecture. Do you just append certain qualifying words to make your statements less absolute? Or is the ability to express uncertainty built into the grammar?

For English speakers around the world, does unadorned American speech lack nuance or sound aggressively over-confident? Or does British speech sound like so much beating around the bush? (I live with a Brit and this discussion has come up at our house.) And English as spoken elsewhere?


GPlus Discussion

Still unformatted.