Using -wa in Japanese and in English
by William McClure

[September 20, 2002]


One of the most difficult tasks of teaching Japanese to English speakers is the explanation of wa. Linguists are always trying to find systematic or consistent ways of explaining what something means. For those who don’t speak Japanese, wa is a sentence particle that goes on the topic of the sentence, telling someone what is being talking about. The main problem for speakers of English is that such a thing makes no sense, and translating this into English for students is difficult, but not impossible.

(1) Tanaka-san ga gakusei da. ga (subject) 
Tanaka-san wa gakusei da. wa (topic)
"Tanaka is a student."

Looking at the above example, one can see that the only difference between the two sentences is the use of ga and wa, yet both sentences mean the same thing when translated into English. The same thing goes for the following examples, where wa can also be substituted for both o and ni in their respective sentences.

Keeki o tabeta. o (object)
Keeki wa tabeta (ga, pai wa tabenakatta). wa (topic)
"I ate cake (but didn’t eat pie).

Tokyo ni itta koto ga aru. ni (goal)
Tokyo wa itta koto ga aru. wa (topic)
"I have been to Tokyo."

Though it may seem as if makes no difference at all which particle is used in any of the examples given, within the Japanese language, each particle carries with it various meanings. Although not entirely true, a standardized way of defining wa for English speakers is that it is used when a subject has already been mentioned in a conversation, or when information is outdated, given and assumed.

(2) Otoko wa mati no hazure no tiisa na ie ni sunde ita.
"There was an man (wa) who lived in a small house on the edge of town."

Tokoro de, konsyuumatu wa nani ka suru tumori na no?
"So, do you have any plans for this weekend (wa)?"

Mukasi, mukasi, yama no oku ni, hitori no oziisan ga sunde ga sunde imasita. Sono oziisan ga…
"A long time ago, an old man (ga) lived in the mountains. That old man (ga)…"

Within Japanese literature, the particle wa is used almost every time in the very first sentence. Through the above examples, the standardized definition of wa is both challenged and proven false. Both the "old man" and the "weekend" are not previously mentioned, and yet the particle wa is used in each. For the third example, where the old man has already been mentioned in the sentence preceding it, the particle ga is used again in the second sentence instead of wa.

So when is it appropriate to use wa, and what is the best translation of it into English? Questions such as these have lead to the creation of several bizarre sentence structures.

(3) Tanaka-san ga gakusei da. ga (subject)
"Tanaka is a student."

Tanaka-san wa gakusei da. wa (topic)
"Speaking of Tanaka, he is a student."
"As for Tanaka, he is a student."

For English speakers, the translation of the sentence using the particle wa sounds totally strange to the ear, since no one reality would say, "Speaking of Tanaka, he is a student." Yet for the Japanese, wa is commonly used in their sentences of speech. A better way for speakers of English to understand the second sentence would be to say, "I am going to tell you something about Tanaka. Are you ready? OK? He is a student." Through this long string of English, Tanaka has been set up as the topic, as opposed to being the subject of the sentence.

(4) Hazimemasite. "Hello.
Washi wa William McClure desu. I (wa) am William McClure.
Gakusei desu. I’m a student.
Queens daigaku no ninensei desu. I’m a sophomore at Queen College.
Doozo yorosiku onegai simasu. I’m pleased to meet you.

When one introduces oneself to another, the word "I" is repeatedly used in English, yet for the Japanese to say "Watashi wa" over and over again becomes redundant. Once a topic has been established, it is not mentioned again, unless the topic has changed. A basic problem for students studying Japanese is the repeated usage of the topic in their sentences. In essence, English does not provide a good translation of wa, since it is neither a word nor a phrase, but through the use of intonation, that one expresses the topic of a sentence.

Utilizing John Austin’s 1953 theory of speech acts, one can better understand intonation usage in speech. Basic elements such as syntax (structure), semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (usage), are all a part of normal speech. Semantics in particular, focuses on the truth of a sentence, and whether or not it is understood through one’s ability to tell if it is true or false. If one cannot tell whether or not a sentence is true or false, then there is no meaning or logical response to it.

In order for a person to know when to use wa or ga, one must be familiar with the differences between a sentence and an utterance. A sentence itself is nothing more than an abstract group of words placed together. An utterance however, is a sentence spoken at a particular time, and depending on when it is spoken, defines its context. Grammatically, wa can always be substituted for ga, which doesn’t change the meaning, but alters the appropriateness of the sentence at that particular time and situation.

Setting up what is called the "item is a predicate" structure, Austin states that even the most simple sentence is in itself complicated, performing different things when they are said. The "item is a predicate" structure simply means there is a "matching" that goes on between two statements, the item and the predicate, and if the two placed together make sense, then that sentence is a good one, as shown by the following example.

1246 is a rhombus. 1246 (item) ß à is a rhombus (predicate)

Direction of fit, another part of Austin’s theory of speech acts, refers to when an item is matched up with its given predicate and vice versa, to answer and compliment one another. When one is posed with a question such as, "What is item 1246?" The logical answer would be, "It is a rhombus." Or the reversed could be asked, "Which item is a rhombus?" And the logical answer would be, "1246 is (a rhombus)."

Understanding direction of fit is essential in deciding when to use the sentence particle wa or ga in Japanese.
That is a nuthatch.

Using the above sentence as an example, Austin states that four different things can be accomplished. When the item is given, and we are asked to produce a predicate, calling and describing occur. For calling, we are asked, "What is that bird called?" And for describing, we are asked to, "Please describe that bird."

The answer for both may look the same, but sound different through intonation, where the latter usage of nuthatch is stressed.

Calling - What is that bird called? That is a nuthatch.
Describing - Please describe that bird. That is a NUTHATCH.

When the predicate is given, and we are asked to produce an item, exemplifying and classing occur. For exemplifying, we are asked to, "Give me an example of a nuthatch." And for classing, we are asked to, "Please describe that bird." Once again both answers come out the looking same, but sound totally different through intonation.

Exemplifying - Give me an example of a nuthatch. That is a nuthatch.
Classing - Which of these is a nuthatch. THAT is a nuthatch.

Within spoken Japanese, all the above happens as well, where stress is shown through the use of wa and ga. When the noun part of the sentence is ignored, wa is used, where the predicate is to be matched up with the item. When the item has to be matched up to the predicate, ga is used instead.

Calling - What is that flower called?
Describing - Please describe that flower.
Are wa sakura desu yo. à wa

Exemplifying - Give me an example of a cherry blossom.
Classing - Which of these is a cherry blossom.
Are ga sakura desu yo. à ga

Stress of a certain word in itself is extremely important and key in explaining wa and ga to speakers of English. The way something is said, corresponds to one’s choice of using wa or ga, and depends totally on what is taken for granted, either the item or the predicate.

Synopsis by Antony Wong





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