The road to understanding Japanese in littered with lies. These lies aren't intended to harm. The fact is, in the beginning the lies seem natural and helpful. They help make the language 'feel' closer to our native language (English, most likely). Unfortunately, the more knowledge you try to pile on the top of these lies, the more your house of learning resembles a home built on a foundation of sponges. Instead of helping, these myths only make life harder.
At points, they can make you wonder: "Why can't I understand Japanese?" "What's wrong with me?" "I must just be stupid." When I started taking a formal Japanese class a few months ago, I realized how harmful those 'friendly lies' can be. I noticed that a class full of people who had completed almost three quarters of a textbook still couldn't conjugate verbs in a negative plain form. I realized that it was difficult for my classmates to naturally conjugate an adjective.
It was more than simple memory slips - my classmates genuinely didn't understand how verbs worked. Though they had the benefit of a native Japanese teacher, and classroom conversation time, still, the basic verb seemed to evade them. I realised, as the class progressed, that my classmates were victims of a number of myths that I had also faced.
These myths seem inherent in most of the learning materials for students. Unless you are the kind of person who looks at an inconstancy, and really searches to find out why that inconsistancy is there, it's easy to drink in these lies, until they grow so big they claw their way out of your brain, and go skittering into the night. . So over the course of the next week, I'm going to post up all of the myths I've learned about Japanese verbs, and how you can defeat them.
Hopefully you'll find them helpful. Know Your Verb! (Some myths about Japanese Verbs as seen from a student of Japanese) Desu = Is If you think 'desu' = is, congratulations, you are about to defeat your first big myth about Japanese. Let me make this clear: DESU DOES NOT MEAN IS! Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Desu is a word that has no equivilant in English.
In short, it makes what you are saying more polite. This is exactly, word for word, what a Japanese friend told me. Okay, but what about: Kore wa penu desu This is a pen.
(This is possibly the most inane sentence ever) Doesn't desu mean is in that sentence? Now we get to the real secret of desu. Desu will sometimes pretend to mean is, if it is the last word in the sentence, and if there isn't a more active verb at the end of your sentence. It's exactly the same thing as using the masu form of a verb to make a verb more polite (The Masu Myth we will defeat next). So why does believing that desu = is give me problems? Because, a whole bunch of the time, desu doesn't mean is at all. Further, if you try to think 'desu' means 'is' it will only confuse you to what's really going on in a sentance.
EG: Kore wa penu ja nai. This, a pen, is not. (casual) Kore wa penu ja nai desu. This, a pen, is not (more polite - not normally heard, but gramatically correct and equivilant to penu ja arimasen) Kore wa penu ja nai 'n desu. This, a pen, is not.
(I'm saying this to explain something - see previous post: no da/no desu. Polite. Seen often.) If you believe (as I did) that ja nai means 'is not' and desu means 'is', the last two sentances are a complete mind-twist. Lit: This, a pen is not, is .
WTF! You may convince yourself: well, something like that is just an exception to the rule, and memorize it. But if you are forced to memorize everything that is an exception to the desu = is myth, eventually, you will quickly experiece desu burnout. You also really run into trouble when you meet the word has a meaning a lot closer to is: (what the Genki textbook calls the 'plain form' of desu, though calling it a plain for of desu is more of the 'desu' = 'is' crap) Da Is (in the sense of 'this is a pen') I say a lot closer to is, because the word 'is' in English is a lot different than 'is' in Japanese.
Japanese has a bunch of different kinds of words to express existence. The most common ones you will meet are: da, aru (inanimate objects exist), iru (animate objects exist) Also, because you tend to drop redundant parts of the sentence in Japanese, sometimes the word 'is' will be left off entirely. Finally, the word 'is' is wrapped up in every other verb, depending on how you conjugate it (which is why you don't need to use a 'to be' verb to say, I am going to the store - Mise ni itte iru) We will get into that more as more myths are busted. I hope this helps clear up points of confusion with desu/da. Future myths busted: The Masu Form (it's not the real deal) Adjectives and Verbs: One and the Same How to conjugate verbs and adjectives without sweating blood.
Allyson Brandy is an avid Japanese student and fan of Japanese culture. Read more about Japanese grammer at her blog, AI Love Bunpou.