(Again, I’m going to use a lot of romaji in this post.)
English is what linguists called a SVO language, for subject-verb-object. Macduff killed Macbeth. (Sorry, spoiler alert!) You can move the pieces around a bit (Macbeth was killed by Macduff), but most of our sentences take this form.
Japanese is often called an SOV language. And the first phrases students learn to say in Japanese seem to confirm this. For example:
Watashi wa Matthew desu.
We can break this down into three parts: “watashi wa” = I. Matthew, that’s me. “Desu” (the final U, as usual, is silent): “am.” I Matthew am. Macduff Macbeth killed. SOV.
Easy: English puts the clauses in one order; Japanese flips two of them around. The problem is, it’s nowhere near that simple. Japanese is not an SOV language. It can be SOV, OSV, OV, or a variety of other contortions, because parts of speech get marked with special tags and are allowed–within reason–to float around inside the sentence.
When you put together a sentence in Japanese, the verb goes at the end. That, as far as I can tell, is an ironclad rule. Before you get to the end of the sentence, however, you may lay out an array of parts in a variety of orders, much more freely than you could ever get away with in English.
Let me try an analogy involving everyone’s favorite purveyor of disassembled stuff, IKEA. When you bring home IKEA’s revolutionary flat packaging, you open it up and there are a bunch of parts and an instruction manual. Take one of the C bolts and use it to stick parts A and B together. If you do the instructions in the right order, you will end up with a Billy bookcase. Do them in the wrong order, and you’ll end up with a pile of fiberboard and a headache.
The IKEA way is like English, where the word order helps determine what part of speech a word represents. If we say “Macduff killed Macbeth,” we know Macduff is the new sheriff in town and Macbeth is plant food, because of the order of the words. Reverse it, and you get “Macbeth killed Macduff,” the Philip K. Dick version.
Now, let’s say IKEA tries something new. In the box you get a bunch of identical pieces of wood and some sticky labels that say things like “shelf” and “backplate.” As you put the sticker on a wood slab, it changes shape and becomes whatever is printed on the sticker. (Did I mention they have magic in Sweden?) You can assemble the bookcase in any order you want as long as you apply the stickers beforehand correctly.
This is how particles work in Japanese. A particle is a short word that always appears immediately after the word or phrase it modifies, and its purpose is to tell you what function that word serves in the sentence. For example:
Watashi wa QFC ni ikimasu.
This means, “I go to QFC.” Ni is a particle. It means, among other things, “the destination of a journey.” Wa is also a particle, but let’s not get into that just yet.
Now, wait a minute. This sounds an awful lot like English so far. We just say “to” instead of “ni.” We can say “I go to QFC” or “To QFC I go.” The latter sounds stilted, but it’s not wrong, and the meaning is clear enough.
But particles aren’t just prepositions by another name. There are dozens of particles. The object of a verb is marked in Japanese with the particle o, handily enough. So:
Macduff wa Macbeth o koroshimasu.
Hmm, there’s that wa again. It looks like it marks the subject of a sentence. It doesn’t. But that’s a story for another day.
Here’s what I find odd about Japanese sentences. Learning the particles and how they’re used is not terribly difficult, although some of them are easy to confuse (wa and ga, ni and de especially). Any sentence much longer that “Macduff killed Macbeth,” however, becomes like the beginning of a concert. The players appear, each marked, in turn, with a particle. So the guy with the long hair ambles on stage and sits behind the drum kit. Then the woman in the tight t-shirt comes in and picks up the guitar. And so on. You don’t know what song they’re going to play until all of the band members are assembled. In Japanese, you don’t know what all of these particle-marked actors are going to do until the verb comes in at the end.
You don’t even know until the very last syllable whether the verb will be affirmative or negative! This is not a matter of flipping a couple of words around. It gives Japanese a grammatical flow very different from English. It’s also kind of fun. After the verb, you can finally exhale.