July 20, 2010

A Japanese Riddle: When is a Verb Not a Verb?

Answer: When it's not.

When I first came to Japan, I had forgotten most of what I'd learned in my two college Japanese courses, which had been separated from each other by about a year and separated from my arrival in J Land by another couple years. When I touched down, I could pretty much only say はい (affirmative!).

I didn't have much to do during that first summer as a JET, so I stayed in the Board of Education in the town hall and tried to study the language. One of the first mistakes I made was saying あらん (aran) or あらない (aranai). It was my simple attempt to state the verb of existence (aru) in the negative. But unlike every other verb in Japanese, there is no negative conjugation of aru. My giggling bosses told me that the proper word was ない (nai).

Well, college only taught me the polite conjugations of verbs, so I knew you could say arimasen as an opposite of the polite arimasu. I had no idea that the masu ending itself is a type of verb, thus rendering arimasu and aru as two different words with the same meaning. It thought the same rules would apply to both words. So yeah, I was also confused when I was told to say nai because nai is an adjective. If you want the technical terms, aru is a doushi (動詞) and nai is a keiyoushi (形容詞). Course, adjectives have verbal natures in Japanese, but that's a whole different post.

Over the years, I came to accept this odd substitute-an-adjective-for-this-verb-instead-of-conjugating-it rule, but I never really got why things are this way. But I think I have found some good theories by asking and googling over the years:
  1. Aru means "does exist" and nai means "does not exist", so they are perfectly opposed concepts
  2. If negative conjugations of aru once existed, they were replaced
  3. Furthermore, aranai may have been shortened to just nai
  4. In older Japanese we more often may have heard 有り(ari, noun meaning existence) and 無し(nashi, noun meaning without existence) that may have been merely replaced by their modern colloquial equivalents.
Does the real explanation exist in this list? Well, I'm not in a position to say.

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