When stringing our words and thoughts together to express ourselves, we tend to give little thought to how those words came to be.

Once we are fluent in a language, speaking it is automatic and it is not necessary to consider where the verb or noun should be in the sentence. The one time that it can matter, however, is when we are asking a question.

In English, certain words like ‘do’ or ‘how’ at the beginning of a sentence establish whether something is a question or not. Even if these are not used, the rising tone at the end of a sentence can easily indicate that a question is being asked.

"You want to give it a try?" when the last two words are spoken a bit higher, it is easily recognisable as a question.

Japanese, like English, is full of its own complexities and nuances too. Exploring these starts with an understanding of basic Japanese words.

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Where Do Basic Japanese Words Come from?

Before the 8th-century, not much is known about the Japanese language. While there are hints and mentions of Japanese phrases within Chinese text that go back to the 3rd century, for the most part, its origins are largely unknown.

Thanks to kanji, one of the parts of the Japanese alphabet, we know that there is Chinese influence in Japanese. This is quite unusual considering that the Japanese language is closer to Korean than Mandarin.

If you are looking at simple Japanese words to learn, you’ll notice that kango (which is the ‘han words’ in Chinese) contribute to about 60% of Japanese dictionary entries. However, these are generally not the simple Japanese words you would use in conversation.

There are also many Japanese phrases and basic Japanese words that have been imported from other languages, even English. Many of these stem from the influence of early missionaries on the language and are one of the reasons why many basic Japanese words have English roots.

China's influence on Japan's early language development is clear through it prevalent use of kanji
We know that the Chinese had great influence in shaping Japan's early language but little is known, beyond that. Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Word Order in Japanese Sentences

In many languages, word order or syntax follows a certain order: subject-verb-object.

In Japanese, there is similar information, except it is much more difficult to deconstruct for the following reasons:

  • plural and singular are not indicated
  • gender is not indicated
  • there’s an absence of articles (a/an, the)
  • particles help to lend tone and meaning
  • verbs are conjugated for voice and time but not a grammatical person
    • there's no 'I am and ‘you are'
  • adjectives are conjugated
  • Japanese uses an extensive list of honorifics

In Japanese culture, hierarchy is important which is why honorifics for senior and important people are important.  

One common honorific is achieved by simply attaching -san to a person's surname. As an example, addressing the former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would become Abe-san.

Even if you are only looking for simple Japanese words to learn, take care that you find out how names in Japanese are handled.`

Both Chinese and Japanese follow the same grammar rules, especially with regards to sentence structure where the word order is: subject-object-verb: I the apple ate.

In English, if you are going to the cinema with friends, you might say, "I am going to the cinema with you!"  Or "I am going with you to the cinema!" -  both versions have the same intent.

Alternatively, in Japanese, you would say: ‘I with you cinema go!’ In Japanese, this would look like:  私はあなたと一緒に映画館に行きます  (In romaji it would be:  Watashi wa anata to issho ni eigakan ni ikimasu).

The contrast, particles (wa, to, ni) define who is doing what, and with whom.

It's common to see lucky lanterns in Japan
Japanese lanterns are often inscribed with fortuitous phrases and wishes for luck. Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Simple Japanese Words to Learn

Now that there is a rough idea of where basic Japanese words come from, let’s learn how to use them.

Fundamentals

Politeness is integral to Japanese culture so it's important to know at least these words.

  • Thank you         ありがとう               arigatō
  • Yes                      はい                           hai
  • No problem       問題ないよ               mondai nai yo
  • Excuse me         すみません               sumimasen
  • No                       いいえ                       lie
  • Please                 おねがいします       onegai shimasu

As already mentioned, context and intent change the function of words in Japanese. This can even apply to simple Japanese phrases like ‘please’ where the form can change depending on the circumstances in which it is used. Again, hierarchy can affect even simple Japanese words. Pleading with friends, parents or a boss impacts how the word looks and sounds.

Japanese Phrases: Greetings

  • Good Morning         おはようございます    ohayou gozaimasu
  • Good Evening         こんばんは                     konbanwa
  • Good Afternoon      こんにちは                    konnichiwa (this is also a generic hello)

In Japanese culture, polite greetings are extremely important especially when it comes to greeting seniors and people in authority. Saying hello to a friend can be more informal, in fact, a simple おはよう(ohayou) will suffice.

Other Simple Japanese Words

These revolve around food.

  • Eat                  食べます          tabemasu
  • Drink             飲みます           nomimasu
  • Restaurant   レストラン        resutoran
  • Breakfast          朝ごはん       asagohan
  • Lunch               ランチ            ranchi (or hirugohan)
  • Dinner            晩ごはん          bangohan
  • dinner may also be ディナー   dina

With this list, it's clear to see which words are imports; they're written in katakana and have an English-approximate phonetic equivalent. The fundamentally Japanese words all start with a kanji character and display the more elaborate hiragana ideograms.

Note that Japanese numbers also count among the fundamentals you need to know.

You have to know and understand not just words but how they're put together to form phrases
Understanding Japanese phrases will reveal that this sign says 'stop where you are', not just stop. Photo by Ryoma Onita on Unsplash

Japanese Phrases You Need to Know

If you’re looking at simple Japanese words to learn, it won’t be long before you want to string them together.

Here are a few common Japanese phrases that you may need for a visit to Japan.

  • "I speak a little Japanese": 少し日本語を話します(sukoshi nihongo wo hanashimasu).
  • "Do you understand?": わかりますか (wakarimasu ka). Note that the 'ka' ending particle signals that it’s a question.
  • "Can you speak English?" 英語を話せますか (eigo wo hanasemasu ka)
  • "What is your name?": お名前は何ですか (o-namae wa nan desu ka)
  • "Can I have your email address or phone number?": E-メール/電話番号を教えてもらえますか (e-meru/denwa bango wo oshiete moraemasu ka).

If you are out and about shopping with a new Japanese friend, or perhaps at a restaurant and you need something, but don't have the Japanese word for it. You could ask "What is ... in Japanese?": 日本語で...は何ですか (nihongo de ... wa nan desu ka).

If your friend orders for you, when the food arrives, you could ask "What's this?": これは何ですか (kore wa nan desu ka).

After dinner, you may want to cover the bill, but to do that you will need to ask "How much is it?": いくらですか (ikura desu ka).

At the end of the evening, you could ask "When can we meet?": いつは会えますか (Itsu wa aemasu ka) before saying goodnight こんばんは (konbanwa).

The particle 'ka' denotes questions but the word that leads up to it it in these examples, 'desu', is also one you will often hear, see and use because it is the Japanese equivalent for the most common verb, to be.

If you would like to describe why you are in Japan, you could say "I am a student": 私は学生です (watashi wa gakusei desu).

However, stating "I am from England “will not have a 'desu' ending: 私はイギリスからきた (watashi wa igirisu kara kita). The reason is because 'kita' relates to 'from', reducing your description of self to a place of origin.

However, if you say "I am British", the equivalent in Japanese would include the word desu: 私はイギリス人です (watashi wa igirisuhito desu).

In conclusion, as a language, Japanese is about much more than just simple Japanese words to learn. It is filled with history, context and rich variety. It is no surprise that you want to learn as much as you can about it.

Speaking English well does not depend on knowing where the root of each word originates from, however, this is where Japanese differs. To learn the basics of Japanese you will need to understand more than simple Japanese words, you’ll need to know where they belong too.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.