Now that we’ve covered some basic phrases it’s time to learn how to make a simple sentence. The simplest type of sentence there is in English follows the pattern of X is Y. In this kind of sentence, X is the subject, <is> is the conjugated verb <to be>, and Y is the predicate. Here, the verb <to be> is known as a copula, which is a linguistic term for a word that connects two things. That is, it is a word that states that two things are equal. Thus, in English, a copula (to be) links a subject (X) to its predicate (Y) and shows that they are equal (X = Y). In Japanese, there is also a copula, but it works quite a bit differently than in English. In this lesson we will explore these differences.
Before we begin, here is some useful vocabulary that you will need
- 私・わたし – I or me (In Japanese, pronouns do not change form)
- これ – This
- りんご – Apple
- 学生・がくせい – Student
- ロボット- Robot
- 車・くるま – Car
Basic Pattern – XはYです。
In Japanese, the basic way to say X is Y is the construction XはYです. The first thing to notice here is that there are two words added, は and です, whereas English only had the one word <is>.
The first word は, is what is known as a particle, which is a small word that lets you know what grammatical role another word plays in a sentence. In Japanese, there are lots of different particles and they all come after the word they modify. The particle は is known as the topic particle and marks a word as the topic or overall theme of the sentence. This is a different concept from the subject in English described earlier, but in this kind of sentence the two coincide. So you don’t have to worry yet about the difference between a topic and a subject and can treat them the same for now. So in this case, は attaches itself onto X, and lets you know that X is the topic/subject of the sentence.
IMPORTANT: When used as a particle (and only when used as a particle), は is pronounced as わ. In all other instances it is pronounced normally.
The next word is です, which is the copula. Just like the particle は, it also comes after the predicate Y and links Y to the subject. The nice thing about です is that it does not conjugate based on person. So although in English there are numerous forms of to be (I am, you are, he is, etc) there is only one form of です, regardless of who the subject is.
Be careful when pronouncing です, as typically the final <u> sound is not fully articulated. As a result, です usually comes out sounding like dess.
So let’s look at some example sentences using the vocabulary from above：
- わたしはがくせいです。 – I am a student.
- これはりんごです。- This is an apple.
- わたしはロボットです。 – I am a robot.
- これはくるまです。- This is a car.
As you can see, any two nouns can be substituted for X and Y and the pattern remains exactly the same. Also keep in mind that Japanese does not have any articles such as a(n) or the, nor does it mark plurals. So you can just use がくせい or りんご to mean a student or an apple.
If these examples sound like a mouthful, no need to worry. In Japanese, it is perfectly grammatically acceptable to completely omit the topic/subject from the sentence if it is obvious from context what you are talking about. So the pattern XはYです can be simplified to just Yです. Let’s look how this affects the example sentences from above.
- がくせいです。 – (I) am a student.
- りんごです。– (This) is an apple.
- ロボットです。 – (I) am a robot.
- くるまです。– (This) is a car.
Although I kept the words (I) and (This) in the English translation, in reality, the subject can be anything. So ロボットです can mean I am a robot or It is a robot or They are robots or anything else that is only determinable by context. This may seem confusing, but in practice it is usually pretty clear what people are talking about.