Topic and subject markers wa and ga

8 December 2018 by wolfganghofmeier

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Japanese nouns have no case endings, so the customary Latin case names don’t apply in the literal sense. Instead of nominative, we shall say the noun is the subject of the sentence, instead of genitive we shall refer to possessive, instead of dative we shall say indirect object and instead of accusative we shall say direct object.

 

The subject of a sentence is marked by the subject marker ga.

 

dabururūmu ga hoshī desu. .. ダブルルーム欲しいです。

 

Literally: A double room is wanted. But we don’t say that in English, we would say: I would like a double room. In English, we consider the pronoun I the subject of the sentence, but in Japanese the pronoun is normally omitted.

 

Unfortunately, Japanese also has a topic marker, wa, which is much more prominent in most sentences. Note that is pronounced ha if it is a syllable in a word, but as a topic marker it is pronounced wa.

 

I would like a double room. .. Watashi wa dabururūmu ga hoshī desu. .. はダブルルームが欲しいです。

 

The pronoun watashi is only used in this type of sentence if the speaker wants to emphasize his own wishes, perhaps in contrast to another traveler who would like a single room.

 

Many Japanese sentences don’t contain a subject marker which makes the European concept of a sentence subject questionable for Japanese. A random sentence copied from the internet follows:

 

At Kaldy Coffee Farm you can choose a variety of coffees to suit your preference, including original roasted coffee beans, easy drip coffee, ornate flavor coffee.

 

Karudikōhīfāmu de wa, orijinaru baisen kōhī mame ya tegaruna dorippukōhī, hanayakana furēbākōhī nado o konomi ni awasete samazamana kōhī o o erabi itadakemasu.

 

カルディコーヒーファームでは、オリジナル焙煎コーヒー豆や手軽なドリップコーヒー、華やかなフレーバーコーヒーなどお好みにあわせて様々なコーヒーをお選びいただけます

 

No need to analyze this lengthy sentence in detail, we shall just look at the English subject and verb:

 

choice receive . .. O erabi itadakemasu. .. お選びいただけます。The English and Japanese phrases are almost at opposite ends of the sentence, and the Japanese phrase does not contain a personal pronoun or a subject marker.

 

(honorific prefix) .. o .. お

choice .. erabi .. 選び

receive .. itadakemasu .. いただけます

 

The Japanese sentence does contain the topic marker wa, right after At Kaldy Coffee Farm .. Karudikōhīfāmu de .. カルディコーヒーファームで, so that is what is important from the Japanese point of view.

 

This should make it clear that the European paradigm of the subject of a sentence isn’t all that useful in Japanese because a lot of sentences won’t have explicit subjects.

 

More examples

1) Do you recommend ramen or buckwheat for the health?

Rāmen to soba de wa dochira ga kenkō ni ī desu ka.

ラーメンと蕎麦でどちら健康にいいですか。

 

In this sentence, the topic marker wa comes after ramen or soba.

The subject marker ga comes after which .. dochira .. どちら.

 

More or less literally: Ramen or soba, which is good for the health?

 

In the English sentence, ramen or soba are the object of the sentence, in the Japanese sentence they aren’t really a part of the sentence grammatically.

 

2) Here is the passport. .. Koko ni pasupōto ga arimasu. .. ここにパスポートあります。

 

Literally: here passport it is. Passport is the subject of the sentence.

 

3) I like ice cream. .. Aisukurīmu ga suki desu. .. アイスクリーム好きです。

 

Literally: ice cream liked it is. In Japanese, ice cream is the subject, the pronoun I has been omitted.

 

To emphasize that I like ice cream, but someone else doesn’t, one could say:

 

Watashi wa aisukurīmu ga suki desu. .. わたしはアイスクリーム好きです。

Word Meaning
ダブルルーム 1. dabururūmu
2. double room
欲しい 1. hoshī
2. wanted
選び 1. erabi
2. choice
いただけます 1. itadakemasu
2. receive
ラーメン 1. ramen
2. ramen (noodles)
蕎麦 1. soba
2. soba (noodles)
3. buckwheat
どちら 1. dochira
2. which
健康 1. kenkō
2. health
いい 1. ii
2. good
ここ 1. koko
2. here
パスポート 1. pasupōto
2. passport
アイスクリーム 1. aisukurīmu
2. ice cream
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