“Ain’t” ain’t a word. My high school English teachers pounded that into my head. And they were right — “ain’t” is not proper English. On the other hand, it is used colloquially by people all over the English-speaking world. Language is not just limited to those words found in reference books and textbooks. Whether formally recognized or not, utterances people use every day are language. So if you’re working to improve your overall Japanese level, you might consider learning just a bit of what, strictly speaking, ain’t proper Japanese.
The Japanese language is brilliant at accommodating abbreviation. You can almost always make words or phrases shorter. And it will undoubtedly raise your perceived, if not actual, fluency. Doing so will also help you break free of grammatical constructs that at times make you sound like a fuddy-duddy.
Here are some examples I’ve collected through my experiences as a homestay participant, then as a student of the Japanese language, and now as I live and work here in Japan. You probably hear some of these constructions multiple times a day if you live in Japan. (If you don’t recognize them, you will start to once you’re aware of them.)
The abbreviations that are easiest to pick up are exceedingly common casual forms of speech, such as the change of “dewa arimasen” (ではありません, “is not”) to “jya nai” (じゃない). My textbooks covered such standard abbreviations. But if you interact with young people, you might hear shortened forms of slang, too. For instance, do you ever say “yahari” (やはり, “as I thought”)? Why not swap it out for “yappa” (やっぱ) in a casual conversation? Or, you might try “azassu” (あざっす, “thanks”) instead of the full “arigatō gozaimasu” (ありがとうございます, “thank you”), if you feel that sort of speech is appropriate for the situation.
Greetings are often similarly clipped. For example, “ohayō gozaimasu” (おはようございます, “good morning”) becomes the excitedly sneezelike, percussive “~zzaimasu” (~っざいます, “mornin’ “). I’ve even heard baseball team members swipe their hats off their heads, bow and let out a resounding “chiwa” (ちわっ, “hi”) instead of the full “konnichiwa” (こんにちは, “hello”).
The liberal use, or abuse, of the small tsu (っ as opposed to つ) appears in many other examples, too. When some young men speak, the copula, desu (です), equivalent in meaning to “it is,” is shortened by dropping the de and replacing it with a small tsu. Customarily, it’s represented in katakana at that point, since it’s not really a legitimate word anymore but more of a sound, ssu (ッス). A small tsu is also used in place of i (い) on i-adjectives, accentuating the abruptness of the clipped word — like adding an exclamation point. Slang isn’t a purely modern contrivance, either; for example, older nu (ぬ)-form adjectives regularly get trimmed to a blunt ん.
If you’re in an area where a dialect is spoken, I highly recommend learning how to use the local tongue effectively. My host family in Tokyo was shocked when I let loose on one visit with such abbreviations as “jyakken” (じゃっけん, “therefore”) and “ā, hōssuka” (あぁ、ほうっすか; “Oh, is that so?”). They told me that I no longer qualified as living in the countryside (inaka, 田舎) — I ranked as living in, and having been learning the lingo of, the ド田舎 (do-inaka), the deep countryside — or “the sticks.”
While surprised by my local flavor, the people I interact with daily are far more comfortable talking to me. Dialect-specific abbreviations are useful! In areas where Kansai dialect is spoken, the shortened form of “chigau” (違う, “wrong, different”), “chau” (ちゃう), is common. In Koichi Prefecture’s Tosa dialect, the shortened form of “shitteiru” (知っている, “(I) know”) — “shicchū” (知っちゅう) — is much used.
Learn the tricks in your own area as well as those for standard Japanese, but take care to listen to how natives use casual speech and do your best to mimic; the only thing worse than using hypercorrect language all the time is using slang incorrectly — like wannabe-hip parents. For example, forgetting to account for regional norms when choosing between aho (アホ) and baka (バカ) as a friendly insult could be awkward.
Remember, while “ain’t” ain’t a word to some, it sure is to all those people who use it. The same is true for Japanese. Know your proper Japanese, but don’t be afraid to learn words that aren’t in the textbooks. You’ll be matching “ya’lls” and “youse guys” in no time.
Deas Richardson IV writes the blog www.rockinginhakata.com and works as a prefectural adviser and assistant language teacher in Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku.
Abbreviate for oomph:
• 寒い, 寒っ！(samui, samu)
• 暑い, 暑っ！(atsui, atsu)
• 暗い, 暗っ！ (kurai, kura)
• 怖い, 怖っ！(kowai, kowa)
• 知らぬ, 知らん (shiranu, shiran)
• 行かぬ, 行かん(ikanu, ikan)
• 分からぬ, 分からん (wakaranu, wakaran)