‘Ka’ can help you sound less like Mr. Roboto


Special To The Japan Times

Knowing how you sound in Japanese is very difficult. For the first few months of study, perhaps even the first few years, the best you can hope for is to imitate sensei (先生, teachers) and tomodachi (友達, friends), geinōjin (芸能人, celebrities) and kishō yohōshi (気象予報士, weather forecasters).

Well, maybe not that last one. The anaunsā (アナウンサー, newscasters) in Japan, including the weather lads and lasses, are incredibly precise with their language. They are excellent models for bunpō (文法, grammar) and tango (単語, vocabulary), but you may end up sounding more robotic than usual if you follow their intonation.

At the beginning of their Japanese studies, many students sound a bit robotic by necessity. Precision is the name of the game when you’re starting out and you need to make sure you hit every syllable in every word just to get fed: “Onigiri wo mittsu kudasai! (おにぎりを三つください!, Three rice balls, please!)”

Note the precision of the placement of the generic josūshi (助数詞, Japanese counter word): it comes after the particle wo (を). This is standard practice for all the various josūshi, which can get incredibly specific: hai (杯) for cups of liquid, mai (枚) for flat objects, hiki (匹) for animals, nin (人) for people in groups of three or larger, hon (本) not for books, but for cylindrical objects, dai (台) for appliances and machines, and others more arcane and obscure.

Taken to its extreme, precision can turn even a fun weekend into something boring and routine: “Kinō biiru wo sanbai nomimashita. Tanoshikatta desu yo. (昨日ビールを三杯飲みました。楽しかったですよ, Yesterday I drank three beers. It was fun.)” Settle down, you wild thing!

But all you need is one little hiragana to throw off the precision and make yourself sound more like a human being: ka (か). Just add ka to the end of a josūshi to imply uncertainty: “Bā wo ni, sanken-ka mawatte, biiru wo ikura-ka nonde, itsu no ma ni ka karaoke utatte imashita (バーを二、三軒か回って、ビールをいくらか飲んで、いつの間にかカラオケ歌っていました; I went around to two or three bars or so, had a few beers, and before I knew it we were singing karaoke).” The counter ken (軒) is for buildings, and following it with ka creates a casual “aboutness” to the number of locations visited. In this example, the ka also follows ikura (いくら) to imply an uncertain amount of beers and itsu no ma ni (いつの間に) to show an uncertain passage of time. Just relax, daddy-o. Who has time to remember the exact numbers of beers you drank, people you met, rice balls you ate and karaoke songs you sang?

Ka is also involved in one of the great Japanese linguistic equivocations: X to iu ka (Xというか; I mean X/perhaps X). When you don’t know exactly what to say, this can be a lifesaver. Sure, you may use the Japanese sounds etto (えっと) and anō (あのう) rather than reverting to English and saying “umm,” but if you’re trying to suggest a certain je ne sais quoi or to make it clear that you’re searching for the right word or phrase, then to iu ka is the phrase you’re looking for.

A memorable example from Japanese cinema comes in the 1985 Juzo Itami movie “Tampopo.” The title character, a ramen proprietor, has just asked the truckers/ramen experts Goro and Gan to critique her ramen honestly. Goro replies: “Un, sō da ne. Mā, majime na aji de wa arun da kedo, genki ga nai to iu ka, chikara ga nai to iu ka (うん、そうだね。まあ、真面目な味ではあるんだけど、元気がないというか、力がないというか; Well, they do have sincerity, but I guess they lack . . . energy, or perhaps power . . . )”

Goro is hesitant to insult Tampopo, but she’s requested an honest appraisal, so he uses to iu ka to lighten his answer. It’s actually polite precisely because it’s imprecise.

At this point, Gan interrupts with a very straightforward response for maximum comedic effect: “Hakkiri itte mazui desu (はっきりいってまずいです; Frankly speaking, they’re bad).”

Ka can also help equivocate when addressing cause and effect. Substituting ka into the phrase sei de (せいで), which usually attributes a cause for a negative effect, makes the link between that cause and effect less certain. If you’re feeling under the weather but don’t want to sound like a total whinger, you could say, “Tenki no sei ka, kyō wa chotto kibun ga sugurenai (天気のせいか、今日はちょっと気分がすぐれない; Maybe it’s the weather, but I don’t feel so hot today).”

This feels far more human and natural than what the kishō yohōshi would say: “Ame no eikyō de doshakuzure no tokoro mo arimashita (雨の影響で土砂崩れのところもありました; Due to the effect of the rain, there were cases of landslides).”

Ka is versatile in this sense. Just attach it to eikyō (影響, effect), tame (ため, due to), kara (から, because), okage (おかげ, thanks to) and, of course, sei in the first half of a cause-and-effect sentence such as those above and you can capture that most human condition of uncertainty.

Given time you’ll gradually come in to your own Japanese voice. You’ll make adjustments along the way in terms of pronunciation, pitch and speed, but one easy way to sound more normal is to shake off the shackles of precision using ka.

  • Pallavi

    I have just started studying for JLPT N3. These articles are very helpful. Arigato gozaimasu!

  • Mikhail Karpilenko

    I like it more when Japanese words are written in kanji first and then in romaji. Like in a last week article about hit products of 2014. I mean we’re trying to learn to read Japanese here, so we should try to read kanji first and only then check if we got it right. At least I think so.