Paragraph 1, Part 1
The first paragraph (only one sentence) of the book is chock full of good, basic Japanese grammar, and is a great example of a typical Japanese sentence. There is actually quite a lot of basic grammar we have to cover to understand this sentence, so we split this paragraph into two parts.
FULL: Gakkou kara kitaku suru to, imouto ga ribingu de denwa wo shite iru tokoro datta.
WHAT WE WILL TRANSLATE THIS SECTION: 学校から帰宅すると、
WHAT WE WILL TRANSLATE THIS SECTION: Gakkou kara kitaku suru to,
Vocabulary (whole paragraph):
学校 – gakkou – school
帰宅 – kitaku – returning home
リビング – ribingu – living room
電話 – denwa – phone
ところ – tokoro – place, spot, scene
The first unfamiliar element in this segment of this sentence is the word kara.
New Grammatical Object – kara (Particle) – “from”
There are two major uses of the particle kara. First, when it comes after a relative clause, it is used to mark that clause as a reason, and is translated as “because.” However, we will wait until we see it used that way to have a formal discussion about it.
The second major use of the particle kara is to mark the origin of an action or where things come “from.” You would use it, for example, if you want to say that something came from somewhere else. You can use kara in many places where you would use “from” in English. For example, in the constructions “Wine is made from grapes” and “From my point of view,” the particle kara would be used.
Remember that particles come after the word they modify, so even if we would say “I came back from the store” in English, in Japanese the particle kara would come right after the word for “store.”
In this case, then, Kyousuke is expressing that some action he is doing comes “from” school. That is,
Gakkou kara = “From school”
What did he do from school? Well, to figure that out, we first need a long-awaited lesson on Japanese verbs.
New Grammatical Objects – Verbs, –ru form
Here, we encounter our first verb. Verbs and verb conjugation pretty much make up half of the difficulty of learning Japanese grammar, with particles making up the other half. In English, when we talk about the “standard” form of verbs, we usually mean the infinitive form. For example, the “standard” form of the verb “run” is its infinitive, “to run.” In Japanese, this “standard” form is what I call the –ru form.
Calling this form the -ru form is rather misleading, as there are verbs in the “standard” form that end in other syllables, like -ku, or -mu. However, more Japanese verbs end in –ru than any other syllable, so it is convenient to refer to verbs like this. I will continue to refer to the “standard” form of verbs as the –ru form. Just keep in mind though that generally, when you see a word that ends in the letter u, it is highly likely that it is a verb.
Standing alone, the –ru form verbs act as the simple present or future tense. For example, the –ru form of “to eat” is taberu, and the sentence
Ore ga taberu
translates to “I eat,” or “I will eat,” or “I would eat.” Note that there are multiple interpretations possible here, and it is only through context that you can pick which one is correct. That is one additional difficulty of learning Japanese – it is a much more contextual language than English, and often precise translations will be very context-dependant. In fact, the ambiguity is so well know here that the –ru tense is often just referred to as the “non-past tense.” For example, if I started the sentence with the word ashita, which means “tomorrow,”
Ashita, ore ga taberu
would translate to “Tomorrow, I will eat.” Here, it is clear what I mean by taberu. I intend to use it as “will eat.”
There are three classifications of verbs. Verbs are split up this way because verbs in the same class generally conjugate in the same way. So it is important to know what class verbs fall into:
(1) Godan Verbs – These verbs have a –ru form that ends in things other than –eru or –iru. Examples include aruku (to walk), oyogu (to swim), warau (to laugh), or hashiru (to run). Unfortunately, I said “generally” because there are godan verbs whose –ru forms do end in –eru or –iru. For example, kaeru (to return somewhere), although ending in –eru, is actually a godan verb. These special cases are just something you have to keep track of.
(2) Ichidan Verbs – These verbs have a –ru form that always ends in either –eru or –iru. The great thing about ichidan verbs are that they are extremely easy to conjugate (as we will see later). To conjugate these verbs, all you do is drop the –eru or –iru from the verb and tack on the appropriate verb ending. We’ll learn about those a bit later. Examples of Ichidan verbs are taberu (to eat) and miru (to see). In general, most verbs that end in –eru or –iru belong to this category, but remember that there are some that may belong to category (1) instead.
(3) Irregular Verbs – Unlike English, which is riddled with irregular verbs, in Japanese there are only two. Be thankful. The –ru forms of these verbs are suru (to do) and kuru (to come). These verbs are also very common and very important, so you should just memorize their conjugations. Once again, there are only two. So be happy.
And in fact, the verb that we have to deal with here is one of the irregular verbs, suru. It means “to do,” and comes after the noun kitaku, meaning “coming home.” What does that mean?
New Grammatical Object – suru verbs
One of the most important uses of the irregular verb suru is its ability to make nouns into verbs. For convenience, we will just refer to these verbs as suru verbs. This makes a lot of intuitive sense, as we can think of the construction X suru to just mean “to do X.” One of the more well known examples of this is the verb benkyou suru, which means “to study.” The word benkyou is just the noun for “studies,” so benkyou suru means “to do studies,” or just “to study.”
In this case, the suru verb is kitaku suru. Kitaku means “coming home,” so kitaku suru is a verb that means “to come home.” Where is he coming home from? We already know that! gakkou kara. He’s coming home from school.
To summarize, so far we have translated:
Gakkou kara kitaku suru = “Come home from school.”
The last thing to worry about is this strange to at the end of the clause.
New Grammatical Object – to (Particle) preceded by verb –ru – “when,” “if”
To is a particle with a pretty large variety of uses. In this case, we are dealing with a specific one. When the particle to comes after a verb in the -ru form, it tells us what happens right after the action of the –ru verb was completed. Roughly, this translates to “when” or “if.” Often, the implication is that what comes after the to happened because of the action of the verb before to, as in the sentence “When it rains, I get wet.” In this case, the interpretation is easy, and the sentence becomes
Gakkou kara kitaku suru to = “When I came home from school.”
We can therefore expect that the second half of the sentence will tell us what happened when Kyousuke came home from school.
How did I know that the correct interpretation was “When I came home from school,” and not “If I come home from school”? I didn’t. I admittedly cheated a bit and because I know how the sentence ends, I can translate it as “when.” But without further context, technically the to could be translated to either “when” or “if.”
General Comment – What happened to the subject?
There is one important thing to point out here, and it is that I have been assuming that the subject of the sentence is “I.” In English, you cannot form this sentence without explicitly stating the subject in the sentence. “I came home from school” is a complete sentence, while “came home from school” is not – the subject has to be there. But in this Japanese sentence, there is no subject, which is obvious considering there is no subject marking particle ga (or wa). How do I know definitively that the subject is I?
To be honest, I don’t.
For all I know, the sentence subject wasn’t “I.” It could have been “he” or “my mother” or “that alien on Pluto.” I really don’t know. But from the context, it is clear that the only reasonable interpretation of the sentence is that “I” am the one who is coming home. Any other interpretation would be completely incoherent.
So we arrive to one important point about Japanese – Japanese is very contextual. Oftentimes, things will be very noticeably omitted in the sentence, and the reader must decide what the sentence means from context. The omission of the subject here is a rather minor offense; we will come across sentences that are much more ambiguous and in which the reader must take larger leaps of logic to arrive at the correct translation.
Thus ends the translation of this half of the sentence. In the next half, we will learn just exactly what happened “when I came home from school.”