ある (aru) and いる (iru) in Japanese: two ways to express “existence”

By | December 31, 2014

When learning a foreign language, sometimes you run across words or expressions that, compared to your native language, can actually be more logical or simpler in some way.

ある and いる are a pair of verbs in Japanese that are very fundamental and should be taught early in any language acquisition course. These verbs express “existence” of something, often in the physical sense rather than the abstract.

Let’s start with a very simple example:

  • 車がある。
  • There is a car.

The Japanese sentence very cleanly expresses the concept that a car physically exists. The funny thing is that in order to say this in English you have to use some awkward grammar, using “there” when there isn’t a place specified, and the copula “is” is used even though there is no concept of equality or having some attribute (i.e. “The car is red”.)

Of course, I don’t have any problem expressing the existence of an object in English, being that it is my native language, but I can appreciate the conceptual simplicity and directness of the Japanese grammar here.

As for the difference between ある and いる: the former usually expresses a non-living object while the latter typically expresses a living object. When I asked a native speaker exactly how they make the distinction between a ‘living’ object, they said that whether the object breathes is a good way to draw the line. For example:

  • ある: book, car, plant, candy, money, hope   (ex: 車がある)
  • いる: dog, elephant, human, child  (ex: 犬がいる)

As you may have noticed in the above list I included the abstract concept of ‘hope’ for ある. The reason for that is that ある can also be used to express existence of non-physical things (though いる cannot). Two other words that could be used with ある are “power” and “time’.

Both of these verbs can also express something or someone is possessed or related to something else. For example:

  • 僕には弟がいる。
  • I have a younger brother.
  • 僕はお金がある。
  • I have money.

ある can be written in Kanji several ways (有る、或る, etc.) with each reading having it’s own nuance, but it’s most common to write it in Hiragana. Writing いる in Kanji (as 居る) is seen a bit more frequently, but you can still safely use Hiragana.

For verb conjugation, いる conjugates like a normal “iru/eru” verb (いない、います, etc.), whereas ある has a special conjugation for the negative: “ない”. So “お金がない” would mean “There is no money”.

One thing to be careful with is there are several other verbs which can be written as いる, especially 要る which means “to need”. This verb is actually pretty common in casual conversation but usually it’s easy to distinguish because you typically use it to refer to non-living objects. Also this verb is not an “iru/eru” verb so it is conjugated as 要らない, 要ります, etc.” which further helps to disambiguate.

  • ドリンク要らない?
  • Do you need a drink?
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