In this post I’m going to go over the Japanese particle “さ” (sa) and a few related words.
さ is something that took me quite some time to understand, partially because it wasn’t emphasized in any of the textbooks I originally learned Japanese from. I understand authors deciding to avoid this word because it not used very frequently in polite language, though you may hear it pretty often in informal situations. Another reason it was difficult for me was because there isn’t any exact equivalent in English.
Let’s start from a simple example:
- Because I’m a man!
The general feeling I get from さ is something I would describe as rough and informal, even a bit masculine, though some women do use this word. This example sentence contains several elements in addition to さ which have a connotation of masculine (俺, ore) or informal (だから, since it is not a polite form).
There is really no way to directly translate the さ here, but because of the sentence’s content I think the simple English translation above is sufficient to convey the informality and manly-ness. There are also some who say the particle さ can have an implicit feeling of refutation or rebuttal（反駁).
さ can be used after a verb directly, or after the word “の” (no).
- (someday) I’ll be king!
My intuitive feel for a sentence like this is the さ is attributing a sense of toughness, or trying to brag about something. I think it would be more correct to say it adds a feeling of assertion.
さ can also be used in the middle of a sentence, sometimes multiple times. The below example uses さ once within the sentence and once at the end.
- So I was thinking… (literally: “I thought”)
In this usage, there is always a pause after the “さ” in the middle of a sentence, hence the comma. Here, it is said to help the speaker adjust his or her tone (語調を整える) as well as to indicate there is more to be said after. I also get the feeling the speaker is a male speaking informally, somewhere between a teenager and middle age, though there are definitely people outside of this age group that use the expression.
Again, it is hard to literally translate さ’s usage here into English, though I think we have some expressions such “you know”, “you see”, and “right” which can be injected into informal sentences and share some of the nuances of さ。(ex: “So, there was this guy, right….and he starting running…”)
The particle ね (ne) can be used to a similar fashion to さ, however I feel it has a much less strong, more friendly tone (possibly feminine depending on the situation). (i.e. “僕ね、負けたんだ”)
さ can also be placed at the beginning of a sentence, where it is used to invite or urge a person to do something. You often see it used like this:
- Alright, lets get started!
I think the “Alright” here captures the tone pretty well, and could be replaced by “ok” as well.
For this usage, you can extend the “a” sound to “saa” (さあ or さ〜). Another common phrase is “さあ行こう！” (Alright, lets’ go!)
The phrase “さて” (sate) and equivalent “さてっと” (satetto) have a similar meaning to “さあ”. While they can be used to get attention of another person (さて、やってみよっか), I more often hear this pair used when talking to oneself.
- Alrighty now…. Which of these should I choose…
さあ also has another meaning (not usually associated with さ) which is to express a lack of caring about something or disinterest (“どうでもいい”)
- P1: どうして助けてあげないの？
- P1: Why don’t you help him/her?
- P2: さあ。。。
- P2: Who cares…. (or [shrug])
This carries a pretty cold, uncaring feeling, so be careful who you use it with. P2 in the above short dialog sounds like a real asshole to me. I’ve been told that saying “さあ。。。わからない” is a little bit less harsh. I think this is because that at least directly answers the question whereas さあ seems like more of an evasion.
The are even more uses of さ which I haven’t covered, like when it replaces the final い of an i-adjective to change that word to a noun, as in 嬉しい (happy [adjective]) ＝＞嬉しさ (happiness [noun])
There is at least one regional dialect (方言) where さ has a different function. For example, in Yamagata dialect the following can be said:
This can be expressed in Tokyo (common) dialect as:
In addition to さ being used to mean に, the sound く is represented as ぐ and こ as ご.