Japanese literary expression: ~言わんばかり (~iwan bakari)

By | August 17, 2020

One of the joys of reading Japanese literature is that the more you do it, the more you pick up certain words and phrases that are specific to literature and not commonly used in spoken language. This knowledge helps you not just understand the meaning of such words but also their nuances.

In this post I’d like to go over one expression I personally identified as being “literary” after seeing it appear in a few different books: 〜言わんばかり (~iwan bakari). First let’s look at an example of usage:

  • 彼女は、私の写真を撮って!と言わんばかりの態度だった。 (kanojo wa, watashi no shashin wo totte! to iwan bakari no taido datta)

When I first came across this expression it was hard for me to guess the meaning since I thought “iwan” was a shortening for “iwanai”, meaning the negative of the verb “to say”. This is a reasonable guess because sometimes “~nai” is abbreviated to “~n”, like in the word “wakaran” which is short for “wakaranai” (the negative non-past form of “wakaru”, “to understand”). But in this case it is actually something completely different and lacks any negative meaning.

It turns out that 言わん is actually short for 言わむ which is formed by applying to the verb 言うthe classical particle む, which can be used to indicate will or intention. The second word in this phrase, ばかり, is also confusing since it is used for a relatively uncommon meaning. Typically ばかり is used to mean “only”, “about”, or to talk about something that has just happened, but in the case of 言わんばかり it has the nuance of “as if”, similar to the word よう.

So if we put together these two ideas we get the meaning of “as if (he/she) had the intention of saying…” which is exactly what this phrase means. In other words, 言わんばかり is used when someone’s actions, appearance, or other attribute suggests that they would want to say (or think) something.

Now let’s return to our example sentence and see how we can translate it:

  • 彼女は、私の写真を撮って!と言わんばかりの態度だった。 (kanojo wa, watashi no shashin wo totte! to iwan bakari no taido datta)
  • Her attitude made it seem that she was asking for her picture to be taken.

Here the particle の is used to allow the phrase in question to describe another word (態度), essentially as an adjective. You can use a に instead (ex: 〜と言わんばかりに) if you want to use it to describe a verb (adverbially).

You can actually use other verbs, such as 踊らんばかり (odoran bakari), “as if he/she was going to dance”, though 言わんばかり is perhaps the most common word with this pattern.

You can also use 言わん together with とする to express trying to do something:

  • 僕が言わんとしてるのは「やめて」だ (boku ga iwan to shiteru no wa “yamete” da)
  • What I’m trying to say is “stop it”.

Remember, 言わん expresses the intention to say something, which is essentially what the volitional form does in more modern Japanese. So you can rewrite the above sentence using the volitional form of 言う and retain the meaning:

  • 僕が言おうとしてるのは「やめて」だ (boku ga iou to shiteru no wa “yamete” da)
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