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.
Really, really interesting. Learnt a lot. Thank you buddy! 🙂 Nice sharing! Im currently learning Japanese N2. Peace from Malaysia 🙂
Thanks very much for the comment! Good luck on your Japanese studies! If you have any questions let me know, and I may be able to write an article about a topic you are having trouble with.
So how rude would something like 「さあまあいいかな。」 (or indeed 「さあ・・・まあいいかな。」) be? You didn’t really elaborate that much on that part as the part that it can be rude, which great – it can be rude but that in and of itself is meaningless without knowing why and how.
The examples you gave sound a little unnatural to me, since “さあ。。。” (depending on the tone of voice) can express disinterest, where as “まあ。。。” is more neutral. I have never heard さあ and まあ used directly together like that before.
If you give me a specific situation and what you want to express, I can try to help with what responses would be natural.
I have Japanese English language students living with me. I asked about the word ‘sa’ and they said it is a really bad word. I have heard it translated as ‘damn’ but perhaps ‘fucking hell’ captures the meaning better? This article is really confusing after what In was told by native Japanese speakers.
Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment.
Regarding your student(s) feedback, after over 20 years studying Japanese (and living with a native Japanese person for many years) I can say I have never anyone called “sa” or “saa” a “bad word” or translate it using any of the offensive English you used.
I think maybe there is some misunderstanding between the students you are referring to.
As I mentioned in this article, “sa” or “saa” can sound rough or impolite, so I agree it could be considered rude when speaking with certain people (like elders or teachers).
But to compare it to the F-word is completely wrong. There are many other expressions that are much more directly insulting (like -yagaru).
What if you use -sa in the end of the sentence? I’m currently watching Magi and the little boy named Aladdin ends the majority of his sentences with -sa but when he says it, It sounds so soft and calming to the ear. Does that mean, Aladdin is bragging about himself? If not then why did the author decide to make Aladdin’s character so that he speaks like that???
I’m not familiar with that series. I could make a guess, but it would be better if I can listen/watch a portion of it myself. Is there anywhere online I can see it? Or can you record a few seconds of audio for me where he uses that pattern 2 or 3 times?
I’ve never heard a character use “-sa” that often, but depending on the tone of voice and context I can give you my interpretation.
I double checked with a Japanese person (since I had never heard such a character before), and they said that character is probably trying to emphasize their “manlyness”. Tell me if that is consistent with the character in question. Maybe I’ll pick up the manga somewhere.
Thank you for the post! I was wondering about this because i noticed them saying this a lot in Detective Conan, and they specifically mentioned it being a Tokyo dialect thing in one episode, and i wanted to know more! The emphasising manliness thing would definitely make sense for Conan as he’s a 16/17 year old trapped in the body of a 6/7 year old.
I was wondering, there are two animes that has the sa and saa i think. One, in an opening says “saa, ai ni kogareta munewo tsuranuke” and i think is like an “alright, or lets go” , and on the other one, theres this pacifist dude that says ” nantoka naru sa” and i think its just to accentuate what he says. Can you translate that last sentence to what it means more accurately in english? (Or spanish, i speak spanish) thanks in advance!
The second phrase you mentioned means something like “It’s going to work out.”
The “sa” there is a little hard to translate perfectly into English, but to me it has a bit of a rough, casual, maybe even manly feeling. One word in English that is a little similar is “dude”, though the nuance isn’t exactly the same.
I was wondering, there are two animes that has the sa and saa i think. One, in an opening says “saa, ai ni kogareta munewo tsuranuke” and i think is like an “alright, or lets go” , and on the other one, theres this pacifist dude that says ” nantoka naru sa” and i think its just to accentuate what he says. Can you translate that last sentence to what it means more accurately in english? (Or spanish, i speak spanish) thanks in advance! I really want to know
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