We don’t make language, it makes us (and an incorrect use of the Japanese particle ‘ga’)

By | October 7, 2015

When studying a foreign language, I’ve had all sorts of small revelations about how language works, and these are one of the things that keeps me motivated to learn even more.

I remember in my first foreign language class, which happened to be for Spanish, the teacher said that “someone just didn’t sit on a hill and create Spanish grammar”. The point here was that for the most part, language is not constructed explicitly and purposefully by humans, it is instead created indirectly by day-to-day interactions as words, expressions, and pronunciation gradually evolve over a period of decades.

In my research about Japanese grammar the other day, I came across a quote from someone which reminded me of this. It describes the nature of what we call ‘grammar’ very succinctly. I’ll give the original Japanese and my translation below (original source).


What we study as ‘language’ was not created from grammatical rules, rather it comes from classifications done by those who have discovered patterns in how that language has been used.

This is why, even though all languages can more or less be described via a set of rules, there are always exceptions that crop up and need to remembered on a case by case basis. It’s the reason that languages have things that just seem illogical or inconsistent, like how the word for “read” in English is written the same way for both it’s present and past tense, though pronounced slightly differently.

The flip side of this is that for a language one has become somewhat fluent in through experience (as opposed to book study) it can be difficult to explain why a certain phrase is correct. I’ve seen this many times myself when asked about details of English grammar, like how to differentiate the articles “the” vs “a”.

The other day I came across some Japanese text in a guidebook: “Advilがありますか?” (“advil ga arimasu ka?”). The context was someone going to a store in Japan to ask for medicine (presumably they had a headache). My first instinct reading this line was that it somehow seemed unnatural, even grammatically incorrect, and I later confirmed that with a Japanese person that it was in fact a bit odd.

However, I wasn’t really able to really explain exactly why it was wrong, other than the fact that the pattern “~はありますか?” (“~wa arimasu ka?”) would be more natural in this situation. I decided to post a short question on the question and answer site Oshiete Goo. I promptly received a reply, including an easy-to-understand example scenario. You can see the full text here.

The gist of the answer was that the particle “ga” is used for several purposes, one of the main ones being to specify the subject of an action. However, with just this explanation it isn’t clear why using “ga” to ask for medicine sounds awkward.

The responder followed up with a short example where someone enters a store that is claimed to sell any possible product:

店主:おや、疑うのですか? 本当に何でも売ってますよ。
お客:でも、(あの有名な)Advilありますか? まさか、それは無いでしょう?

In the last line we can see the usage of “ga” in the phrase “Advil ga arimasu ka?”. This is natural here because the customer is really trying to emphasize “advil” because he/she doesn’t believe it is actually sold at that store.

The person who answered my post also stated that you can think of this usage of “ga” as if someone was asking you “So, what product are you looking for”. The “ga” indicates “*this* is the product I am looking for”. Another time where “ga” would be necessary is when asking a question to determine the subject of a verb, for example “何ありますか?” (“nani ga arimasu ka?”). Using “wa” here would be completely incorrect.

At the end of his response, he confirms my feelings by saying “Advil ga arimasu ka?” in a typical situation would be strange.

This page describes (in Japanese) another case where either が or は can be used when asking a question, specifically the difference between the following:

  • この近くに郵便局ありますか?
  • この近くに郵便局ありますか?

In typical case, where you are searching for a post office near by but don’t know for sure it exists, you should use “は” (wa) here, which is the first example sentence above. On the other hand, if you are looking for a specific post office, or know there is one nearby (since you are using it as a landmark to find some other place), then it would be correct to use “が” (ga).

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