An interesting use of “wakaranai” (分からない)

By | November 3, 2015

In a Japanese novel I am reading I recently came across the following phrase where 分からない was used in a strange way that caught me off guard. The dialog went something like this:

  • 探したんだけど、わからない。[Sagashita n da kedo, wakaranai]

The context here the person speaking was searching for a friend who had been lost in the forest.

Based on what was said after this, I was able to figure out this meant that he didn’t find her. But why was “wakaranai” used to mean this? I would have understood better if “shiranai” (don’t know) was used, since then he might have been talking about where she went.

I checked with a Japanese person who said that this was short for “行方が分からない” (yukue ga wakaranai), where “yukue” means the location or whereabouts of a person. For example, the expression 行方不明 (yukue fumei) means someone is lost.

This highlights an important difference between わかる and English “understand”, which is that sometimes わかる it can be used in a sense closer to “know”.

In case you are curious, saying “行方を知らない” would also be correct in Japanese.


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