The expression「お茶はどう?」 (“ocha wa dou?”) and the vagueness of the Japanese language

By | April 30, 2018

When compared to English, Japanese can sometimes seem like a language filled with vagueness. Not only are subjects often omitted, but sometimes particles are too, and to make things even more confusing there is less verb tenses (there is no future tense). To be sure, Japanese has it own ways to help clarify the meaning of a sentence, but as with most languages context typically provides important clues.

Recently I had an interesting experience involving the vagueness of Japanese, so I thought I would write a brief article about it.

I had been poured tea and had just taken a sip, when someone asked me “お茶はどう?”. But I had to stop and think for a moment to figure out the best way to answer this seemingly simple phrase.

This phrase is comprised of three parts:

  • お茶 (ocha):  tea
  • は (wa): particle used to introduce a topic (“X は” is sometimes explained as “As for X…”)
  • どう(dou): question word which means something close to “how” (or “how about” in this context).

So when we put these things together we get the basic interpretation:

  • お茶はどう?
  • How would you like some tea?

However, besides this interpretation there is another involving the word “flavor” (味) that is not explicitly mentioned in the sentence. This would be:

  • How does the tea taste?

In my case, I had gotten tea a few minutes ago, but had just taken a sip. However, I didn’t know if the person who was asking me knew if I had been poured tea (or if they were the person who had poured it originally). I also didn’t know if they saw me take a sip.

So, not knowing exactly what was being asked of me, I simply answered:

  • 美味しいです   (oishii desu).
  • It tastes good.

This clarified to all parties involved I had tea, had drank some, and had enjoyed it.

(By the way, the phrase might have technically been “お茶はどうですか?” but that has basically the same meaning, except is more polite.)

Just to be sure, right after this exchange I asked the person (a native speaker) whether my two interpretations were correct and they confirmed both were valid. I think generally the interpretation should be pretty clear, but in this case there was some uncertainty whether the person speaking knew I had received and drank the tea.

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