When studying a foreign language, one often looks up words in their native language (in my case, English) and then remembers that definition, hoping that eventually that definition can be replaced with a sense of what the word means without having to rely on a another language.
While that process can work, you can run into problems for words that have similar meanings. And if the words sound similar, it makes things even worse.
In this article I’d like to focus on “mata” and “mada”, two words which are easy to confuse because they sound similar, and also have vaguely similar meanings. Rather than simply translating to English, I want to describe them conceptually, and the compare them with one another.
The word “mata” is the simpler of the two, and describes when something will occur or has occurred that had already occurred at least once in the past. “Mata” is used to refer to events that take place or begin at a specific point in time. In English, the word “again” is a pretty close match. Let’s look at example:
- 僕はまた負けたね (boku wa mata maketa ne)
- I lost again.
On the other hand, the word “mada” refers to the continuation of some existing state. This can be either in the positive sense (something is continuing to occur) or in the negative sense (something has not occurred yet). It’s important to note that this word refers to some state that was established some time in the past, not now. In English, for the positive case “still” is a close match, and “not yet” is a good match for the negative.
- 雪はまだ降っていません。(yuki wa mada futte imasen)
- It isn’t snowing yet.
The commonality between these words is that they both are alluding to some thing has happened or can happen. However, the difference is that with “mata” the focus is on something starting to happen––though instantaneous events can also be used––whereas “mada” is about how something has not changed over a period of time; either something is still taking place, or it is not yet started to take place.
Fortunately, because of this difference these two words can rarely be interchangeable. However, using the “te-iru” form we can actually construct sentences where either would fit, for example:
- 彼はまた食べてる (kare wa mata tabete iru)
- 彼はまだ食べてる (kare wa mada tebete iru)
While these are both grammatically correct, they have very different meanings. In the first sentence (“mata”) he is currently eating, but the focus is that he had eaten before, and at some point presumably stopped eating. But in the second sentence (“mada”) he is still eating, with the nuance that it is taking longer than expected for him to finish eating. Both “mata” and “mada” are frequently used with a negative nuance, but they can be used equally for positive situations.