Japanese grammar: Solving the mystery of “僕に言われても” (boku ni iwarete mo)

By | December 9, 2020

Since the beginning of my Japanese studies I have focused heavily on grammar, and I continue to try to fill in knowledge gaps related to grammar as it helps both when I use Japanese and when I translate.

When I discover an expression or usage I don’t understand, usually a little Googling reveals the answer. But sometimes there are cases when the grammar doesn’t become clear to me from a cursory search and more effort is required.

In this post I want to talk about a certain grammar pattern that has been in the back of my mind for a few years now: 僕に言われても (boku ni iwarete mo). Keep in mind that the “boku” can be replaced with another first person pronoun (“atashi”, “ore”, etc.) , and this phrase itself is only a fragment. First, let’s look at a full sentence using it:

  • そんなこと僕に言われても困ります. (sonna koto boku ni iwarete mo komarimasu)

This phrase is generally used when the speaker is told something unpleasant. Literally, the pieces of the phrase can be explained like this:

  • そんなこと 僕に言われても 困ります
  • [that type of thing] [even if it is said to me] [am troubled]
  • It is troubling to have such a thing said to me.

(By the way, “komaru” is one of those words that doesn’t have a good natural equivalent in English. You can see more about it in this article.)

Here is one non-literal way to translate the expression into more natural English:

  • I’m not too happy to hear that.

Or, depending on the context we might be able to translate it more casually as:

  • That sucks.

Now many, if not a majority of Japanese learners would probably be satisfied with the above explanation about how the pieces fit together. Indeed, this is enough to both understand and use the phrase oneself.

But when I heard this, one thing really stuck out as an unusual usage. Can you guess?

It’s the “に” (ni) particle. To see why this is a bit uncommon, let’s look at two common usages of に with the verb 言う (to say). The first is a simple active usage:

  • 僕は犬に言った (boku wa inu ni itta)
  • I said (it) to the dog.

Here the に indicates the target of the action “to say”. Now let’s look at a typical passive sentence:

  • 僕は弟に言われた (boku wa otouto ni iwareta)
  • I was told (that) by (my) younger brother.

Here, the “ni” indicates the origin of the action “to say”, which is in the passive verb tense. In other words, my younger brother is doing the saying, and I am listening.

These two patterns are quite common in daily life. Now that you see these, you may realize why “僕に言われても” is odd. It’s because “僕” is used with に and a passive form of “to say”, and yet “僕” is not the person who is speaking, but the person who is being spoken to. This is the exact opposite of what we saw in the last example sentence above!

In order to figure out what is going on here, besides asking a native speaker I also did some internet searching. I found this post, which seems to sort of explain what is going on, but I wasn’t fully satisfied with the explanation. I ended up posting on Oshiete Goo here, and got a total of ten responses. As is typical of that site, they ranged from brief to detailed, from clear to confusing. After I read the 8th answer, plus a response to a comment I made on the Japanese StackExchange post, I finally had a better idea about what was going on.

To make a long story short (and to avoid using too many grammar-related terms), the “に” particle has a large number of uses––at least 15 according to one dictionary. One of them is, as I mentioned above, the target of an action. Another is the origin of some action, when a passive verb is being used. “僕は犬に言った” involves the first usage, and ”僕は弟に言われた” the second.

My confusion was thinking that a passive verb required that に was used for the latter usage (origin of an action). But in fact, the former usage (target of an action) can be used with a passive verb, and this is exactly what we see with “僕に言われても”.

In other words, the “僕に” from “僕に言われても” acts like the “犬に” from “僕は犬に言った”.

One might ask why can’t が be used instead of に, as in:

  • そんなこと僕が言われても困ります (sonna koto boku ga iwarete mo komarimasu).

This is where the explanation from answer #8 of my Oshiete Goo post comes in. User hakobulu says essentially that using “ga” here treats “boku” as a subject, whereas using “ni” treats “boku” as a the target of some action. While he/she doesn’t say this, I think technically “ga” could be used. However, as pointed by several people in the posts I referred to above, using “ga” sounds unnatural. I would primarily attribute this to the fact that is strange to use “ga” to emphasize “boku” since it is already clear from the context. It would be sort of like saying “I’m not too happy to hear that” (note the italics).

In fact, as some people pointed out you can use ”boku wa” instead of “boku ni”, or simply remove “boku ni” altogether, yielding:

  • そんなこと言われても困ります

I feel this is the most natural sounding of all.

This pattern is good to learn since it can come up in other cases, for example “僕に聞かれても” (even if you ask me).

By the way, if you are wondering why passive is used in these phrases, it is to give a negative nuance, similar to phrases like “I got bitten by a horse” or “I was rained on”. This usage can be called 迷惑の受身 (meiwaku no ukemi), which I have seen translated as “suffering passive” or “trouble passive”. The key point is not that the doer of the action necessarily had any bad intent, but that the receiver of the action was “troubled” by the result of the action. I should point out that there was a divided opinion about whether this case technically counts as a “trouble passive” usage.

This discussion is a good example of how native speakers work intuitively with grammar, and may not have hard-and-fast grammar rules for all situations. Native speakers may not even agree on basic things like the functions of particles, or how they are defined. For example, in the 10th answer to my Oshiete Goo post someone argues that the fundamental understanding of other answerers (in addition to my own) is incorrect.

But I was happy to read the 9th answer, where the person responding seemed to agree with me about how confusing the usage of “ni” is in this situation. He/she gives some analysis with a few references, but concludes by saying: (with my translation)

  • なぜんこんなことになるのか? やはり「そういうもの」と考えるのが賢明な気がする。
  • So why does this happen? As before, I get the feeling that it’s wise to think “That’s (just) how it is”.

Even though many grammar questions can end up with throwing your hands in the air and saying “That’s just how it is,” I think grammar analyses like what I have done here are educational, and even fun. And I feel that the lack of agreement among native speakers should take a little pressure off us non-native speakers, since if the native speakers can’t explain it fully how should we be expected to? Fortunately, having a perfect grammar understanding (and being able to explain it clearly) isn’t a requirement for being fluent in a language.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider checking out my quiz book on particles here, which has many explanations about particles ranging from beginner to more advanced topics.

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5 thoughts on “Japanese grammar: Solving the mystery of “僕に言われても” (boku ni iwarete mo)

  1. Tarek Madi

    I actually am more confused by the use of も between 言われて and 困る.
    I had always learn that ても means “even if” or “even though”. It’s often taught that when ても is used it means there’s a contrasts between the expectation and the result.
    For example, どれだけ食べても、太りません. “No matter how much I eat, I don’t get fat”. Or たくさん食べても、太りません. “Even if / even though I eat a lot, I don’t get fat.”

    But with 言われても困る, there’s no contrast between the expectation and the result. Translating it as “even though it is said to me, I’m troubled” or “even if it is said to me, I’m troubled” doesn’t really work. There’s no reason to think that having it said to you wouldn’t be troubling, so using “even if” is strange.

    Could you offer any insight as to why ても is used here to create what is basically a simple conditional phrase ? Because honestly the “even” part of the translation doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like ても just means “if” in this case. But then I have to wonder why other ways of saying “if” aren’t being used instead.

    It’s a bit confusing.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      That’s a good question. In my mind I was thinking in terms of “even if…” but you are right that doesn’t quite match up literally in this case.

      Ideally I should write a whole article about this, but to give you an idea, look at the 2nd entry for “ても” in my JP/JP dictionary (the one that is typically configured in the dictionary in Mac OS):

       既定の事柄を条件として示し,それと内容上対立する後件に結びつける。逆接の既定条件を表す。「いくら…ても」の形をとることが多い。…したけれども。「いくら言い聞かせ―,わからない」「眼をとじ―,まぶたに浮かぶ」〔(1)①は「どうしても」「なんといっても」などの慣用的な言い方としても用いられる。「どうし―,うまくいきそうもない」「なんといっ―,宇宙開発が今後の問題だ」(2)②は「それにしても」「…といっても」などの慣用的な言い方としても用いられる。「それにし―,困った事だね」「すぐにできるといっ―,二,三年先の話だ」〕

      I’m not going to translate this entire thing now, and to be honest it’s a little tricky to follow. But see the references to “いくら。。。も”, “どうしても” and “それにしても” which are common expressions that also work similar to the “と言われても困る” usage. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this explanation is how it says “…したけれども” which is basically the past tense plus a “but”. This makes more sense than the “if” interpretation, since in the case of “と言われても困る”, the thing in question already occurred.

      I think the key phrase of the explanaton is “逆接の既定条件を表す”, which is literally something like “expresses a contrasting established condition”. But that is linguistics talk and may not help much.

      Reply
    2. locksleyu Post author

      One other thing, to me there is some form of “contrast” between 言われても and 困る because often the connotation is that “(even) if you say XXX, I can’t do that.” or “(even) if you say XXX, I don’t understand that.”

      For example, I think the phrase “even if you ask me to go to Japan, there’s no way I can do it” makes sense, even though it is not completely natural English.

      Reply
    3. locksleyu Post author

      One more thing, I was reading the explanation again and I think the very first part is the key here:

      “既定の事柄を条件として示し…”

      This literally means “expressing a preexisting matter as a condition…”, in other words it is treating something that already happened as an “if”.

      Reply

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