Japanese grammar: Takebacks in chess and when the past isn’t the past

By | March 1, 2021

I try to make sure I get a daily dose of Japanese, not as instructional material (a textbook, etc.) but as content made for native speakers. One good way to do this (which I’ve written about before here) is to set your PC or mobile device to Japanese language.

I have my main personal phone set to Japanese, so whenever I use mobile apps I get to practice reading in Japanese, at least for those with Japanese support available. Just the other day I installed the lichess app which has pretty good Japanese internationalization. 

I was going through the menu quickly in them middle of a game, and saw one thing that seemed a bit odd:

  • 待ったのお願い (matta no onegai)

Even if you only know basic grammar knowledge, you might have realized that this phrase is a little grammatically unusual. The first reason is that when using a verb to describe a noun, typically they are put back-to-back (ex: 待ったお願い) or connected with something like 〜という〜, but here a の is used in between an action and a noun, which more closely follows the pattern of a noun modifying a noun. Second, when talking about an action typically the non-past (ex: 待つ) would be used.

I was able to figure out from context that this meant “ask for a takeback” (meaning you made a mistake and want to redo your move), but I wanted to understand this grammar better. Regarding the second point about the usage of past tense, I had heard this similar phrase a few years ago:

  • ちょっと待った! (chotto matta!)

Based on the context of this second phrase, I could tell it meant “wait” (which would normally be phrased like ちょっと待って), but didn’t know why. At the time I thought it was a usage that was technically incorrect, but was used as a joke for emphasis.

It turns out I was right that the past tense is used in both of these examples for emphasis, but it isn’t incorrect grammar; in fact, while we typically think of the 〜た and 〜だ endings to mean the past tense, it turns out they can also mean a light command (軽い命令). I believe this would have a similar nuance to something like まちな! (not まつな! which has the opposite meaning).

I’ve seen references to this form being used with other verbs (such as 買った買った!) but I personally haven’t come across them myself. Fortunately, usually tone of voice would give ample context to tell you if た/だ is actually a command, though the vast majority of the time you can simply assume the past. Anything thing to note here is that generally if an exclamation point is used (or the equivalent tone of voice) with the past tense, a “よ” particle would be included as well. For example, generally “あったよ!” would be used instead of “あった!”

Now we know “待った” can mean “wait!” (besides the typical meaning of “waited”), but the phrase “待ったのお願い” is still a bit confusing. It turns out that, as I had guessed, 待った is used as a set phrase to mean withdrawing or taking back a move in games such as chess, go, and shogi (Japanese chess). It may help you understand the grammar better here if you consider this phrase in quotes, as in:

  • 「待った」のお願い

So now we can see that this phrase means “request a take back”.

If you want to see more chess terms in Japanese check out this post. Also here is a review of a book that had a strong connection to chess.

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