When studying a foreign language, one spends a lot of time learning new words both explicitly (looking up words in a dictionary or textbook) and implicitly (guessing the meaning from the context). In this post I want to talk about different types of meanings, using an important example in Japanese.
Often each meaning of a word can be placed into one of two categories: a literal meaning or an interpretative meaning. You can think of the literal meaning as being an “official” meaning, in the sense that it will always be listed in a dictionary. But you can also think of a literal meaning as an “original” meaning since dictionaries can also include interpretative meanings. Another way to differentiate a literal meaning is that it stands on its own without respect to any context.
On the other hand, you can think of an interpretative meaning as more of an “extended” meaning, one that often relies on context. In other words, you can interpret a certain word or phrase to mean something depending on the context (here, “context” includes both the textual context, as well as other factors like information about the setting, speaker, etc.)
Before we get into Japanese examples, let’s look at examples of each type of meaning in English:
- They used a battering ram to open the enemy’s door.
- That athlete is a real battering ram on the field.
Here the first sentence uses the literal meaning of “battering ram”, which is a heavy beam used to break down things like walls. The second sentence talks about an athlete as a “battering ram”, but of course that person is not literally a heavy beam; rather, he or she acts in some way like a battering ram. Even though the second sentence literally says the athlete is a heavy beam, based on the context we can interpret it as actually meaning that he/she is like a battering ram, in other words she/he is massive and pushes other things aside easily. This sort of usage is called a metaphor, but interpretative meanings don’t have to be metaphors.
Another example would be “social butterfly”, which is an idiom used to refer to a socially active person. Again, clearly the interpreted meaning is different from the literal meaning (an actual butterfly).
Now, let’s talk about the Japanese word “urusai” (うるさい). If you watch enough anime with subtitles you may have come across a few scenes with a translation of this phrase like “Shut up!”, which is a valid interpretative meaning in many situations. However, it’s important in cases like this you learn both the interpretative meaning as well as the literal meaning so you can avoid miscommunicating or misunderstanding.
It turns out that literally “urusai” is an adjective meaning “noisy”. (It can also mean “annoying” or “troublesome”, but for simplicity I want to focus on the “noisy” meaning). So when someone says “うるさい！” they are literally saying something like “(you) are noisy”, so it’s not a stretch to see how it can imply “shut up”. Furthermore, If you take into account how things are often not stated directly in Japanese this usage makes even more sense.
The problem that if you just focus on the interpretative meaning, you might get into a situation where you misunderstand the nuance of what is being said or written. For example, if someone whispers “うるさい” to you with a gentle voice, thinking they were saying “shut up!” would be a bit of a misunderstanding. Sure, they might be asking you to stop making noise, but often the nuance is as important as the meaning itself.
So in this case, if you let go of the idea of “shut up!” and remember the word literally means “noisy” (among other things), then you will be more likely to come up with a more appropriate interpretation, such as “be quiet” or “shhh…”, depending on the tone of voice of the speakers.
You may be thinking that this is just a subtle difference of nuance, but remember that often people’s emotions can be swayed by such seemingly minor differences, especially in high stress situations when the smallest annoyance can become a huge deal.
By the way, there are other expressions in Japanese to ask someone to be quiet in a more direct way. For example “だまれ” (damare), which is literally close to “shut up”, and “静かにしてください” which is literally “Please be quiet”. With a phrase like “damare”, even if the tone of voice was kind it would still feel strong, especially because it a command form of a verb.
I want to give one more example of a phrase where knowing both types of meanings matters: “~koto nai” (〜ことない). Let’s look at an example:
- 怒ることないよ (okoru koto nai yo)
This phrase uses a common interpretive meaning of “~(suru) koto nai”, which is “~ is not necessary”. Using that, we get the correct interpretation of this:
- It’s not necessary to get mad.
- (or, more naturally: “There’s nothing to get mad about”)
This interpretative meaning will probably work for you over half the time, especially with short phrases like this. However, what about this example?
- 今日はやることない (kyou wa yaru koto nai)
If we use our common interpretative meaning, we end up with an (mis)interpretation like this:
- Today it is not necessary to do anything.
To be honest, while this is awkwardly worded, the meaning isn’t that different from the original Japanese sentence. However, if we take the literal meaning we will not only arrive at a more accurate understanding, but also a better translation.
Literally, 〜ことない after a verb means something like “there is (will be) no [verb]-ing”, essentially the action specified by the verb will never happen. So if we use the literal meaning we arrive at something like this:
- Today there is nothing to do.
- (or, slightly more natural: “Today I have nothing to do”)
Another difference between the literal meaning and the “necessary…” interpretative meaning is that the later implicitly refers to some situation (i.e. “[that] is nothing to get mad about”) whereas the literal meaning is just making a general statement (though it may be made conditional as it was in our example).
Let’s look at one more example where the two meanings are a bit more clear cut.
- もう会うことはないと思います (mou au koto wa nai to omoimasu)
Here, an interpretation based on the common interpretative meaning I mentioned earlier would yield:
- I think it is no longer necessary for [us] to meet.
However, in most (if not all) the cases I have heard this phrase, it has meant more of the literal meaning:
- I think [we] will never meet again.
There is a pretty big difference here. If you are just trying to understand for yourself you will probably be able to get by with a misunderstanding here or there, if you are translating for another person’s consumption it becomes even more important to make sure you pick the right meaning for the context.