In many ways Japanese grammar is simpler than English grammar, especially in terms of fewer tenses to deal with and the omission of unnecessary words. However, sometimes thinking in terms of English can make it difficult to understand seemingly simple Japanese sentences.
In this post I’d like to talk about the expression 「もっと早く知りたかった」 (“motto hayaku shiritakatta”) that I came across the other day. When I heard it, it took my brain a few seconds to try and fit together the context and the grammar, but eventually things clicked. First I’ll go over the meanings of the individual words, and then we can look at the big picture.
もっと (“motto”): This word is easy to remember since it not only is a pretty close equivalent to the English word “more”, but also sounds a little similar. However, “motto” has even broader use than English because Japanese doesn’t have anything like the comparative adjectives of English (e.g. “later”, “slower”).
早く (“hayaku”): This is the adverbial form of “hayai”, and from the kanji reading we can tell the nuance is more about “early” than “quickly” (the latter would be expressed with 速く).
知りたかった: (“shiritakatta”). This is the past “-tai” (“want”) form of the verb “shiru” (“to know”, “to learn”) which becomes “wanted to know”.
So what does this expression actually mean? Let’s look at an example to give some context.
- Person A: 先週から本がセールだよ (“senshuu kara hon ga seeru da yo”)
- Person A: Books are on sale since last week.
- Person B: そうなの？もっと早く知りたかった (“sou na no? motto hayaku shirikatta”)
- Person B: Really? [???]
First, as mentioned above Japanese doesn’t have comparative adjectives, so “earlier” is being expressed as “motto hayaku” (literally: “more early”). But the trickier part of this is understanding what the verb “shiritakatta” means in context. If we translate it literally, we end up with:
- Really? I wanted to know earlier.
This clearly sounds strange in English, and you may or may not be able to guess what it means. The reason is related to what I said in the intro: how Japanese has fewer tenses than English.
To cut to the chase, here is the natural way to translate this phrase in English, which will also serve as a good way to explain its meaning:
- Really? I wish I would have known earlier.
Besides switching “want” for “wish”, the main difference here is the addition of the conditional tense in the form of “would have”, which has no equivalent in Japanese.
To a native or fluent English speaker, this phrase clearly expresses the idea that the person didn’t know something at a certain point in time, but they would have preferred to have known that fact at that earlier point in time. (“You can see my explanation ended up being unnecessarily wordy, and in the end still used ‘would have’ “.)
Intuitively, “wish” being in the present tense makes more sense because it isn’t like the person stopped wishing, in other words that person now still actively feels that way. In the Japanese sentence, using a form that literally translates to “wanted to know” seems awkward because it makes it sounds like the speaker may not want to know anymore. But since Japanese has no words like “would”or “have”, it makes best use of available grammar, resulting in a very simple sentence with a somewhat complex meaning. (Well, at least it seems complex from a native English speaker’s point of view, perhaps to a Japanese person it would seem simple.)
As a final note, when I translated the “先週から…” example sentence above, I wrote “Books are on sale since last week.” But Google (rather ironically, given this article’s content) suggested “Books have been on sale since last week,” which arguably sounds better––though I ended up leaving the “are” version since I feel it serves better to explain the Japanese sentence’s meaning. My excuse for losing to Google here is that I have been thinking more in Japanese lately, and therefore forgetting about those “unnecessary” extra tenses in English (: