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 (:
Interestingly, my variety of English would disagree with your translation – for me, a much more natural rendering would be “I wish I’d (I had) known earlier”. The “wish I would have” structure isn’t really used in British English…
Hey Tony, thanks for reading and thanks for chiming in.
That’s interesting that the “wish I would have” structure isn’t used in British English, I’m always curious to find differences between that and American English (partially to inform my editing). Even in American English “I wish I’d known earlier” is OK, though I think to my ears “I wish I would’ve known earlier” sounds the most natural.
As another British reader, I came down here to make exactly the same point as Tony. The British English version is actually closer to the Japanese in using a simple past tense, although admittedly applied to the ‘knowing’ rather than the ‘wishing’.
That’s an interesting point. I had no problems grasping the meaning of that sentence, but maybe that’s because I’m used to expressing time relations between events with a limited number of tenses – my native language has just three.
It also made me wonder what would be the difference between もっと早く知りたかった and もっと早く知ればよかった. From what I understand, both express regret that the ‘knowing’ has not happened earlier, but the latter seems to be what most textbooks teach. Would you say there any difference in nuance or meaning between the two?
That’s a good question, so I did some research including asking a few natives. While I could probably write another article about it in detail, here is a summary:
– 知ればよかった is not used often and 知っておけばよかった would be more common in practice
– The above two forms have more a feeling of “should” as opposed to “wanted”
– Accordingly, using those forms is more appropriate when it is actions something the speaker had active control over (ex: I should have studied more and known about something)
– Conversely, if the action is something you don’t have control over, 〜知りたかった would be more appropriate.
– If talking about “I wish I had known person X better”, then 知りたかった is more appropriate.
Thank you for this detailed explanation and for writing this blog in general – it’s treasure trove of knowledge.
It’s funny, but I’ve never seen 知っておけばよかった in any textbook, yet looking at it now makes me realize it makes perfect sense.
Glad it helped, and thanks for the kind words.
Generally while textbooks will give patterns like “〜ておく”, many times there are common expressions of combinations of those patterns that may not be listed as examples in the textbooks.