A surprising meaning of the Japanese word その(“sono”).

By | May 10, 2021

When learning a language, generally we start by learning the most common meanings for words, until we eventually come to special cases where the meaning is different than we originally learned. In this post I want to talk about an interesting alternate meaning of “sono” that you may not be familiar with. But before I get into that, let’s review the basic meaning of “sono”.

Unlike English where we use the same word, in Japanese the concept of “this” is expressed using two words: “sono” and “sore”. The first one, “sono”, is used when referring to something by including its category or type (ex: “that book is expensive”), whereas the second, “sore”, is used when simply expressing “that” in a general way without any details on the thing (ex: “that is expensive.”) Let’s look at these two examples in Japanese.

  • その本は高い (sono hon wa takai)
  • That book is expensive.
  • それは高い (sore wa takai)
  • That is expensive.

Now I remember vividly hearing the expression “その結果” (sono kekka) over a decade ago. Here’s a example sentence to give you an idea of how you would hear it used:

  • そこでは毎日、雨が降ります。その結果、みんな傘を持って出かけます。(soko de wa mainichi, ame ga furimasu. Sono kekka, minna kasa wo motte dekakemasu)

Can you guess what it means? Here’s one way to translate this sentence:

  • There it rains every day. As a result, everyone takes an umbrella with them when going out.

When I first heard this usage, from the context (plus the fact that I knew “kekka” means “result”) I got the feeling it meant “as a result”, which I later confirmed to be correct. But when I thought about this phrase years later, I realized it didn’t quite mesh with my understanding of the word “that”, which you can see if you translate that phrase as “that result”. In English, “that” refers to something that was just discussed, but the result itself hasn’t been mentioned yet. What gives?

Well, it turns out that this can be considered an alternate meaning of the word “sono”. I was curious if this was sort of a special meaning, or if it was actually listed in a Japanese dictionary, so I checked a few dictionaries. Interesting, the meaning doesn’t seem to be directly listed in Dictionary Go, nor it is listed in the JP/JP dictionary that comes with Mac OS. However the entry for “kono” in the latter dictionary contains this:

  • 今,言ったりしたりしていること,または,それに関係のあることを示す。
  • Something that was just said (or referred to now in some way), or something related to that.

Even though “kono” means “this”, the idea of it expressing “something related (to that)” fits somewhat with our special case of “sono kekka”. But there’s a better way to explain what is going on here.

It turns out that “sore no” can actually be used to mean “sono” (and similarly, “kore no” can mean “kono”). If you think in terms of this, the “sono kekka” phrase makes more sense because “sore no kekka” means “the result of that” which perfectly fits the context.

There are other cases where “sono” can be used in this way, such as:

  • その原因 (sono gen’in) => それの原因 (sore no gen’in) => the cause of that
  • その次 (sono tsugi) => それの次 (sore no tsugi) => the next after that (used to refer to the next of a next)

However, strictly speaking this interpretation leaves us with “the result of that” (which can be simplified to “the result”) instead of “as a result”, the latter which would literally be expressed in Japanese as “結果として” (kekka toshite). But this is a minor difference, and if we think in terms of slightly dramatic phrase “The result: …” it fits together nicely.

Finally, while not related to the above, “sono” is also frequently used as a filler word (like English’s “um”), similar to “ano” in Japanese. This isn’t a big surprise since “ano” and “sono” have similar meanings.

  • 彼の名前はその。。。あ、そうだ。トニーだ (kare no namae wa sono…a, sou da. tonii da.)
  • His name is, um…oh I remember. It’s tony.
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