As I confirmed myself a few years ago, Japanese has a large number of homonyms––words that have the same sound but different meanings. Personally I’m divided on the efficacy of teaching the various meanings of a single word together, since it can confuse language learners, but sometimes it can be good to know all the common possibilities for a certain word.
So in this post I’d like to go over some of the most frequent usages of the word “mai”, whether it is used as a prefix, suffix, or a stand-alone word. I will explain these roughly in order from most common to least common. Also, fortunately the way the word is written in Japanese generally changes based on the meaning, so when reading usually the meaning is easy to determine.
To begin with, “mai” is used as a prefix to express doing something with a certain frequency. In this case it is generally written in kanji as 毎, but sometimes you can find it written in hiragana as まい (for example in texts targeting a younger audience).
The pattern is:
- 毎 + X (period of frequency） = occurring once every period X
For example, 毎年 (maitoshi) means “every year” and 毎日 (mainichi) means “every day”. Here are a few others:
- 毎晩 (maiban): every night
- 毎回 (maikai): every time
- 毎週 (maishuu): every week
Keep in mind that “mai” cannot be used for other meanings of “every” that aren’t related to time. For example:
- Each book
- 毎本 <= incorrect! (this sounds like マイ本, which is related to another meaning I explain below)
- それぞれの本 <= correct
“Mai” can also be used as a counter to count flat objects (paper, tickets, etc.), in which case it is generally written in kanji as 枚. Like other counters, it is used as a suffix after a specific number or a question word), for example:
- 百枚 (hyakumai): 100 flat things
- 一枚 (ichimai): 1 flat thing
- 何枚 (nanmai): how many flat things
Our next meaning is when “mai” is used as a suffix after the dictionary form of a word (ex: “taberu”). For example,
- 彼は来るまい。 (kare wa kuru mai)
- He will probably not come.
The nuance when using “mai” in this context is making a negative inference, what is roughly equivalent to “(し)ないだろう” in modern Japanese. (See this post for more information on “darou”)
One related pattern here is “~mai to shite”):
- 猫は怪我するまいとして、ゆっくり歩きました。 (neko wa kega suru mai to shite, yukkuri arukimashita)
- The cat walked slowly, as to not be hurt.
As you can see from the example sentence, “~suru mai to shite” has the nuance of trying not to do something. This is a handy thing to know because there is no simple volitional negative form in Japanese. You can say “見よう” (the volitional form of “miru”, “to see”), which expresses a will or intention to see, but you can’t easily say he negative of that with a single word. However 見るまい (miru mai) achieves that purpose. (Having said that, “怪我しないように” is another way to express this that is more typical.)
The good news is that this usage of “mai” as a suffix is not that commonly used in modern Japanese, and has a bit of a “classical” or “literary” nuance to it. So I think as long as you can understand it you should be OK.
Next, “mai” can be used as a loanword derived from the English “my”. In fact the two words sound very similar, except that “mai” sounds a bit more drawn out (think of two syllables) whereas “my” is short. When used as a loanword, it is generally written in katakana as マイ.
One of the most common phrases I know of that contains this is マイペース (mai peesu), which derives from “my pace” and means what you would expect: someone that works and acts at their own pace, irrespective of others around him or her.
Another word of note is マイカー (mai kaa) that derives from “my car”, and has the nuance of a car that one personally owns. In Japan this is perhaps a bigger deal than in somewhere like the U.S., since in Japan many people use public transportation and can live without their own car.
That reminds me of the classic anime Boogiepop Phantom, where there was the line “僕のマイフェアレイディー” (boku no mai fea reidii). This usage is a bit funny since the meaning of “my” is actually there twice, but I don’t think the people who wrote the show cared (or knew this).
“mai” can also be used to mean “dance” as a noun. This comes from the verb 舞う (mau) that is sometimes used to describe the way a leaf falls off a tree (in the form 舞い落ちる [maiochiru]), and can also mean “whirl”, or “fly”. While you might expect this to be written 舞い, it is actually written as simply 舞 (similar to how 話 can be written to mean “hanashi”).
I actually first learned of this word from the phrase “柳の舞” (yanagi no mai) which means “Dance of the willow” and is a fighting technique from the popular anime Naruto.
Finally, “mai” can be a woman’s first name, in which I have seen it written as 麻衣 for a few people (like the pop singer “Kuraki Mai”).