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To create ~なければいけません or similar forms, I've been having trouble finding the exact method for conjugating into ~なければ.

I imagine (but also greatly doubt) that it's something like this: 食べる -> 食べない -> 食べなく -> 食べなける -> 食べければ. However, even if it was like that I still wouldn't really understand why. Can anyone explain the exact process to get from ~ない to ~なければ?

Thanks in advance!

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2 Answers 2

A modern perspective

〜ければ is the conditional ending for adjectives. Since the 〜ない form of verbs is shaped like an adjective, it uses adjective endings like 〜い and 〜ければ. That's it! From a modern perspective, there are no steps in-between.

However, some grammars do take it one step further: they divide 〜ければ into 〜けれ (the hypothetical form of an adjective), plus (a conditional particle). This explanation is attractive because appears elsewhere with conditional meaning, as in ならば.

But either way, it's pretty simple. 〜なければ is the negative conditional form.


A historical perspective

Historically speaking, 〜ければ was presumably formed by a contraction of some sort. But what sort? The explanation @istrasci gives is a common one and can be found elsewhere on this site, that〜ければ was a contraction of 〜く+あれば. In turn, we can say あれば was a form of ある with the conditional 〜ば attached.

However, this leaves us wondering why the first vowel is /e/ rather than /a/. Sansom, on page 205 of his 1928 Historical Grammar of Japanese, gives an explanation:

This change is easy to understand, for the final e of kare influences the preceding vowel a, by a tendency which is common in Japanese.

In contrast, Frellesvig, in his 2010 History of the Japanese Language, suggests that the 〜けれ stem comes from a contraction of *ki-are into kyere, giving way to modern kere. Either way, it's a contraction of some sort of adjectival form plus あれば.


What is ある doing there?

The presence of ある is most likely purely grammatical, inserted so that endings like 〜ば can attach to adjectives. We shouldn't really translate it as "exists" in English. Instead, we should describe 〜なければ as the conditional form of the negative 〜ない.

This sort of grammatical use of ある is common and can be seen in all sorts of places in Japanese, including in other adjectival inflections:

〜なった > 〜なった

I trust you understand that 〜なかった is simply a negative past form, and that you don't attempt to translate it as though it has "exists" in it. You can apply the same sort of logic here.


Historical versus modern

Why look at it from a modern perspective? Well, let me ask you this: when you say goodbye in English, do you always think God be with ye? Of course not! Historically speaking, it's a contraction of that phrase, but today speakers use goodbye as a pre-formed unit. It's simply part of their vocabulary. In that sense, the word is no longer a contraction.

Likewise, when you say 〜なければ, please don't think something like "if it's such that you don't", as @istrasci wrote. It's simply a negative conditional form.


For simplicity's sake, I'm referring to this verb as ある, which is its modern citation form. Its historical citation form was あり.

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〜なければ is a contraction of 〜なく+あれば. Of course the 〜ば form is a conditional and 〜なく is the "adverbial" form of a negation. So you can kind of translate it as "If it is/exists such that 〜 doesn't happen".

食べなければ` → If it's such that you don't eat → If you don't eat


Related: Origin of ~なければ ならない

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