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When a person is learning は and が in terms of particles, what are the best way to relate them to English equivalents?

The closest I can come to explaining them to others is "the" and "a" but I'm not sure if there's a better way to explain them.

This applies to other particles as well:

の relates to [of] or ['s]

へ relates to [towards] etc.

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If by other language you mean English then no, you will have hard time finding an equivalent. But if that other language is Korean, for instance, you could easily find some equivalents. –  Boaz Yaniv Jun 1 '11 at 22:10
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Metooing the answer consensus: you are looking for something that doesn't (and has little reason to) exist in English. Languages aren't 1:1 word mappings, otherwise I doubt this site would exist ;-) One of the reason English is so widespread, is that its grammar is comparatively very simple (no declensions, no grammatical genders, little conjugation etc.). Now, if we were talking Latin or Greek: declensions would make a nice equivalent to Japanese particles... –  Dave Jun 15 '11 at 3:31
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This approach only works for a very limited set of Japanese. Sure, の often means "of", but it can also mean "because", or substitute a こと to make a sentence into a single subject/object: 彼女が帰ったのが好きです。 "I am happy about [the fact that she left]." And I am sure there are a lot more applications which I do not even know about about. And に can become basically anything in the area of "to/in/with/from/by/at/in/on/of" depending on context. –  Kdansky Jun 15 '11 at 14:32
    
On the off chance that someone you know is familiar with the Finnish language it can be explained that the particles are roughly equivalent to different nominal case endings depending on the context. E.g. 日本の = Japanin, 日本で住んでいます = asuu Japanissa, etc. –  LordVysh Mar 18 at 14:24

8 Answers 8

Prepositions, and their equivalents postpositions and case inflections (declensions), are some of the most idiosyncratic aspects of languages and do not map well from language to language. Learners tend to have difficulties in these areas because a lot of rote memory or experience is required to become good at them.

The Japanese language concept of particles doesn't even map neatly to these aspects of other languages though with English there seems to be greatest overlap between English prepositions and Japanese particles compared to other English parts of speech.

Having said that, Korean has a much better alignment of particles to Japanese than does English. Some even have the same or very close pronunciations between the two languages:

  • Japanese "が" (ga) : Korean "가" (ga) -- indicate the subject of a sentence
  • Japanese "へ" (e) : Korean "에" (e) -- indicate movement towards something

These are close in sound as well as meaning but there are more which are similar in meaning only. Also "가" (ga) is only used after vowels whereas "이" (i) is used after consonants.

Aside from Korean and aside from prepositions I have found that some languages have a particle which indicates the direct object like "を" (wo), but usually only under various circumstances:

  • Hebrew "את" (at) - Only when the direct object is semantically definite.
  • Korean "을" (eul) / "를" (reul) - Like many Korean particles, this works very similar to the Japanese particle.
  • Romanian "pe" - Only used when the direct object is 1) a proper noun; the name of a person or animal 2) a common noun referring to a specific person, generally known to both the speaker and listener 3) a common noun acting as a metaphor for a person 4) a common noun in a construction in which the subject and the direct object are the same noun and they precede the predicate.
  • Spanish "a" - Only used before words referring to people, pets, or personified objects or places that function as direct objects. This is called "personal a".
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There are no English equivalents to Japanese particles.

Some, like に and へ, correspond fairly closely to prepositions, but many other particles fulfill roles that in English are fulfilled by word order, sentence construction, or tone of voice. Some may not have an English equivalent at all.

For example:

  • The sentence-ending particles like か, ね, and よ indicate tone (questioning, expectation of agreement, and informational respectively). In English tone would be indicated by tone of voice, or by ending punctuation.
  • The particles の and ん indicate that a sentence is an attempt to explain some fact or present some conclusion. For instance, say you decided to leave a friend's party early. They might ask you "tsumaranai n desu ka" : is it due to the fact that the party is boring that you're leaving?
  • Particles like は, が, and を mark the topic, subject and object of a sentence, respectively. In English this is usually indicated by word order: "The dog bit the girl" vs. "The girl bit the dog."
  • Some particles, like だらけ and なんて, can even indicate the feelings the speaker has about the preceding word.

Trying to find exact English equivalents for Japanese particles is futile. Instead, focus on learning about the clever roles particles fulfill in Japanese grammar.

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If we're speaking Canadian English, "ne" could be approximated with "eh?" –  makdad Jun 2 '11 at 13:03
    
There are lots of informal English tag question particles actually. "eh" is also used in New Zealand and Queensland Australia. There are also "right" and "innit" and the (annoying to me) British "yeah". I believe I've even read about an invariant "isn't it" particle in Indian English that doesn't change to match tense or gender etc. –  hippietrail Jun 4 '11 at 1:56
    
@makdad Careful with that, though. I was use 'ne' like the Canadian 'eh' and was told that I should never use 'ne' when talking about myself. So the usage is clearly different in at least that respect. –  William Jul 21 '11 at 11:02

I think it would be fairly safe to say there are no exact English equivalents. Grammar concepts between two completely different language families rarely have a 1:1 mapping between them.

It would be best not to try to come up with English "equivalents" to particles such as は and が. It will only confuse you when it inevitably won't work in all situations. Personally I think that the correct usage and nuance differences between は and が are something that is best learnt by just reading a lot. I couldn't explain when exactly to use which if asked - but I can tell you which one to use in a certain situation.

And this applies to all particles. Even の has a dozen other uses besides simple ['s].

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The problem is that as you learn more about particles you will come to realize that not all of them have simple equivalents in other languages. Some express different ideas based on what they are attached to (e.g. 電車で ("by train"), 鉛筆で ("with a pencil")), and others would require modifying the translation in various ways (に used to create an adverb from an adj-な).

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Actually maps better to the instrumental case in languages which have one than it does to English. Languages which rely only on adpositions generally have greater variety in usage as compared to languages with case systems. For instance in the language I'm currently studying, Georgian, does map to the instrumental case ending -ით for both examples you give. –  hippietrail May 29 '12 at 6:53

I'm afraid I don't think there is a 1-1 equivalent in English for は and が.

One explanation is what you've described there i.e. 'the' and 'a' and that analogy will get you a little mileage, but unfortunately doesn't cover all usage.

For example:

私はビールが好きです。

Here it's used to show what it is you like (in this case beer). I'd recommend getting used to the idea of not having clear mappings between English and Japanese, or you're going to struggle later.

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Note: I am not a linguist, nor do I have lots of experience with "other" languages. This is something I read some time ago, I don't actually even have a credible source...

In some languages, at least Polish (of which I am a native speaker) and some other Indo-European languages (slavic, Latin...), words have multiple cases which are used to denote relations between words. In Polish there is a base word which can be modified into cases (with some very rough mapping--again, no 1-1 mapping possible):

szkoła ("school", the root is "szkoł")
szkoły (used in negations and as genitive, like の, negative は, ...)
szkole (locative, like で, に)
szkołę (accusative, like を)

...and so on (Polish has 7 cases, some languages have much more). As you can see, the difference is in the suffix, although some of the suffixes actually modify the root part of the word.

There is a hypothesis that even in slavic languages those suffixes come from distinct words that were simply appended to the base word -- but later when those languages developed further, those suffixes were merged into the base word. And the hypothesis claims that in Japanese this process has simply not happened due to some unknown reason. So while English has dropped the cases system, quite a lot of languages might had a similar mechanism which was similar to Japanese particles.

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There was an interpretation of Japanese at the end of the 19th century which viewed it as a strongly declined language (i.e. similar to Latin). This has fallen out of style. –  virmaior Mar 18 at 1:18

As for the title of the question, when I first started Japanese, word particles reminded me a lot of noun/pronoun declensions in Latin. The basic ones cover real similar areas - things like topic/subject, direct object, first noun modifies another (genitive), etc. And a lot of the idea is the same. Where there's not a whole lot of (or in the case of Classical Latin, literally no) mandated word order, you instead just kind of take the basic noun or pronoun and put something at the end of it. Same thing goes for omitting the subject. The concepts may be a little different, but they're still similar.

The description of the question though focuses on English. I wouldn't really compare them to anything in this language. I mean, we've got prepositions and conjunctions, and they're kind of similar, but there's a little too much difference there. I would agree with you for の being like [of] or ['s] (genitive case, Latin by the way), and maybe for へ as well; but there's not really any similarity between them and specifically English articles, and を in particular has no equivalent word in English.

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Playing necromancer a bit...

When it comes to equating them to analogous elements in other languages, the major Japanese particles can be thought of as case markers. For example:

  • は = nominative case (indicates the subject)
  • が = dative case (indirect object)
  • を = accusative case (direct object)
  • の = genitive case (possession)
  • で = locative case (where things are happening) or instrumental case (tool the action was performed with)
  • に、へ = locative case again
  • から = ablative case (movement from something)

These are general approximations, but hopefully they get the point across.

Admittedly, part of the reason I took up Japanese was so that I didn't have to work with Romance grammar, but the fact is that the same distinctions appear in most every language; it's just a matter of figuring out how they are indicated.

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In fact, they're usually referred to as 格助詞{かくじょし} "case particles" in Japanese. Except in the typical analysis が is nominative, に is dative, and は is not considered a case particle. –  snailboat Mar 18 at 5:03

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