I've been learning japanese for a while as well as other languages and I keep thinking that it's primitive because everything is dropped out and the number of words is less than in other languages such as English and especially Russian. I think it's made for transmitting information in a very simple way rather than feelings, emotions and something beyond this. It's similar to making notes in your book -- very short and very simple messages.

What's your opinion?

  • 3
    Why do you think that 'contextual' means 'primitive'?
    – Angelos
    Jul 2, 2016 at 20:11
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    @Nothingatall The OP is probably not thinking "contextual". The OP, if a native speaker of English, might be hearing Japanese with its concise sentences as something more akin to English caveman oogabooga speak like when we say "Me Tarzan. You Jane" In English we strip away all the extra words to sound like a primitive caveman. So, it could be a culturally based impression.
    – A.Ellett
    Jul 2, 2016 at 20:30
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    My two cents: it's expressive enough to give a lecture of, say, Galois theory in algebra math.sci.hiroshima-u.ac.jp/algebra/member/files/tsuzuki/lec.pdf And much more, of course.
    – nodakai
    Jul 3, 2016 at 9:17
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    To my humble opinion this question may be put on hold until the OP provides an example of any concept that can be expressed in English and/or Russian, but can't (to his knowledge) in Japanese. Otherwise with as little knowledge of Japanese as I have I suspect the OP's real issue was "Is my knowledge of Japanese that primitive?" Also as a native Russian speaker I consider OP's comment "да ты скажи по-простому" below as a rather rude version of "say it simpler", which makes me believe the OP doesn't really value detailed answers that others provide, and hence has unclear objectives.
    – kroki
    Jul 3, 2016 at 11:09
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    Dr. Suess wrote "The Cat in the Hat" with only 225 words, only to surpass that with "Green Eggs and Ham" which used only 50 words. Sometimes, less is more. Jul 3, 2016 at 20:22

4 Answers 4


I'm wondering how long you've been studying Japanese.

Japanese is hardly primitive. It is highly expressive: in fact, in many regards it is more expressive than English (or Russian). For example, the use of honorifics and keigo make clear relationships between people that is not possible in Indo-European languages in the clean straight-forward manner of Japanese.

Japanese is more explicit than Indo-European languages in expressing how you come by the information:


All three sentences could be simply (primitively) translated into English as "It's going to rain." But the first sentence conveys that you got this information from someone else; the second sentence conveys your impression (perhaps you see storm clouds gathering); as for the third sentence it might be technically correct to translate as above, but it's really only appropriate for expressing the fact that it's raining right now. Because of these differences the above three sentences could be translated as

I hear it's going to rain.
It looks like it's going to rain.
It's going to rain.

But in English we aren't that particular. We might just say "it's going to rain" whether it's our impression from what we observe or whether we learned it from the weatherman on the radio. And, so from the perspective of Japanese, there's a degree of ambiguity in the English which would lead to the question, "how do you know?" In Japanese, those three sentences are very clear about how you know what you know.

Sentence ending particles, and such, convey a great deal of information, again in a manner that is not easily expressed in English.


While without any further context, these would all be translated as "it's fine." In Japanese, there are subtle differences, particularly in the use of ん, that are just not translatable.

The following two sentences most likely are not being said by the same person:


The first is probably a woman, and the second is probably a man. ("Probably" because if you're in the LGBT community, you might be speaking in a different register.) And then if you change the particles:


I wouldn't begin to know how to translate the differences in English without the English getting clunky, ackward, and unnatural. But they're all natural in Japanese; each with a slightly different feel or color to it. The best we can do in English---avoiding clunkiness---is to say, "It's beautiful" and let the context convey the rest.

English is very good at conveying information in a straight-forward and objective feeling manner. Take again, "it's going to rain". In English, and other Indo-European languages, we don't really care how you came upon the information. Looking up at the sky and seeing storm clouds or hearing the weather report, either way it's going to rain. So, in English, our attitude is not to get bogged down in the details of how you got to know what you know, just "shoot it to me straight". But these are cultural and linguistic differences. They point to different perspectives about what the various languages deem is important to communicate to others. These are not short-comings in the expressibility of the languages.

And as for vocabulary, Japanese is highly expressive. Find a good Japanese dictionary (written in Japanese for Japanese) and you'll discover the rich variety and subtly of the language. Try reading Yukio Mishima in Japanese, and look up those uncommon or strange looking kanji; often he chose those characters not just to look literary but to go after subtle nuance in feeling or meaning. "Sound of waves" in English, while an entertaining story, comes out rather flat compared to the language Mishima used. Comparing the two side by side, a Japanese person might remark, "English lacks the depth of expression we're capable of in Japanese."

  • No one says きれいな by itself, and きれいだな could be a woman musing to herself. きれいね sounds pretty (but apparently not exclusively) feminine, while きれいだね is more or less neutral. きれいわ is also unsaid; and while きれいだわ(ね) does sound very feminine, it's basically restricted to fiction.
    – Angelos
    Jul 2, 2016 at 22:12
  • @Nothingatall Feel free to edit my answer to make it more accurate.
    – A.Ellett
    Jul 2, 2016 at 22:15

I don't want to waste much words. But I can promise you've read only 0.000001% or very likely less than that of the full extent of the Japanese vocabulary.

I happen to be reading right now 前田利鎌’s「臨済・荘子 - Introduction of two religious figures」published by 岩波書店, which was first published in 1933. It's a thin book at 255 pages.

I'm 83 years old and pretty familiar with old-style Japanese writings as compared with today's youth. Still I can read and understand only 70 to 80 % (at the most) of the words used in the book.

The stock of Japanese vocabulary is huge because it contains 大和言葉 - original Japanese language, 漢文 - Chinese classic vocabulary, Sanskrit via Buddhist jargon, Japanese translation of western words, and so forth.

We have the saying, "九牛の一毛” which means a piece of hair out of all hair of nine oxen, and also ”群盲象を撫でる meaning a group of the blind say, and clamorously argue individually what an elephant looks like by only touching a part of the elephant's body, such as its skin, nose, ear, tail, hoof, foot, or only a piece of hair, or a mustache, if it has one.

Please don't make a premature judgement until you go through millions of volumes of Japanese classics including 古事記、日本書紀、源氏物語、宇治拾遺、土佐日記、群書類従、various 仏教説話 and so on, and tons of books covering classic and modern Japanese literature.

As a starter I recommend you read "百代の過客" written by Mr. Donald Keen, Professor emeritus of Columbia University, and a leading Japanologist, which introduces and analyses the writing styles of historically famous personalities' diaries, dating back to 土佐日記 written in 承平5年 - in 935.

  • By the way, do you know what "百代の過客" means? I guess almost 100 % of Japanese are familiar with this word, which appears in 芭蕉's famous travel piece, "奥の細道" we read in high school.

You'll see how vocabulary of Japanese language is extensive and delicate.

I'm sure Mr. Donald Keen would faint if he heard someone like you saying that Japanese language is primitive and the number of words is less than that of English or Russian.

Have you ever counted all Japanese words? Don't follow the folly of the blind exclaiming "Hey I got it! This is a whole body of an elephant" by showing a piece of its hair to us. It will be blown away with a whiff of your own breath, but the elephant won't.


Having a little experience translating b/w pairs of Japanese-Russian and Japanese-English, I can clearly see that within each pair of these languages there are some "compatible" and "incompatible" parts of syntax. The most obvious example is the concept of gender:

  • In Russian, all nouns have intrinsic gender, and other words, such as verbs, have gender as an "attached" attribute, e.g. "сказать" ("to say", dictionary form) becomes "(он) сказал" (masculine) and "(она) сказала" (feminine) in its' past tense. This is not compatible with Japanese, which (mostly) lacks the concept of gender.

  • However, in Japanese, gender of a speaker may be conveyed by using gender-specific pronouns and particles, which cannot be naturally translated into English, as well as Russian (to some extent).

Other examples include the lack of grammatical case, number, pronoun omission, etc.

Such incompatibilities exists for every pair of aforementioned languages, but, as far as I can tell, English and Russian have less of them. This may lead you to a conclusion that Japanese lacks major parts of syntax which may seem "common" if English and Russian are happen to be the languages you already know sufficiently well. I believe these is just a case of some cognitive bias.

and the number of words is less than in other languages

If you mean the number of dictionary entries, I should point out that this metric is rather speculative:

  • If some dictionary would include the names of all known chemical substances, like dihydrogen monoxide, it would be massive for any language
  • Loan words are typically just name same things differently. For example, "management" has an equivalent of "менеджмент" in Russian, but I'd say it sounds quite pretentious, since you can just say "управление"
  • Most older loan words are outdated and barely used anyway
  • Average educated person's native vocabulary is limited to tens of thousands of words anyway, so relying of some dictionary size is like saying "the sum of heights of all my family members is bigger than yours, thus I should be considered a taller person!"

From my personal experience, Japanese is rather rich in terms of verb collocations, which for me, as a foreigner, sound like separate verbs (and they are listed separately in dictionaries).

There is, however, a thing which I personally consider "archaic" (i.e. "primitive" as in "not advanced enough") in Japanese - the lack of spacing b/w words. I believe that scriptio continua is a typical characteristic of older versions of many modern languages. My arguments are:

  • It is a type of change which can facilitate reading abilities of both natives and foreigners, so there is no good logical reason against introducing this change to the language. It is known that Japanese can read (to some extent) hiragana-only texts with proper spacing, which was demonstrated by early video games, where memory sizes prevented their creators to add kanji. (I'm not implying that kanji is archaic or excessive.)
  • It is relatively easy to add to the language (compared to kanji simplification), so there is no practical reason against introducing this change.

However, I don't want to make a revolution here, and I'm fine with Japanese as it is. I'm just a foreigner who is easily scared when shown more than 3 kanji in a row. =)

  • I am curious what do you meant by "verb collocations"?
    – sazarando
    Jul 4, 2016 at 2:32
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    @sazarando I'm not sure if it's a correct term. What I mean is "compound" verbs like 飛び出す, where the first one is masu-stem. Meanings of those compounds may be quite unexpected compared to meanings of two verbs separately IMO.
    – scriptin
    Jul 4, 2016 at 17:39

I like A Ellett's answer very much and voted it up. But it begs a larger question: does a language's grammar define the limits of what syntax can be expressed by said language, or has each language evolved a grammar sufficiently rich to express all the syntax which is desired to be expressed by said language's speakers?

I believe the answer is the latter. And I also believe that the body of potential syntax which is desired to be expressed in both Japanese and English is the same when with regards to practical issues such as weather prediction and performing tasks. What Ellet's answer shows in the "rain" example above is only that Japanese has a succinct and hence eloquent grammatical form for that syntactic example compared to English - but not that English is lacking in the ability to express the same syntactically. (Pure speculation on my part but --- the overall relative jumble of English grammar is due its formation from the collision of many different grammar systems, whereas Japanese has grown like a crystal in relative isolation).

However there are differences in syntax; e.g. the degree to which polite address is used and the way it formalizes relationships between people. For this reason Japanese has developed the vocabulary and grammar of Keigo for which there is no direct equivalent in English. Another syntactic difference is the Japanese practice of saying "Gokurousama/Otukaresama". There is not really an exact translation for that social interaction translation in English that doesn't sound awkward.

Finally, there is scientific evidence that an inability to learn grammar, while maintaining ability to learn vocabulary and many other language functions, is passed on genetically in some rare families: http://minddevlab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Language%20capacities_%20Is%20grammar%20special.pdf So it would seem that every race of modern man carries this genetically enabled grammar learning ability, which is why any normal baby from anywhere and any race on the planet when raised in an English environment will naturally pick up English grammar, such as the use of past tense.

In summary, we are on a level playing field in terms of potential for any language to express all necessary syntax. But due to cultural differences, the syntax being expressed will vary.

  • I should point out that the article you've linked clearly states that "[human grammatical abilities] are unlikely to be under the control of a single gene."
    – scriptin
    Jul 3, 2016 at 9:00
  • @scriptin - Good point. Text modified. Jul 3, 2016 at 20:04

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