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All other forms of verbs inherently seem to have some kind of meaning but te needs to be combined with things before it means anything. Does it mean anything on its own that makes what it ends up doing with other things make logical sense? Like, why do te kudasai and te iru/aru both use te?

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In your examples, both the words following te are verbs and te are supposed to be attaching verb phrases before them. 助詞(joshi)/particles(to which te belongs) are grammatical tools and don't have meanings on their own. A meaning is made when they are attached to other words and how they are constructed.

Of course, there are exclusions in idiomatic expressions like "で? (何?)", but these should construed as a shortened form of a phrase.

  • So gramatically speaking, it thus just means to kind of connect a verb to another verb, which can have different results in meaning depending on what things you pair up? – Dylano Stewart Rodrigues May 17 '17 at 10:46
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    And the context. – someone May 17 '17 at 11:52
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"te" by itself have no meaning. There is canonical word of verbs and if You add te in correct way it changes verb meaning. kaku - to write (canonical) kaite - write (in "You write", used with friends, family, coworkers,...) kaite kudasai - please write (more official form, used with people You don't know well)

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Let me divide your question into two separate questions...

All other forms of verbs inherently seem to have some kind of meaning but te needs to be combined with things before it means anything. Does it mean anything on its own that makes what it ends up doing with other things make logical sense?

When spoken, the "te" form of the verb (by itself, with nothing following it) means the same as "te-kudasai":

  • 電話してください(Denwa shite kudasai)(Please call me.)
  • 電話して(Denwa shite)(Call me.)

Using "kudasai" is much more polite, but the meaning is the same. You will never see the "te" form by itself in written Japanese (with nothing following it) except if the text is quoting spoken Japanese.

Like, why do te kudasai and te iru/aru both use te?

A verb's "te" form allows it to be combined with other verbs to either conjugate the original verb (as in "te-iru" and "te-aru") or to sequentially combine the verbs (e.g. "itte-kuru" means "go then come back"). Here "te" plays a purely grammatical role and has no meaning by itself.

Note that "te-kudasai" is a combination of one verb's "te" form and the imperative form of the verb "kudasaru".

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Does the ''te form'' literally mean something on its own?

The "meaning" of the individual nuts and bolts of a language

It sounds like you're ultimately asking, "what does mean in verb conjugations?"

This is a good and valid question. The answer, however, is a bit more complex than the question. :) An analogy would be like asking, "what does the mean?" It does have a meaning, but defining it usefully can be difficult. :)

To get an understanding of て itself, for me personally, I found it useful to understand where it came from.

Origins of ~て: completion of action

In traditional Japanese grammar, the ~て used as a verb conjugation ending is called a 助動詞【じょどうし】 or "auxiliary verb". Auxiliaries in Japanese generally also conjugate, and て itself started out as a conjugated form of auxiliary つ, and the base meaning indicated that "the action of the verb is complete".

  • You might have run into this same つ as a verb ending in modern Japanese, in expressions like 行【い】き[つ]{●}戻【もど】り[つ]{●} (ikitsu modoritsu, "going and coming back" as a repeated action: "going back and forth"). This same つ reduplicated (doubled up) as つつ is another verb ending that indicates repetition or ongoing action, as in 事情【じじょう】が変【か】わり[つ]{●}[つ]{●}ある (jijō ga kawaritsutsu aru, "circumstances keep changing, circumstances continue to change"). In these constructions, the "verb completion" meaning is still there, even though these uses indicate repetition -- one iteration of the action completes, and then the next one occurs in succession.

Looking back at て, this was both the 未然形【みぜんけい】 (mizenkei, "incomplete form": basically, "hasn't happened yet") and the 連用形【れんようけい】 (ren'yōkei, "continuative form": basically, "grammatically continues on to some other verb") of つ. The mizenkei isn't relevant here, so we'll ignore that. The ren'yōkei is the important part. 連用【れんよう】 (ren'yō) literally means 連【れん】 "attaches" to a 用言【ようげん】 "word that conjugates or inflects", such as verbs or adjectives. In other words, て is the form you need to use when putting another verb right afterwards, with that sense of completion. So [VERB 1][VERB 2] means [VERB 1] and then [VERB 2].

Side note about joining verbs

Note that this ~て + [VERB] construction is different from compound verbs. In compound verb formations, you use the same ren'yōkei, but of the verb itself, and then you put another verb after that. Compare a couple examples:

  • 見【み】て送【おく】る → "[you] see, and (then) send", as two distinct actions.
  • 見【み】送【おく】る → "[you] see-send", that is, you "see someone on their way" as a single action.
  • 食【た】べて終【お】わる → "[you] eat, and (then) [something] finishes", as two distinct actions.
  • 食【た】べ終【お】わる → "[you] eat-finish" → "[you] finish eating", as a single action.
  • 乗【の】って換【か】える → "[you] ride, and (then) change [something]", as two distinct actions.
  • 乗【の】り換【か】える → "[you] ride-change" → "[you] change your ride, [you] transfer", as a single action.

Related ending ~た: past tense

That sense of completion that's added by the auxiliary つ is also where we get the modern past-tense ending ~た. Modern ~た is actually a contraction from older ~て (this same て above) + あり (the old copula or "to be" verb): put simply, ~てあり shortened to ~たり, and that shortened further to just ~た. The basic idea of original form ~てあり was "the ~ action has completed, and now this is the resulting state" -- or more directly, "[VERB]-ed is". Almost sounds like Yoda. 😄

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