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How to differentiate between 'a' and 'the'.

私は魚を食べた

Does the above specify the exact fish that I ate or a general fish. Either ways how would you say ...

  1. ate a fish
  2. ate the fish.
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Japanese will not distinguish nouns like English does. A and The are both English particles that do not exist in Japanese. If you are looking for a linear translation, you won't find it.

In both cases, I would translate it as:

私は魚を食べた。

If I were to talk about a specific fish, then I would add more information to let the listener know what fish I ate. For example:

冷蔵庫にある魚を食べた。
I ate the fish that was in the fridge.

その魚を食べた。
I ate that fish.

As you study more Japanese, you will realize that particles in English and Japanese rarely line up, as is the case with the two you are asking about in this question.

9

私は魚を食べた。

means both "I ate the fish" and "I ate a fish".

The two meanings are distinguished by the context of the conversation. If someone came up to you and said (in English) "I ate the fish", you'd think "Uh! What fish? What are you talking about?" The only time this sentence would make any sense is if you'd already established the context e.g. you were discussing what you chose from a menu, or someone asked you why the fridge looks empty etc.

Japanese is a highly context dependent language. Sentences such as the above cannot be translated accurately on their own. The more you study, the more you'll come to understand this.

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Japanese does this very differently than English does.

English marks a distinction between definite nouns (with 'the') and indefinite nouns (with 'a'). 'Definite' means several things, but primarily, it means that the hearer should be able to identify the noun without further explanation. Sometimes, it's because there's not more than one choice - 'the Eiffel Tower' is identifiable with no context at all, because there's only one of it. More often, it's because the noun in question has been mentioned before. If you say 'A man was walking along a street. The man was tall.', it's clear which man is tall - the one you already were talking about.

What's relevant for this discussion is the concept of 'the one you already were talking about', specifically in contrast to what you're now saying about it. This is called the topic. English uses definiteness alongside several other strategies for marking things as the topic (including making them the subject); it doesn't have a mechanism for directly marking the topic as topic.

Japanese does - it's は. は marks topics directly, and thus, it's used to mark what you're saying something about. In your above example, you're saying something about yourself - '(I am in this situation and) I ate the/a/Ø fish'. Typically, if you want to say something about a topic, the topic will have already been introduced somehow, or will be obvious from context (in this case, clearly, you are accessible because you're present and having this conversation). Nonetheless, it's not the same thing as definiteness, even if at times it lines up.

If you want to make the fish definite, you can try making it the topic - you mark it with は, and you get 魚は私が食べた. This is a bit different from what you're going for, though, because in Japanese, making the subject not the topic typically makes it a focus. 魚は私が食べた sounds like 'I ate the fish (and not someone else)'. There's no way to make an object a topic without some other unintended side effects. The object here isn't really specified for anything like English definiteness, and thus, if you want to figure out whether it would be definite or not if it was translated to English, you have to use context.

As you can see, Japanese and English really don't line up. You can't differentiate between 'a' and 'the' because the distinction Japanese makes is rather different. Japanese cares about 'topic' and 'focus'. At times, English uses definiteness to signal topicality, and at times, Japanese uses topicality to signal something like definiteness. Nonetheless, these distinctions aren't parallel to each other, and you can't rely on English translations to understand how Japanese does this.

  • this is actually really nicely explained and well written, but it skews away from the asker's question just slightly. I'd vote it up, but the other two answers are more relevant. Plus one for a nice は/が discussion though! – ericfromabeno Jul 5 '18 at 22:52
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    @ericfromabeno I tried to explain what they're not understanding, rather than simply answer the question. I suppose the は discussion isn't actually necessary, though :P – Sjiveru Jul 5 '18 at 23:36
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    I for one appreciate that you went into は/が because those are an example of Japanese particles that do not exist in English. – ajsmart Jul 6 '18 at 13:49

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