The verb, “to say” is an useful word in probably just about any language. However, 「言う」（いう）, the Japanese word meaning “to say”, is practically essential because in addition to the simple action of gabbing, it is also used to define or describe things. In this post, I will go over how to combine the 「と」 quotation particle with 「いう」 to define things.
I remember back during my tender years in Japanese 101, one of the first phrases I learned was 「”XXX”は、日本語で何と言いますか。」, which means “How do you say “XXX” in Japanese?” (I’m not talking about porn here, the “XXX” is a placeholder for any word.) Of course, at the time, it was written more like 「”XXX”は、にほんごで なんと いいますか。」 because exposing Japanese 101 students to kanji would instantly render them blind. Anyway, my point is that this is one of the first expressions we dutifully memorized and already it uses grammar that involves the 「と」 quotation and 「いう」.
While the 「という」 combination, of course, can be used to quote things people actually say, it can also be used to describe what something is referred to as.
– He said, “yes”.
– Do you know the site referred to as “livedoor”?
There is no good way to translate this usage directly into English so we have to settle for similar expressions such as “referred to as”, “called”, or “known as”. This method of defining things can be mighty handy when you want to ask about definitions of words in Japanese. For instance, here is conversation from 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」, a book I will be talking about in another post.
The problem here is that the student wants to know what 「名字」 means but ends up asking, “What is [your] last name?” What he really wanted to ask was, 「名字というのは何ですか。」, which means something along the lines of, “What is the thing referred to as 名字?” or more literally, “What is the thing that’s said 名字?”
Basically, this grammar is used anytime you want to talk about the thing itself.
– Is it true that Japanese people are weak to alcohol?
As you can see in this example, the thing that is being discussed is the actual phrase 「日本人はお酒に弱い」 itself and whether it’s true or not. Here’s another similar example.
– The thing of not eating breakfast is not very good.
In this fashion, the 「という」 is defining the very action of “not eating breakfast” and describing it.
You can also combine 「こう」、「そう」、and 「ああ」 with 「いう」 to define things in general. In this case, you do not need the 「と」 so you end up with 「こういう」、「そういう」 and 「ああいう」 to means “things like this”, “things like that”, and “things like that (far away)” respectively.
– I was sleepy and didn’t feel like going to school at all.
– That kind of time occurs a lot, huh?
The reason why you hear 「って」 all the time
If you’ve spend any length of time speaking in casual Japanese, you may have noticed 「って」 being used all the time. That’s because 「って」 is an all-in-one, magical casual abbreviation for 「と」、「という」、「というのは」、and 「とは」. Because 「って」 is so short and flexible, you end up wanting to use it basically anytime you want to talk about the thing itself.
A: マイクが呼んでいるよ 。
– Mike is calling you.
– Who is this “Mike”?
– The job has yet to be decided.
– The “finding job” thing is tough, huh?
As you can see from the examples, using 「という」 and its casual counterpart 「って」 to define things is a vital part of the Japanese language. Sometimes, it’s optional; for times when you want to emphasis that you are talking about the thing itself. Other times, like the 「名字は何ですか」 example, it might be required or else you end up saying completely different. In either case, 「という」 and 「って」 is very useful whenever you want to define and talk about the topic itself.
To see if you truly understand the distinction between using and not using this grammar, try out these neat questions from 「日本語教科書の落とし穴」 .
Feel free to post your answers in the comments. I’ll be waiting!
This is the first of three posts discussing 「言う」.