The second circle of conjugation hell

A day in the life of a language learner. On Friday as I walking down the hallway at work, I walked passed one of the cleaning staff on the way out. I said “konnichiwa (good afternoon)”, as you do, but she must have been lost in a train of thought. She snapped out of it, realising I was talking to her, and said “Gomen nasai! (Sorry!) Wakaranakatta!”

Wakaranakatta? Oh that’s right, that’s one of those tricky conjugated verbs.  Conjugation is fairly regular in Japanese compared to English, but you still need to learn the rules.  To work out what it means, you have to:

  1. Determine that the base verb is wakaru (to understand, or to realize).
  2. To make the verb negative in this case, you change an “u” sound at the end to an “a” sound, then add “nai” to the end. So, you get wakaranai (I don’t understand).
  3. To make the negative verb in the past tense, you have to drop off the “i” sound at the end, and add “katta”. That gives you wakaranakatta (I didn’t understand).

Oi vey. Methodically working all this out in the middle of a conversation really does not cut it – you’ve just got to keep hearing words until you understand the word as one unit.  Over, and over, and over again.

Then, maybe I could have understood that she was trying to say that she didn’t understand.


8 thoughts on “The second circle of conjugation hell

  1. Hey, don’t you know someone eminently more qualified to explain that than me? 🙂 I’ll have a go though…

    The main reason I’ve heard is the level of politeness. “Wakarimasen deshita” and “wakaranakatta” both mean “I didn’t understand”, but the first is something you might use at the office, and the second you might use with your friends. Using the “masu” form is usually the safest, regardless of the situation, but if you use it with your friends, it might sounds a bit plummy.

    The interesting bit is that as far as I know, most Japanese courses teach the “masu” form first, but the regular form (e.g. “wakaru”) is much more helpful to understand conjugation, being the base form.

  2. So does this mean you stood gape-mouthed in front of said cleaner for 15 to 20 seconds decoding this? Cos that would have been funny.

  3. MDB: yep, pretty much. Pah, I am now practiced enough as not understanding things that I am no longer gape-mouthed, like some sort of amateur. I now kind of do a squinting thing, to convey the impression that I-could-unstand -what-you-are-saying-if -only-I-could-remember-the-right-word (really).

    Joel: ah, I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture of me not understanding. Rest assured that next time, you shall have your photo of me looking all squinty.

  4. Hmm yeah .. so the someone more qualified than me said

    Wakarimasen (deshita) means ‘I don’t understand’ (present tense)

    Wakaranakatta means ‘I didn’t understand’ (past tense)


    And about the squinting thing .. I must have really bad enunciation because when you mentioned it.. I could picture the look perfectly. 😉

  5. wakarinakatta is the negative past of wakaru in plain form… same as wakarimasen deshita (negative past in polite form).

    It is like saying “i didn’t catch that” to a friend rather than a boss or someone more senior to you for which you’d be more likely to be more formal i guess.

    I like to think of plain form as pub-speak and polite form as job interview speak.

    Wait till you visit Osaka and people come out with Osaka-ben like wakarahen! ( I don’t get it/know) or sukun(i don’t like(it))!

  6. Pingback: A quantitative three year blog anniversary « 4000 Miles North

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