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Monday, July 24, 2017

Unagi and Konnyaku Sentences in Japanese

ウナギ文 コンニャク文


Unagi, or eel.
An unagi-don, or box of eel on rice

The Japanese are a nation of foodies, take what they eat very seriously indeed, and talk about it a lot. It is no surprise then, that food expressions are used to describe a couple of peculiarities of Japanese grammar.

Unagi means "eel" in Japanese, and is a summer delicacy that will cost you at least 1,000 yen, usually for those imported from China, and at least twice that for home-grown ones.

Konnyaku is the romanized spelling of the Japanese pronunciation of konjac (Amorphophallus konjac), a plant used to make a jelly much used in Japanese cuisine - especially oden - and which is related to the very smelly plant that has the world's largest flower, the Amorphophallus titanum.

Anyway, an unagi sentence is a common grammatically contracted sentence in Japanese that seems to identify the speaker as a foodstuff, but which really only identifies the speaker's preference for it. The archetypal example is "Ore wa unagi da." 俺はウナギだ Ore means "I" and is used to address only those with whom one has a very close relationship, or who are ranked well below you. wa (は) is the marker indicated that ore is the topic of the sentence. Unagi is eel. The final da is a sentence ending that equates to the be-verb in English, affirming the existence of something.

Literally translated, this would mean "I am an eel." in the same way as "Ore wa sarariman da" ("I am a businessman") indicates that the speaker is a businessman.

However, this so-called literal translation is based on a misunderstanding of the function of the marker wa. As stated above, wa is the marker indicating that the word which precedes it is the topic of the sentence. And the topic of a sentence is not necessarily the subject of the sentence.

So in this case, a more literal translation, i.e., one where the function of the wa is properly understood, would be "Me, eel." Sure, even in English, this could be misinterpreted as being akin to "Me Tarzan," but, giving the person who spoke it the benefit of the doubt, probably would not be taken to be a statement of self-identification. In response to the question of "What are you having?" directed at more than one person, for one of them to respond with "Me, eel" would not be considered odd, even in English. (However, just as in the Japanese version of it, it would not be considered especially polite.)

Konnyaku, or konjac
A piece of konnyaku - great for dieting

A konnyaku sentencc is similar, but in reverse. That is, an inanimate object seems to be given human properties. The archetypal example sentence is "Konnyaku wa futoranai," コンニャクは太らない, "literally" (i.e., misunderstanding the function of wa): "Konnyaku doesn't put on weight." The actual meaning, of course, is "You don't gain weight eating konnyaku," but it's left to the listener to fill in the gaps in regard to who doesn't get fat. wa sets konnyaku as the topic of the sentence (not the subject!), and asserts a quality in regard to it that can only be interpreted as belonging to a consumer of the food if we assume sanity on the part of the speaker.

So what unagi and konnyaku sentences teach us is to treat wa as the title of your sentence, not the actor in the sentence. wa is best thought of as meaning "as for..." in English. "As for me, eel," "As for konnyaku, [you] don't put on weight" This frees up your Japanese, and lets you venture without fear into the world of unagi and konnyaku, buoyed up by the reassuring knowledge that all your friends already know you're not (to use another food word) nuts.

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