Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Japanese verb "ki-ku"

The AET(Assistant English teacher) in my school, who comes from the US, asked me a question about the Japanese language. He said to me, "The verb 'ki-ku' has two meanings: to hear or to listen, and to ask. How do you know which is meant?" It was a good question. I had never thought about how I distinguish them.

Ongaku wo kiku. (I listen to music.)
Michi wo kiku. (I ask the way.)

If you were a native speaker of Japanese, you would never be confused. You could tell that the former 'ki-ku' means 'to listen,' and the latter 'to ask.' But how?

You might guess that it depends on what kind the object of the verb is. We don't ask somebody music. We don't listen to the way. However, this doesn't solve the problem.

Kare no namae wo kiita koto ga aru. (I have heard his name.)
(Kanojo ni ) Kare no namae wo kiita. (I asked (her) his name.)

'Kiita' is the past form of 'ki-ku.' In the former sentence, 'kiita' means 'have heard,' while in the latter, it means 'asked.' Then how can you tell between the two?

One solution I can think of is that when you mean 'to ask' by the verb 'ki-ku,' there should be a person or some people to ask. So usually a phrase like 'Taro ni' or 'sensei ni,' which shows who you are asking, is necessary. These '-ni' phrases will sometimes be omitted, especially when it is obvious who is the asked person.

I met a man. I asked him his name.
Otoko no hito ni atta. Namae wo kiita.

When the speaker thinks it is clear who is asked and the hearer doesn't think so, the hearer often have to ask the speaker who he or she asked it.

Kare no namae wo kiita. (I asked his name.)
Dare ni? (Who did you ask?)
Kyoko ni. (I asked Kyoko.)

I gave this explanation to my AET (not in as much organized ways as above, of course. I don't have such a good speaking command!) Then he asked me another question. "What about the distinction between 'I listened to John.' and 'I asked John.'? I got his point. He wondered how we tell which is meant when someone says 'John ni kiita.'.

It definitely means 'I asked John.' Not 'I listened to John.' I don't know why, but we don't say 'John ni kiita.' or 'John wo kiita.' when we want to say 'I listened to John.'

Ongaku wo kiita.(correct) 'I listened to music.'
John wo kiita.(incorrect) 'I listened to John.'

When a person follows 'listen to,' we don't directly say '*** wo kiku.' Instead, we say:

John no hanashi wo kiita.(correct) 'I listened to John's telling a story.'
John ga hanasuno wo kiita.(correct) 'I listened to John speaking.'

After reading this, you feel like quit learning Japanese? Never give up!