手 does not mean hand!

If I told you that 手(て) in Japanese doesn’t mean ‘hand’ in English, would you believe me? Actually it’s true. 手(て) has its own definition in Japanese that in most cases is conveniently translated as ‘hand’. But what if I were to instruct you to 手(て)を伸(の)ばして? If you are able to, I want you to perform that action now. If you extended your arm, then give yourself a pat on the back. In this case 手(て) doesn’t mean ‘hand’, it means ‘arm’. In fact it has two meanings. One is the area from the tips of your fingers to your wrist. The other is from the tips of your fingers to your shoulder. Both of these areas can be called 手(て) depending on the usage.

This is not an isolated example. There are many other words that do not have perfect equivalents in English. How many times have you had to tell your students that 時(とき) does not always mean time. How many times have you had to tell your students that when they want to write オーストラリアに行(い)ったときにコアラを見(み)ました。They shouldn’t translate it as ‘Went to Australia time I saw a koala’. It doesn’t make sense in this case because in this kind of sentence 時(とき) doesn’t mean ‘time’, it means ‘when’. I’m sure many of you have laughed at your students (quietly of course) for making these kinds of mistakes but are you sure you aren’t making them yourselves?

One of the most confusing things about learning a language is when you form preconceptions about how things work and then the reality doesn’t match what you have learned. I’ve often heard people get confused when they hear a word used in a way they weren’t expecting. Rather than getting confused, try to learn from it. The best advice I can give you is that rather than looking up the meaning of a word and thinking to yourself “手(て) means ‘hand’” or “飲(の)む means ‘drink’”, try to work out their actual usage in Japanese and just get used to it. Forget about what they may or may not mean in English.

You would be surprised at how basic some of these poorly matching words are. Here are some examples of words that don’t match well.

飲(の)む/drink:

飲(の)む often means ‘to drink’, but it has a broader meaning as well. Used in sentences such as: 薬(くすり)を飲む。針を飲む。飲み込む。It actually means ‘swallow’.

腰(こし)/hip:

腰(こし) like many body parts including 手(て) and 足(あし) can be problematic. It is often translated as ‘hip’ but it actually includes elements of ‘hip’, ‘lower back’, ‘waist’, and ‘bottom’. It’s one of those words that you really just need to get used to. Listen to how people use it and imitate them.

行(い)く/go and 来(く)る/come:

The definition of 行(い)く in it’s most basic sense refers to movement away from the speaker and来(く)る refers to movement towards the speaker at the time he/she is speaking. For example, 私(わたし)は学校(がっこう)に行(い)った means ‘I went to school’ and 私(わたし)は三年前(さんねんまえ)に日本(にほん)に来(き)ました means ‘I came to Japan three years ago’. This can get confusing when you want to ask something like ‘will you come to the party tonight’. In this case the speaker is not yet at the party and should say 今夜(こんや),パーティに行(い)きますか。This all starts to get confusing when you are talking about two third parties and it has to do with a complex web of inside/outside relationships. If you are interested then I will draw you a diagram that will probably give you a headache.

There are many more examples. Try to find some for yourself.

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