If I were a carpenter, would you still marry me?

Tim Schwartz
7 min readJan 2, 2021

A native English speaker's journey to master the hypothetical conditional in Japanese.

"If I were a rich man...I wouldn't have to work hard," laments Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof as he imagines what life would be like if he could biddie biddie bum all day long. We know Tevye is only speculating here because the modal would signals to us that we have entered the realm of the subjunctive. Defined in Webster's dictionary as "the mood of a verb that is used to express supposition, desire, hypothesis, possibility, etc. rather than to stay in actual fact, " The subjunctive is arguably nonexistent in Japanese.

It is often said that the beauty of acquiring another language is not found so much in the language itself, but rather in the discovery of new ways of expressing oneself. However, at the same time, a language learner's passage to linguistic competency may be filled with instances of dissatisfaction at not being able to state ideas in the same way that one does in their mother tongue. If it is a given that language and culture are inextricably intertwined and different cultures define their worlds differently, then acquiring a new language necessitates a keen awareness of the way certain ideas are expressed.

Consider the language of them Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire who have a completely different concept of time. According to noted anthropologist Colin Turnbull, unlike our linear notion of time, the Mbuti have a spherical one where past, present, and future are one and the same. Examples like this remind us how the divisions in time and tense one tends to find in Western languages may not be universal. While that Mbuti example is extreme, there are other examples closer to home. An examination of how time and mood are dealt with in Japanese reveals a few things that might surprise you.

A comparison of verb tenses in English and Japanese indicates a few differences in each language's approach to describing how events occur and time. Examining all the possible verb tenses in English - past, present, future, past perfect, present perfect, and future perfect multiplied by their respective progressive counterparts - results in a count of twelve. In other words, there are twelve separate distinctions that English speakers make in describing an action in time. Japanese on the other hand is known to have two verb tenses, past and non-past. (Though appearing similar in form to the English progressive tense, the construction te-iru literally means do...and and is not considered to be a tense.)

Differences in the tense can play a large role in adding to the frustration a student feels in not being able to communicate an idea in the same way they do in their native language. This is especially true for native English speakers who may be use to describing the exact point in time and action occurred through changes in either the modal auxiliary or the verb tense.

Further comparison of Japanese and English shows that deviations in the verb form are not limited to just tense however. In addition, English verbs, similar to humans, are often being affected by their mood. Though both the indicative and the imperative moods have equivalents in Japanese, a lack of a counterpart to the English subjunctive mood has the potential to frustrate students who are not taught how to express the same idea via new grammatical conventions.

It should be noted that the subjunctive is a specific mood that is part of a larger category referred to as the conditional. However, the ordinary if…then conditional should be treated separate from the hypothetical conditional because Japanese does not distinguish between ordinary conditions and contrary-to-fact ones. That is to say, the moshi + ba construction alone does not always indicate conjecture in the same way that the if…would construction does in English. Japanese utilizes conjunctions, particles, and the auxiliaries to signal to the speaker that they have entered the world of the conditional clause. The words that exerts the most strength in establishing a counterfactual conditional are the particle noni and the auxiliary. Note however, that the use of noni are restricted to clauses where the speaker is expressing regret or wishful thinking.

The hypothetical conditional in English can be viewed on a spectrum spanning conjectural situations with a real possibility of occurring as well as those that are unquestionably counterfactual. Note the following example which is hypothetical, but not improbable:

(1) If I got really sick, I would go to the hospital.

There is an acknowledgment on the part of the speaker in sentence (1) that getting sick is a possibility. Also, note how this sentence employees the past tense in the subordinating conditional clause with the modal would and the infinitive in the main clause. The next sentences are examples of situations that are both hypothetical and counterfactual.

(2) If I had a trillion dollars, I would build a private train line that connects all of the major cities on the East Coast.

(3) Things would have been different if his father had not been an alcoholic.

The sentences above indicate that English allows for its speakers to hypothesize in the past and future as well as being used in both negative and positive situations. The common element appearing in all of the hypothetical sentences above is the use of If…would in signaling to the listener that what they are about to here is only supposition.

Conditional tense in Japanese can be expressed through any of the following constructions, nara, naraba, to, -tara or eba. However, the eba, naraba, and tara construction carry out temporal as well as regular conditional functions, making it difficult to distinguish between the three types. The key to recognizing Japanese sentences in the simple conditional form is through the conjunction moshi. It functions in the same way as its English counterpart if. Note the following Japanese translation of sentence

(1a) もし、ひどい病気になったら、病院にいく。

Moshi, hidoi byoki ni nattara, byoin ni iku.

Sentence (1a) is a good example of how the conditional in Japanese has the potential to be ambiguous. If the example above were translated back into English it could be said three different ways, each one with a slightly different nuance. The sentence above could be re-interpreted as If I get really sick, I will go to the hospital; If I get really sick, I go to the hospital and finally the hypothetical interpretation, If I got really sick, I would go to the hospital. It is the lack of any signaling word like noni or daro, which leads to the ambiguity in interpretation. However, native speakers would doubtlessly interpret the Japanese translations of sentences (2a) and (3a) as supposition:

(2a) もしも、私が億万長者だたっら、東海岸の全ての主な都市を結ぶ私有鉄道を建設するだろう/のに。

Moshimo, watashi ga okumanchoja dattara, tokaigan no subete no omo na tokai o musubu shiyu tetsudo o kensetsu suru daro/noni.

(3a) もしも、あいつの父親がアル中じゃなかったら、事態が変わっていただろう/のに。

Moshimo, aitsu no chichioya ga aruchuu janakattara, jitai ga kawatte ita darou/noni.

Note how the use of moshimo, daro or noni in both examples help to establish the counterfactuality of each sentence. Interestingly, the native Japanese respondents who originally translated the English into Japanese reported that a lack of words like moshimo, daro or noni can lead to more realistic interpretations, making it even more challenging for students to distinguish between conjecture in fact.

A comparison of the subjunctive mood in English and Japanese reveals significant differences in the way the two languages attempt to convey the same idea. The inherent flexibility of the language to convey a conditional meaning with or without signaling words like moshimo or daro, as well as the variations in the tense of the coordinating verb and a lack of a counterpart to the English modal would have the potential to create a lot of confusion for a native English speakers. As a result, many students are bound to have a hard time at first accepting the subjunctive in Japanese as a way of truly expressing hypothetical or counterfactual ideas.

Knowledge of the subjunctive, or hypothetical conditional, is an excellent way to measure the level of proficiency for both students of English and Japanese. As an English teacher, I use the subjunctive as a litmus test for my students who have come home from studying abroad. If they are able to apply it appropriately in a given sentence then I know they have attained a good understanding of the language. As a student of Japanese, I am always challenged to find appropriate ways of expressing counterfactual thoughts or hypothetical ideas in Japanese. Interestingly, some linguists have argued that Japanese people are not as concerned as native English speakers seem to be with making hypothetical, conditional, or counterfactual distinctions in speech, as the examples above seem to support this argument. This phenomenon might be connected to the tendency of native Japanese speakers to avoid clear expression of their own attitudes. Either way, however, it is clear that both tense and mood present quite a challenge to those in the pursuit of Japanese proficiency.

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Tim Schwartz

I get joy from inspiring people, parenting my daughters & creative endeavors. I write to share my perspective & capitalize on my life experience. 🔎🤔