All About Japan

The Subtle Difference Between 'Yes' & 'No'

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It takes a whole lot of commitment and dedication to reach conversational levels of Japanese, but luckily the Internet is full of useful language learning tools that’ll guide you over the pitfalls many face.

Nevertheless, it’s considered to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn for English native speakers, and even Japanese people tend to agree.

For example, when an American friend of Japanese Twitter user @chomado came to visit Japan, he complained that it was difficult to distinguish between the Japanese “yes” and “no.”

Which makes it a pain playing video games that let you choose between accepting and declining. Can you tell the difference between the two options depicted in the screenshot above?

The shorter "un" (うん, pronounced as “oon”) means “yes”, while the longer “uun” (ううん, a slightly longer “ooon” ) means “no.” And let’s not forget there’s “un?” the English equivalent of an inquiring “yes?” Fortunately the intonation associated with these three words are different, but that doesn’t make it any less of a nightmare for learners.

Aside from these, there’s also deceivingly simple words with opposite meanings. One example would be “ii yo” (いいよ) which is the same as the English confirmation “sure!” What makes it baffling is that it’s also used to imply that you don’t need something, and the only way to figure it out is by context.

Hence when a cashier at a Japanese supermarket asks if you need a plastic bag for your food item, an “ii yo” reply would send them into a world of confusion.

English and Japanese are already polar opposites in terms of sentence structure and grammar, and such ambiguity in simple yes or no questions doesn’t make it any easier to learn. Plus, let’s also not forget that some Japanese words can be incredibly difficult to pronounce.

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