Time for a little English pop quiz:
What’s an expression you’d use when startled or surprised?
What’s an expression you’d use when disappointed?
C’mon, keep going. Write these down.
What might you shout when ambushed from behind, or when you’re just so happy you can’t help but scream it to the world?
Take a look at that list you wrote.
Let me guess. The answers came naturally, and consist of one-word to three-word expressions.
Well, you were expressing some short, intense bursts of emotion—and your expressions were likely short but intense. Feelings and language are close partners. It can’t be helped.
Whenever we want to express something, it’s usually done in two ways: words and body language. One-word expressions that are closely related to certain feelings are common in every language.
Japanese is no exception. The Japanese language is one of the most dramatic in this matter and if you happen to be an anime fan or watch a lot of Japanese drama series, you may have noticed that there are certain words that are repeated over and over again with a certain emotional meaning.
Ready for some shouting and crying and wondering and agreeing?
Well, here are the top 10 one-word Japanese expressions you need to know by heart if you want to survive most everyday Japanese conversations.
10 Useful One-word Japanese Expressions to Learn by Heart
やった: hooray, whee, yowzer! or whoopee!
I’m really sorry, but this word cries out for its own unique English equivalent. An equivalent which needs a plethora of punctuation to be spelled correctly. やった is the Japanese way to shout as loud as you can: !@#$ YEAH!
The correct way to pronounce such a profound word is as loud as you can with a prolonged final あ. Like this: やったああああああ！
Say やったあああああ when you pass that nerve-wracking test. Scream やったあああああ when you get that job offer of your dreams. Shout やったあああああ when you win that million dollars in the lottery. やった is the vocal embodiment of your appreciation to the universe for the fortunes it has just bestowed upon you. My wish is that you keep using やった throughout your life.
2. 本当 (ほんとう)
本当 (ほんとう): truth, reality, actuality, fact.
There are some things that are hard to believe. Like snow in California or that perfect Tetris score you got with your eyes closed — these kind of things. So, when your friend comes with news of a flying comet destroying the city center, the first thing that comes out of your lips is “you’re kidding me” or “seriously?” Well, 本当 is roughly the same. You say 本当 (with a question mark at the end) each time you want to confirm what you just heard.
マイクがメリーにプロポーズしたんだよ。(まいくが めりーに ぷろぽーずしたんだよ。) — Mike proposed to Mary.
本当？？？？(ほんとう？？？？) — Really????
うん。あの二人、明日結婚するんだ！(うん。あのふたり、あした けっこんするんだ！) — Yes. They are going to be married tomorrow!
本当？？？？(ほんとう？？？？) — Seriously????
うん。すごいびっくりしたみたいだね。 — Yes. Something tells me you are clearly surprised.
So, 本当 is seeking affirmation of what you were told. Use it with caution. Unbelievable things happen every day.
もちろん: of course, certainly.
If you asked me “are you sure やった and 本当 are used that way?” I would answer with confidence, “もちろん！” This adverb is used as an answer when you’re 150% sure of what you’re saying is true. When you’re so confident in the validity of your opinion there’s no room for discussion.
Imagine yourself in the following situation: you spend a romantic evening with your significant other. Two years into your marriage. Candles lit, dinner served, wine in the glasses. After a minute of awkward silence you’re hit with the question: if you had the chance to go back and do it all over again, would you?
Don’t even think about it. Tell yourself, “もちろん！”
4. 良かった (よかった)
良かった (よかった): Good, excellent, fine, nice, pleasant.
This post is slowly becoming the “say-it-with-a-real-life-example” post. Oh well, it can’t be helped. On we go.
良かった is pronounced roughly the same way as やった, but with a very important difference: 良かった is a sign of relief. For example, you worry about those test results and they eventually come back negative: 良かったあああ…
That package you thought lost in the hells of national mail is finally delivered: 良かったあああ…
You ask your crush out on a date and she says yes: 良かったあああ
And your best friend who was worrying about you having a heart attack while getting up the nerve to ask her out can also join in: 良かったあああ….
If you’re a serious worrier, you might use this word too many times. I advise restraint.
5. 全然 (ぜんぜん)
全然 (ぜんぜん): not at all (with neg. verb).
全然 is the Japanese way of saying: not at all. As with もちろん, it can be used in a sincere way – or not. When your mother calls and she genuinely asks, “am I bothering you?” you will probably answer “全然…” But when your crush texts you with plans for the night and asks if you’re busy you’ll also answer “全然！” In a nutshell, 全然 is the Japanese phrase of denial.
6. 何 (なに)
何 (なに): What.
何 is the Japanese word for what. As a phrase it has the following function: you use it as an indication you didn’t hear or understand what the other person said. Beware: it’s much more polite to say that you’re sorry and that you want that person to repeat what they said. Using 何 is considered informal and, depending on your tone, sometimes rude. Use it with close friends and people you can beat up or outrun — if the situation demands such extreme measures.
何 can also be used as a replacement for 本当:
宇宙人が学校を攻撃してるぞ。(うちゅうじんが がっこうをこうげきしてるぞ。) — Aliens are attacking our school.
何いいいいい？ (なにいいいいい？) — Whaaaaaat?
You also say 何 when you hear something you do not particularly like:
ヒトシはミナコと付き合ってるんだよ。(ひとしは みなこと つきあってるんだよ。) — Hitoshi is dating Minako. (You like Minako.)
何いいいいい？ (なにいいいいい？) — Whaaaaaat?
どうしよう: What should I do?
Life example no. 23: you’re home with your buds. You suddenly have this crazy idea of playing softball in the house. Nothing too fancy. A few shots here, a few swings there. Until one swing goes terribly wrong. The ball goes into warp speed and makes its way to your mom’s favorite Ming dynasty vase. The vase is no more.
Clearly you’re in panic. You have no idea what to do. You find yourself repeating “どうしよう” over and over again while thinking up a solution. If you ever get into such a situation, I hope you find a solution eventually. Moms are frightening creatures.
びっくりした: to be surprised, to be amazed, to be frightened, to be astonished, to get startled, to jump.
Imagine this scene: it’s midnight and you’re sitting in your room, alone. You were just in the mood for a good horror movie and you decide to watch “the Shining.” Just when the twins’ scene is finally up, your brother storms inside the room. You feel that heart attack threatening your very being and your soul going for a cosmic return trip. When you get a hold of yourself, you turn to that ばか (stupidity) of a brother and say, “びっくりした！”
やっぱり: as expected.
Sometimes you just know things before they happen. You knew that test was coming. You knew it was going to rain in the afternoon. You knew that character was too overpowering. You knew your brother hides his magazines in YOUR closet.
When we hear or discover something that we had expected all along, something that’s totally unsurprising, we say “やっぱり.” It means “I thought so!” or “I knew it!”
The next phrase is the last. If you catch me using another real life example, then please – use やっぱり to express your undeniable surprise. Oh, the irony.
そうですか: that is right, that is so, really.
Okay, you’re right. This isn’t a one-word phrase. But it’s so commonly and widely used that it tends to be considered as such. You use “ああ、そうですか” each time you’re presented with a new piece of information during a conversation.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “but I am ALWAYS presented with a new piece of information during a conversation.“
And you’re absolutely right. That’s why when you talk casually with someone from Japan, you may use the expression a few too many times. 200 times per hour to be exact. Maybe more.
Another thing: be sure to nod as you say this expression. Nodding is very important in giving the impression that you’re actually listening. Which you should be, by the way.
Repeat with me: そうですか and nodding, そうですか and nodding.
If you get tired of saying the same thing all over again, there are variations. You can either use そっか, そうだね or そうね. These are less formal ways but generally acceptable and certainly not rude.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little やったああああああああああ this very moment! Now, it’s your chance to stay strong while engaging in Japanese conversations. With all these expressions, I’m sure you’ll be able to express your feelings in the most exciting of ways.