“But” vs 掛ける monolingual -> multilingual perspective shift

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The amazingly beautiful thing about learning many languages is that they allow you to reason and think about the form and separate the meaning from the structure of things. You say that Japanese has many ways to say “but”, but also you don’t realize that the “but” you use in English has a lot of meanings that you wouldn’t normally consider as separate but they are.

Just taking a few different meanings from the dictionary:

  • “he stumbled but didn’t fall”

  • “one cannot but sympathize”

  • “but that’s an incredible saving!”

  • “I’m sorry, but I can’t pay you”

  • “it never rains but it pours”

  • “we were never anything but poor”

  • “nobody, but nobody, was going to stop her”

  • “he is but a shadow of his former self”

  • “he was a nice bloke but”

  • “no buts —just get out of here”

These are TEN different meanings of the word “but”. However as a native speaker you internalize them as the same word and you might not even notice the difference. I’m no English native speaker but while I am familiar with all of these usages I definitely can’t even begin to explain the grammatical rules or definitions of any of these. Languages are insanely complicated do think about, which is why there are grammarians and linguists and even the top of the top of language scholars are unable to define every single rule of a language they speak (let alone one they aren’t native of).

Now let’s take a Japanese word and do the same we did with “but”: かける. I’ll list a couple of example sentences from the dictionary (not all because there’s way too many) taken from some of the 32 different definitions.

  • 看板をかける

  • ストーブにやかんをかける

  • 歩道橋をかける

  • 布団をかける

  • 針にかけて釣り上げる

  • 今まで手にかけた仕事の数々

  • 作品をお目にかける

  • … and many more

From the point of view of a native speaker, all these かける are obvious and make sense in context and they might not even know/notice there’s a difference and likely are unable to explain why or what. Just like how you feel about “but” in English. Obviously from your point of view, learning these かける meanings (or those of any other word) seems like an impossible task… but that’s because it is. You are not supposed to learn about all of these or even remember them. Your brain will eventually create some mental connections between similar usages or meanings that are outside of the form and focus on the meaning of the message that the language is trying to convey. You get a feel for it. Just like you have a feel for “but” in English.

This is why the best advice I can ever give to people is to stop overthinking things and just read native material and interact with the language. You keep at it, you spend time with it, you become familiar with things. Focus on the message and the discovery process that is learning from stories and talking to people and iterate over that. Your brain will do the rest.

Next: 知る vs 分かる perspective#