Japanese contains many situations where who you’re speaking to and who you’re speaking about affects word choice. Perhaps the most basic example of this is the simple act of giving. In Japanese, the choice of word you use depends on the following criteria:
- What is your social relationship to the recipient
- Who is performing the act of giving
- Who is the recipient of the gift
- Who you are speaking with regarding the act of giving
If you examine these criteria while discussing giving and receiving you should have little trouble properly structuring your sentences. Let’s investigate these criteria individually:
What is your social relationship to the recipient
Culturally, if someone gives something to you or your family, it is treated (from a language perspective) like it was given to you. If anyone gives something to your Spouse, Children, Mother, Father, Brother, Sister or close friend, it is treated like they’ve given it to you. You can imagine the Social Relationship structure for Japanese Giving like a set of circles with you in the inner most circle, your close relations in the next largest circle, then everyone else in the largest circle.
As you can see from the diagram, there are three levels of social relationship (or social distance) that are used to determine which verb you use.
- 私 - Myself
- 内 - Inside (my close social circle) [Parents, Siblings, Spouses, Close Friends]
- 外 - Outside (my close social circle) [Everyone else..]
When discussing giving, frequently you will hear the english terms “inward giving” and “outward giving”. In terms of the diagram “inward giving” refers to someone in a larger circle giving something to someone in a smaller circle whereas “outward giving” means someone in a smaller circle giving something to someone in a larger circle.
We will be using these classifications in the next steps to determine the proper verb.
Who is performing the act of giving
The first situation is the easiest to remember. If you ever give anything to anyone else あげるis used regardless of who the recipient is. Let’s use the example sentence: “I gave my mother a flower”.
It is: 私は母に花をあげました
You mother is in the 内 social relationship circle and since it is “outward giving” (smaller to larger circle) you use あげる
We can extend this to an individual in the 外 social relationship circle as well, because you are doing the giving, it remains a “outward giving” instance (smaller to larger circle) which also uses あげる. For this example we’ll use: “I gave Mrs Mizuyama a flower”.
It is: 私は水山さんに花をあげました
Who is the recipient of the gift
Ok, enough with us being generous and giving things, let’s figure out what happens if someone gives us something.
Describing “inward giving” is very similar but instead of “あげる” the word “くれる” is used. In this first example, lets say that Mrs Mizuyama gave me 500 Yen.
It is: 水山さんは私に500円をくれました
Here, Mrs Mizuyama becomes the topic (person doing the giving) I am the recipient (marked by に). In this case, the giving is “inward giving” (larger circle to smaller circle) therefore くれるis used.
Now, let’s try something a little more difficult. In a situation where there is “inward giving” but it doesn’t reach all the way to you. Let’s say that Mrs Mizuyama is very generous and gave my father a new car. Now this giving is not directly to me, however, since my Father is considered “内” we will use くれる again (larger circle to smaller circle)
It is: 水山さんは父に新しい車をくれました
Ok, great, but what if I want to say I (or someone else) received something
The word for to received is もらう. To use this properly, we essentially switch the particles which we used for giving. For instance, if I want to say “My mother received flowers from me” The Topic is now my mother and I am the person who did the giving.
Which differs in the sentence we looked at earlier: 私は母に花をあげました
But has the exact same meaning.
In the event that you personally received something, you can substitute から for に. The following two sentences have the same meaning as well:
Both of these sentences mean exactly the same thing: “I received a puppy from Mrs Mizuyama”
Receiving is always “もらう” regardless of social relationship therefore the following sentences are acceptable.
- Mr. Takayama received flowers from Mrs. Mizuyama
- My father received flowers from Mrs. Mizuyama
- I received flowers from Mrs. Mizuyama
Last point, giving between people of the same social relationship
When you describe people on the same social relationship giving you always use あげる. Let’s look at an example of two people, both 内 and how that would work:
It is: 妹は母に花をあげました
This means, my younger brother gave my mother flowers.
The same applies to two people, both 外:
This means, Mr Takayama gave Mrs. Mizuyama flowers.
Who you are speaking with regarding the act of giving
The standard rules regarding familiarity apply as far as the conjugation of the verbs you use. If you are speaking with a close friend, child or family member you would use the plain form あげる, くれる, or もらう.
You also would use the 丁寧語 (ます) form if you are speaking with someone you are unfamiliar with あげます, くれます, もらいます.