Japanese

Understanding “to ieba” in Japanese, and How to Quote People

A useful phrase to know when having regular conversations in Japanese is と言えば (to ieba). How do you use “to ieba” in Japanese?

It translates as “speaking of” in English, and it’s used when you want to focus on something that a person mentioned at an earlier part of the conversation.

Person A: 

  • 昨日私は道に蛇を見た。蛇が好きじゃないよ。
    Kinō watashi wa michi ni hebi o mita. Hebi ga suki janai yo.
    Yesterday I saw a snake on the street. I don’t like snakes!

Person B: 

  • 蛇と言えば、動物園には新しくて大きなものがある。
    Hebi toieba, dōbutsuen ni wa atarashikute ōkina mono ga aru.
    Speaking of snakes, the zoo has a new big one.

The format for using to ieba is fairly simple. If you want to say “speaking of ~” where the squiggly line (~) is the thing you want to talk about, you simply say ~と言えば in Japanese.

  • 猫といえば (Neko to ieba) = Speaking of cats…
  • 中国といえば (Chūgoku to ieba) = Speaking of China…
  • 東京での運転と言えば (Tōkyō de no unten toieba) = Speaking of driving in Tokyo…

It’s a pretty straightforward word to use and understand. What interesting is the particle it uses, と.

The Connector と “to”

と is often used as a connector of sorts. As you see from と言えば, it basically takes the place of the word “of” in “speaking of…”

It is also used extensively when quoting other people, although it doesn’t really have a counterpart in English for those situations. You could think of it like a spoken quotation if you will.

  • 平気だと言いました。
    Heiki da to iimashita.
    He said it’s fine.

Usually what the other person said will be in brackets, the exact same way that we would use “quotation marks”.

  • 「平気だ」と言いました。
    “Heiki da” to iimashita.
    He said “it’s fine.”

So as you can see, these are the Japanese quotation marks: 「」and you would use them exactly the same way as the English quotation marks.

For the most part, whenever you are quoting someone’s words in this way you will want to make sure that you put the part that is being quoted into its simplest verb form.

  • 「愛してる」と言いました。
    “Aishiteru” to iimashita.
    I said “I love you.”

Unless you’re trying to be very specific, like if you are making a point that what was said was at a particular level of politeness.

  • 「愛しています」と言いました。それは厄介でした。
    “Aishite imasu” to iimashita. Sore wa yakkai deshita.
    I said “I love you” (in a formal way). It was awkward.

And you should also know that a lot of times in colloquial speech, the quotation marker と will get changed to って.

  • 「愛してる」って言った。
    “Aishiteru” tte itta.
    I said “I love you.”

I see it written as って a lot more than と in manga. I also hear って more often in anime.

Where Else Does と get used?

There are some other phrases that you’ll probably want to know when learning Japanese that use the と (or って) quotation particle:

-When asking how to pronounce something:

  • この漢字は何と言いますか?
    Kono kanji wa nan to iimasu ka?
    How do you say this kanji?

-When asking what something is:

  • 「歌舞伎」ってなんですか?
    “Kabuki” tte nan desu ka?
    What is “Kabuki”?

-When asking for a translation of a word:

  • 「タコ」は英語で何という意味ですか?
    “Tako”‘ wa eigo de nan to yu imi desu ka?
    What does “タコ” mean in English?

Note that the word “to say” in its plain form (言う or いう) is actually pronounced like “yu” rather than the “iu” that it’s written as.

-When you are thinking of something:

  • 彼女は優しいと思う。
    Kanojo wa yasashii to omou.
    I think that she is kind.

And there you have guys. You should understand “to ieba” and be able to use it, and you know a little more about the quotation particle と, and its informal version って.

Let me know with a comment below if that all made sense.

If you want some more examples, or if you’ve got some better explanations that you’d like to share with anyone else who’s reading, then let me know!

4 Comments

  • Carol

    Very interesting, I have never been exposed to the Japanese language. I am trying to say the words, but I am sure my pronunciations are incorrect. I will bookmark this page and practice a little everyday. Where can I buy a dictionary to help with letter sounds and vocabulary building?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Carol, if you’re looking to pick up a dictionary to help with pronunciation, you can find what I recommend by clicking to link below. It is a post I wrote a little while ago on that exact topic.

      Click Here to Read About a Japanese Dictionary

      And don’t worry, if you can say English words, then you can also pronounce Japanese ones too. The English language actually contains more sounds in it than Japanese does, so you’ve got an advantage in that area. 

    • Vaffangool

      Nothing beats listening to native speakers. There is a Japanese television programme with a dedicated coterie of superfans who have subbed several episodes to English—often with an extremely useful helping of romaji. The episode I started with happens to feature a guest appearance from a bilingual personality well-known to Japanese viewers.

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