What Does “Desu” Mean In Japanese?

One word that you will most likely encounter more than any else in the Japanese language is “desu.” What does desu mean in Japanese? That’s the topic of today’s post.

I’m going to give you information about this particular word in the first part, but stick around for the rest because there are quite a few different forms of this word that you will need to know as well.

I will explain appropriate situations to use each one in and provide example sentences to help show how they work. Let’s begin!

The Meaning Of Desu

The Japanese word is spelled です in hiragana and even though it has that final “u” sound in it, most of the time it actually isn’t voiced at all. This means that it typically sounds like “dess” to the English ear.

Sometimes, you know depending on the situation and the emotions of the speaker, you actually will hear that final “u” sound quite clearly, so just keep that in mind.

Anyway, the word です is known as the “copula” which is a really fancy word for the verb “to be” in the language. You know, in English these are words like “am, are, is, be, was” and so on and so forth. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. This is why です is such an important word in the language, because it gets used all the time.

  • これは私のペンです。
  • kore wa watashi no pen desu.
  • This is my pen.

Having said that, what really interesting about the Japanese language is that many times the word です is added into a sentence, but it actually has no meaning at all. Instead, it is used to add politeness to the overall sentence.

This is most commonly seen with i-adjectives since their normal forms actually contain the meaning of “to be” implicitly in them. For example, the word おいしい (oishii) is an i-adjective that means “is delicious.”

As you can see, there’s no need to add です for “is” when you’re saying おいしい since this word all on its own means both “it is” and “delicious.”

So when would you add です on to this? When you’re speaking to someone who has a higher social status than you, or when you are talking with someone whom you just met and need to show politeness towards.

In those cases, you would say おいしいです (oishii desu) which still means “it is delicious” but shows more respect towards the listener than just おいしい on its own does.

The Meaning Of Da

There are several levels of politeness in Japanese. Some of the lower ones are used among friends and family, some are used with strangers (like です) and others are used with people who are above you (we’ll cover some of those later).

When speaking to people who are your close friends and family, you can “let your hair down” and just speak informally. In these cases, you would use だ (da) instead of です. The meaning is nearly identical, with the primary difference being that だ is much more casual.

They aren’t exact copies of one another meaning-wise, but its okay to think of them that way when you’re first learning them.

That means that instead of saying 犬です (inu desu) for “its a dog” in Japanese, you would just say 犬だ (inu da) instead.

But! There is one major thing that you need to keep in mind!

Remember when I said that です is used in certain situations to show respect, but that it doesn’t actually add any meaning to the overall sentence? In those cases, you would not use だ. Instead, you would just completely omit です.

Going back to our earlier example, the casual form of おいしいです is just おいしい.

Actually, it is incorrect to ever use だ with an i-adjective. You just use the i-adjective on its own when you are speaking informally.

Something else unique about だ is that it has a “manly” feel to it. A lot of times guys will add it on, even when its not needed, in order to sound more like a man when speaking.

For example, an informal way to ask “who’s there?” or “who are you?” in Japanese is to just use the word 誰 (dare) raise the final syllable in intonation to indicate that its a question.

However, if a man is trying to sound tough, he might just say 誰だ (dare da) as a sort of exclamation like “who the heck are you?” or “Who the hell is it?”

That だ has been called a “declarative particle” by Tae Kim and I think its a pretty good way to think about it in most cases.

The Meaning Of De Gozaimasu

Now you know both the common, polite form and the casual, informal form of the verb “to be” in Japanese. It only makes sense that there would be a polite version as well, right?

Right!

When speaking to people who are above you in social status, perhaps the customers of your business or the president of the company you work at, you have two primary strategies that you can use to show them respect:

  1. Raise the position of the listener directly
  2. Lower your own position, therefore raising the listener’s position indirectly

The verb we are going to go over falls into the second category. It is でございます (de gozaimasu) which is a really formal, official, and respectful way of talking to people.

For example, let’s say that you call up the “Empire Hotel” in Japan to make a reservation. The person who picks up the phone on the other end would probably say something like the following.

  • はい、帝国ホテルでございます。
  • hai, teikoku hoteru de gozaimasu.
  • Hello, this is The Empire Hotel.

If we were to substitute the word でございます for です the meaning of the sentence would remain the same, but its more likely that it would be two strangers talking to one another.

Like if you stopped someone passing by and asked them, “What hotel is this?” they could reply with 帝国ホテルです for ‘It’s The Empire Hotel.”

Likewise, if you were talking to a friend and you said, “What hotel are you staying at, again?” they might answer with 帝国ホテルだ.

The point I’m making is actually two fold. One is that different words are used to express different levels of politeness. The other is that you can often discern the relationship between to people by the words that they use.

The Meaning Of De Aru

There is one more word that I wanted to cover. Of course, as I’m sure you’ve guessed already, it is also a word that is used for the “to be” verb in Japanese.

The difference this time is that it is a literary term. What I mean by that, is that you will encounter this word when reading novels and the narrator is explaining the scene to you, the reader.

I first encountered this word in the book 三姉妹探偵団 (Three Sisters Investigate) right on the very first page of the book.

  • 一番めざといのが夕里子である 。
  • ichiban mezatoi no ga yuriko de aru.
  • Yuriko is the most alert.

I wouldn’t recommend that you use this word when speaking, as you might sound a little weird, but you will definitely come across it when you start reading books in Japanese.

Ready, Go!

Alright, now you are off to a good start! This is a word most people learn right at the beginning of their Japanese language learning journey, so its an absolute essential.

If you have any questions about anything that I wrote, please let me know with a comment below and I will be sure to clarify to the best of my ability.

Or if you have any additional insights that you would like to share with the other readers of this blog, then please do so! Thanks!

2 thoughts on “What Does “Desu” Mean In Japanese?”

  1. Hello Nick, thanks for your post about “desu”. I think you have a good way of explaining things in the article and some good written examples too. 

    For me who speaks two languages besides English (Swedish and Finnish), but is still new to Japanese, it would have been very interesting to have some audio included as well. 😉 That’s all from me. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Hey Miqa! That’s pretty impressive with the amount of different languages that you speak! 

      Yeah on some posts I like to upload audio files, or embed YouTube videos, to help people understand how certain phrases sound. But I don’t always do it depending on what the topic is. This post was more aimed to understanding “desu” from a grammar point of view. 

      Reply

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