Your friendly neighbourhood guide to Saga-ben

It doesn't take foreigners living in Saga Prefecture long to figure out that something funny is going on with the language here. Even those individuals fortunate enough to arrive with several years of language training under their belt soon realize that the ability to speak standardized Japanese in Saga is about as useful as knowing the declension of Latin nouns is in English - an exercise in academia, and that's about it.
It has been said that languages are living, breathing organisms, and this is readily apparent throughout Japan. It seems that every prefecture has its own version of the language, some closer to hyojungo (standardized Japanese) than others. The Saga dialect is widely considered to be one of the most indecipherable in Japan, made all the moreso by regional variations within the prefecture itself. Greeting a shopkeeper in Tosu with a "Gabai hidaru shite no san" will undoubtably produce the same raised eyebrows and embarrassed giggles it would anywhere else in the country. This is not to say learning Saga-ben is an unsurmountable task, however. Many of the expressions and turns of phrase will be understood throughout the prefecture, and are often merely variations of the standard grammar and pronunciation. This guide should provide you with an insight into the workings of the language, and with a little practice, you should find yourself chattering away like a farmer in no time!

The basics, or Saga-ben 101

First and foremost, it should be said that Saga-ben is a very masculine dialect, having developed in relative isolation in the rural mountains of northwestern Kyushu. There are a few gender-neutral phrases that are used by both men and women, but the most colourful aspects of the dialect are reserved for the men. Spoken almost exclusively by farmers, labourers and those unlikely to travel beyond the next valley, it has a very gutteral and jocular tone, and tends to be rather terse. Contrast this with the more florid and verbose dialects of Kyoto and Osaka, for example, and communicating in Saga-ben hardly seems like a conversation at all - for those not in the know, at least!

This, the most commonly used particle in Saga-ben, often causes people the most confusion. Its function is simple: it is an intensifier. It works in basically the same manner as the standard ~yo. Tack it on the end of a sentence and suddenly you're really excited about whatever you're talking about. It's that easy. Witness the following:

Saga dialect
I don't understand.
I don't get it.
I don't have a clue! / What're you talking about?
Saga dialect
Yes, I know.
I know.
Yeah, tell me something I don't know.
As you can see, it does have a significant impact on the overall meaning, but it is seldom considered to be rude. Saga-ben neophytes tend to bandy it about with reckless abandon, and are usually only congratulated for their enthusiasm. Listen carefully - you'll hear it!

Almost as common as ~bai, this particle is often confused with the question marker ~ka in standardized Japanese. It sounds exactly the same, but is used in a different position. It simply replaces the ~ii in basic adjectives.

Standard Japanese English Saga dialect
Ureshii desu.
Oishii desu.
Hazukashii desu.
I'm happy.
It's delicious.
I'm shy.
Ureshika (desu).
As with casual Japanese, speakers in Saga tend to drop the desu at the end of sentences.

Gabai ~
Often one of the first words learned in Saga-ben, gabai is without a doubt one of the most useful. Its meaning and function are exactly the same as those of totemo (very), and it is used in exactly the same way.

Saga dialect English
Gabai ureshika!
Gabai oishika!
Gabai hazukashika!
I'm so happy!
It's incredibly delicious!
I could just die, I'm so shy! / I'm mortified!

Soigi / Soiginta
Forget sayonara. Nobody says that in Saga, unless perhaps they are leaving for good and feel the need for a formal goodbye - and nobody is that formal in Saga. This is your basic "see you later" and is only rivalled by the increasingly popular bai-bai (Bye-bye) that has become de rigeur with junior high school kids. Again, it's usage is remarkably simple: the person leaving says "Soigi!" and the response: "Soiginta!". Easy.

Perhaps my favourite word in Japanese, period. Yoka is the Saga-ben equivalent to ii, meaning 'good'. The past form is yokatta. Personally, I find it satisfyingly visceral to say, and it is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

Standard Japanese:
Kore wa ii desu.
Kogan* yoka bai!
This is good.
Right on! This rocks!
Standard Japanese:
Sore wa ii deshita.
Sogan* yokatta!
That was good.
That was amazing!
* Kogan and sogan will be discussed in the next section.

A note about hot and cold in Saga
By now I'm sure you're all aware of the Japanese predisposition to comment on the weather and temperature in conversation. It seems you can't sit down in a group without everyone telling you their take on the temperature, and as a result, most foreigners quickly learn the words atsui and samui - 'hot' and 'cold', respectively. As mentioned above, these can be modified with the particle ~ka to transform them into Saga-ben, but this is actually quite uncommon. Atsuka and samuka are generally only used to describe the temperature of things, not the individual. People generally use nukka and hyaka when talking about themselves:

Saga dialect English
Gabai nukka!
Gabai hyaka!
I'm melting! / I'm burning up!
I'm freezing!
It should be noted too that the addition of bai to either of these phrases suggests an extreme approaching the limits of human endurance, and so should be saved for special occasions.

Raising the bar, or your Saga-ben PhD

Having learned the basics, you've gone out into the rice paddies and hot springs, confident in your ability to fit right in with the bartenders, farmers and shopkeepers that populate the countryside. You've noticed how a single gabai can make people that much more open and communicative - but there's still a whole lot that doesn't make any sense. This is where Saga-ben gets challenging. Saga-ben has its own set of rules as far as contractions, linking and omissions are concerned; it has its own vocabulary, and even simple words are often radically different from standardized Japanese. You might be thinking that learning Saga-ben is like learning a whole new language, and that it is simply not worth the effort.
You'd be wrong on both counts.

One of the first things you might have noticed is that no one ever seems to ask any questions in Saga-ben. Everything is a statement and everyone seems supremely confident in what they are saying. Well, it isn't and they aren't - Saga-ben uses a different question marker, that's all.

Standard Japanese:
Nani wo shimasu ka?
Nan(i)* suru to?
What are you doing?
Standard Japanese:
Doko e ikimasu ka?
Doko iku to?
Where are you going?
* Note that nani in Saga-ben is often reduced to nan, and male speakers will often replace it with dogan. (i.e.: The above example would become dogan suru to if a male were speaking.)

Kogan / Sogan
Somewhat less common than dogan, the placement markers kogan and sogan are used in lieu of kore and sore. These are exclusively used by men, and are generally only used in all-male settings. There is no substitution for are, so keep your agan to yourself.

Acknowledgement of fatigue is an important aspect of Japanese culture, whether it be an admission of one's own fatigue or an observation of another's. The sentence otsukaresama deshita (literally: "you must be very tired") is heard everytime someone leaves the office for the day. Other expressions, such as tsukareta (I'm tired) or kitsui (this is tough) can be heard on a daily basis. In Saga-ben these become tsukaretabai and kitsuka (see Saga-ben 101) respectively. Kyaanaita is a declaration of such extreme exhaustion that the suggestion of imminent collapse is inferred. It's interesting to note that the longer you drag out the first aa, the more exhausted you appear to be.

Not to seem overly pessimistic, but being negative in Saga is ridiculously easy. In the present tense, it's simply a matter of changing ~nai to ~n.

Base form Standard Japanese Saga dialect
Taberu (to eat)
Nomu (to drink)
Hanasu (to speak)
See how easy it is? Remember that the irregular verbs suru and kuru maintain their irregular forms to become sen and kon respectively. Negation in the past tense becomes marginally more complex: addition of one of ~nkatta, ~n'yatta or ~n'jatta to the base form of the verb. These endings are basically interchangeable, although you will find that different regions in the prefecture will have a tendency to favour one of the three.

The progressive tense in Saga-ben is somewhat more complex than standard Japanese, as it uses two distinct expressions to differentiate between a continuing action and a result of an action or event, whereas the standard verb~te + iru form relies on context to make this distinction clear. It is also important to note that the dialect replaces the iru with oru (a decidedly immodest form), and subsequently contracts the te oru to simply yoru or you in the first expression. This is one of the major reasons Saga-ben is deemed to have a rough or uncultured tone when compared with other dialects.

Base form Standard Japanese Saga dialect
tabete iru
nomete iru
hanashite iru
tabete oru
nomete oru
hanashite oru
tabeyoru / tabeyou
nomeyoru / nomeyou
hanashiyoru / hanashiyou
When asking a question, the question marker ~to is generally tacked on with a small glottal stop (a small interruption in speech, for those non-linguists out there - just imagine you're adding an extra 't').
Standard Japanese:
Tabete iru no?
Are you eating?
Standard Japanese:
Nani shitte iru no?
Dogan shiyotto?
What are you doing?
The second form of the progressive in Saga-ben, used for expressing a lasting result, combines ~te and oru to produce ~toru or ~tou (not to be confused with the question marker).
Base form Standard Japanese Saga dialect
tabete iru
nomete iru
hanashite iru
tabete oru
nomete oru
hanashite oru
tabetoru / tabetou
nometoru / nometou
hanashitoru / hanashitou
It is this construction that gives us the most widely-known expression in Saga-ben, tottouto. Allow me to explain:
Standard Japanese:
Kono seki totte iru no?
(Kogan seki) tottouto?
Is this seat taken?
If you're still a little confused, perhaps an example might illuminate the difference between the two forms:
Standard Japanese:


Hana no karete iru.

Hana no kareyou bai.

The flowers are withering.
Standard Japanese:


Hana no karete iru kara, mou suteru.

Hana no karetou ken, mou suteru.

The flowers have withered, so I'll throw them away.

Senba ikan
This expression is one of the great time-savers in Saga-ben. It is a remarkably reduced form of shinakereba naranai and is incredibly useful. It takes a little getting used to, as one must first understand the Japanese pattern for expressing obligation, which is rather unique. Standard Japanese uses a negative conditional (e.g.: suru becomes shinakereba) coupled with an auxiliary meaning 'wrong' or 'not done' (e.g.: ikenai or naranai). This might sound a little grammar intensive, but all you really have to remember is that the negative conditional in Saga is ~nba. That's it.

Standard Japanese:
Iku becomes ikenakereba
Iku becomes ikanba
If you will not go
Standard Japanese:
Suru becomes shinakereba
Suru becomes senba
If you will not do
So far so good - next comes the prohibition, which in Saga is always the reduced form of ikenai, ikan. In fact, speakers will quite often omit the prohibition, as a simple senba is enough to confer the meaning. Try it out in class, you'll be very pleased with the results:
Standard Japanese:
Benkyo wo shinakereba naranai.
Benkyo senba!
You must study.
Get to work!
One final - and very colourful - variation is the Saga-ben version of ganbatte kudasai (please try). Folks in Saga don't ask people to try hard, they tell them to! "Ganbaranba!" (Do it!)

The end, or mou yoka bai

I'd like to tell you that this is it; that you're ready to sit down in an izakaya and prattle away with a bunch of good old boys like a native Sagan, but that would be lying. You will certainly dazzle the local population with your new-found skills, but true Saga-ben fluency can only come through constant practice and effort. It's a worthy endeavour, make no mistake - your students and co-workers will undoubtedly appreciate your efforts, and you'll find them more than eager to teach you all sorts of new colloquialisms and vocabulary in the months to come.

A Dr. J Manifestation 2000-2004
Hit me.

Dr. J

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