"Steak the First"

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Enlightening article by Peter Backhaus in The Japan Times (6/9/23):

"Za grammar notes: How to properly handle the 'the' in Japanese"

Japanese seems to be able to assimilate any English word, including the ubiquitous definite article "the", which is unlike anything in Japanese itself.

If there’s something like a Murphy’s Law for syntax, the name of this restaurant near my school is a pretty good example of it. Reading “Steak The First,” it always makes me wonder how these three words came to be aligned in just that order. “The first steak,” “first the steak,” “the steak first” — all of these seem safe for consumption. But “steak the first”?

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to appreciate the very specific way the little word “the” is used in Japanese, where it is normally pronounced ザ (za). Note that the reading may change to ジ (ji) when the following word starts with a vowel, as in the name of the invincible Japanese rock band The Alfee, which officially reads ジ・アルフィー (ji arufī).

But since Japanese is a language that normally gets along perfectly well without articles, it’s a bit challenging to understand what use it can make of ザ in the first place. Even more puzzling is that, more often than not, ザ shows up in places where English syntax wouldn’t want you to put an article at all.

Take the police campaign slogan ストップ・ザ・交通事故 (sutoppu za kōtsū jiko), which best translates as “Stop traffic accidents,” rather than “Stop ‘the’ traffic accidents.” So what exactly is ザ doing here?

ザ specialist Ayako Kajiwara, a linguist at Nagoya University, has collected a larger number of ザ expressions to flesh out the underlying rules of usage. One of the chief functions she identifies for ザ is to spotlight some sort of prototypicality in the word it is paired up with.

Take the phrase ザ・月曜日 (za getsuyōbi, “the” Monday). When someone says this to you, they do not simply want to inform you about the day of the week. What this means is it’s one of those miserable, most Monday-like Monday mornings that really have it in for you. Think sick kids, torrential rainfalls, train delays, etc.

Another example, from my own collection of ザ cases: A Japanese friend who had just changed jobs complained to me that the new work environment was really ザ・会社 (za kaisha, “the” company). Which was to say it was full of red tape, opaque procedures, cemented hierarchies and everything else one commonly associates with the unpleasant aspects of corporate life.

The stereotyping capacities of ザ also come to the fore when pigeonholing people. ザ・お嬢様 (Za o-jōsama, “The” Miss Princess), for instance, can be used to characterize someone who’s perceived as excessively posh, and ザ・サラリーマン (za sararīman, “the” salaryman) is for people who are, well, extraordinarily ordinarily salaryman-like.

But ザ also does a great job in extracting positive stereotypes. Two examples from Kajiwara’s data are ザ・トマト (za tomato, “the” tomato) and ザ・和食 (za washoku, “the” Japanese cuisine). The first one designates a particularly “tomatoic” specimen of the fruit, in terms of color, taste, juiciness, what have you, while the second evokes a textbook example of a classic Japanese meal. The washoku that out-washokus all others.

ザ’s power to highlight positive attributes may also be a factor in its frequent occurrence in commercial contexts, where we find (mostly romanized) phrases like “The Bargain” or “The Price Down.” And ザ also goes with adjectives, as in “The Strong,” which is a sparkling water brand, or “The Main,” referring to the central part of a well-known hotel complex in inner-city Tokyo. Seen in this light, our “Steak The First” from the opening now starts to make some sense, too.

Strange as it may seem, these ways of using ザ are not wholly a “made in Japan” thing. If we think of phrases like “play ‘the’ harp” (which one?) or “feed ‘the’ pigeons” (all of them?), we can see that the definite article in English often does remotely similar things. The resemblances become even stronger when we add denominations for people, such as “the” Celts or “the” Kardashians, and utterances like “How’s the wife?” or, quoting a former U.S. president, “It’s usually fun being The Donald.”

This goes to show that in English, too, the article can be manipulated to some extent. After all, the Beatles are technically just “Beatles” but who in their right mind would ever refer to them without a “the” in front. And what the Beatles can do, The Alfee can, too.

What “the” Japanese did, then, when importing the article, was not inventing something entirely new, but stripping it down to one or two of a greater number of tasks that the word normally does in English. We know this process of semantic narrowing, as it is called, from tons of imports of lexical items, such as ライス (raisu, rice), which refers only to cooked rice on flat plates, and ミルク (miruku, milk), normally meaning condensed milk only.

The difference, and what perhaps makes this all a bit more difficult to swallow, is that in the case of ザ, we are witnessing the semantic narrowing of an expression originally from the domain of grammar, and thus somewhat closer to the heart. But there’s nothing the Japanese language can’t swallow when eating its way through the English language. Not even the “the.”

Per Wikipedia:

Japanese has no grammatical gender, number, or articles; though the demonstrative sono (その, "that, those"), is often translatable as "the". Thus, linguists agree that Japanese nouns are noninflecting: neko () can be translated as "cat", "cats", "a cat", "the cat", "some cats" and so forth, depending on context

Japanese may not have a definite article in its regular grammar, but it has one of sorts in its irregular grammar, since I would like to call the "za" we've been examining in this post a "hyperdefinite article".

The quintessential tomato, the ultimate salaryman, Japanese cuisine par excellence, the steak….

Before Backhaus's entertaining and informative article (not the grammatical one!), I never would have imagined that that little, triliteral, seemingly innocuous "the / za" could do so many things.


Selected readings

[h.t. James-Henry Holland, June Teufel Dreyer, Don Keyser]


  1. Scott P. said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 5:00 pm

    So 'sono' for Japanese is like 'ille' for Latin?

  2. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 5:53 pm

    I’m reminded of THE Ohio State University. Distinguishing it from all the other OSUs I suppose. And that Americans go to church, but (unlike Britons) to the hospital.

  3. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 6:16 pm

    Maybe it is and honorific title, like Richard I, "Richard the First."

  4. JPL said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 7:18 pm

    So the Japanese morpheme 'ザ' does not indicate a type of reference relation with nominals, as in English, but rather indicates that the referent of the nominal (or adjectival?) expression it's associated with has a property that is central or "definitional" for that category. Would that be an accurate description? I wouldn't want to say that the meaning of the English "definite article" is being "narrowed"; rather the borrowing seems to be filling a gap in Japanese grammar, and one of the possible senses of the English morpheme has been selected. (E.g., in addition to the ones in the OP, "He's always the impresario", "You're the cat's meow" or "You're the top", as in the Cole Porter song.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    June 10, 2023 @ 8:44 pm

    We've had an entry for ザ in the JMdict dictionary for quite a few years. It's been given two sense: one for the transliteration of "the" and the other for its application to Japanese terms. See it at: https://jisho.org/search/%E3%82%B6

    The Kenkyisha ルミナス和英辞典 has an entry also, with the following explanation:
    【日英比較】 1980 年代から日本語の名詞, とくにラジオ・テレビ番組・映画題名や会・催しものなどの固有名詞に英語から借用した「ザ」を付ける一種の流行が始まった(例: ザ・ヤクザ, ザ・ワイド, ザ・アニメなど). このような「ザ」は日本語の構造上からは付ける必要性は全くないもので, 「特別の」などの意味を加え, 国際感を出すための流行語と見てよい. また, 上の第 3 例のように次に母音が続く場合も「ジ」とはしない. 英語に直す場合は the とすると意味不明になることが多く, ‘za waido' などのようにローマ字書きすればよい. ただし第 1 例の「ザ・ヤクザ」はアメリカ映画の題名にも使われたもので, そのような場合は the yakuza のようにするのがよい.
    Google Translate:
    [Comparison between Japanese and English] Since the 1980s, there has been a trend of adding "za" borrowed from English to Japanese nouns, especially proper nouns such as the titles of radio, television programs, movies, meetings, and events. ・Yakuza, The Wide, The Anime, etc.). Also, as in the third example above, when a vowel follows the next vowel, "ji" is not used. za waido', etc. However, "The Yakuza" in the first example was also used as the title of an American movie, so in such a case it would be better to write it like "the yakuza." .

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 4:12 am

    Is "feed the pigeons" really an example of something similar? Doesn't it just tell you the speaker has a more-or-less definite set of pigeons in mind, namely those frequenting the place where the feeding is to take place?

  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 8:07 am

    To my mind "feed the pigeons" and "go to the hospital" both convey the same implication, that the speaker has a particular {set of pigeons | hospital} in mind. Unlike Jonathan, I believe (as a Briton) that Britons speak both of "going to the church" (e.g., to be married) and "going to church" (i.e., to pray) as well as "go to hospital" (usually in the past tense — "he had to go to hospital") as well as "go to the hospital" (for a specific appointment, etc.).

  8. John J Chew said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 12:35 pm

    Scott: "sono" in Japanese corresponds to "iste" in Latin in that they both refer to the second person, but without the pejorative connotation that "iste" has in Latin.

    And for completeness' sake, "kono" is "hīc/haec/hōc" and "ano" is "ille/illa/illud", and "ano" can be mildly pejorative as in English "*that* guy". Unless you're talking about nouns and not adjectives, in which case use "kore", "sore" and "are".

  9. Laura Morland said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 12:47 pm

    Just chiming as an AE speaker to confirm that "go to the hospital" does NOT convey the meaning of a specific hospital in American English. If I were to hear the story of someone suffering an injury, my first question would be, "Did he go to the hospital?" Even though I would have no idea which hospital might be involved.

    On the other hand, regarding the definite article in "feed the birds/pigeons" I tend to agree with Andreas Johansson. Here's an imaginary conversation:

    -"What did you today?" -"Oh, I went for a walk in a park and fed the birds."

    A native speaker would never say, "… and I fed birds."

  10. Ethan said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 1:29 pm

    But none of this explication of Japanese usage of "the"->ざ seems to cover "Steak The First". The Japan Times article never gets back to that first example either.

  11. Coby said,

    June 11, 2023 @ 10:28 pm

    In American English, when "the" is used to emphasize, it is usually pronounced "thee" rather than "thuh". I remember a time when the position at UC Berkeley that is now called Executive Vice Chancellor was called The Vice Chancellor, and at an Academic Senate meeting the holder of the position was introduced as "the The ('thuh thee') Vice Chancellor".

  12. Philip Anderson said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 2:55 pm

    I would use the “thee” pronunciation in British English, but not for all emphasis; to me it implies some uniqueness or preeminence.

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