What are differences and when to use them?
見[み]える、 聞[き]こえる and 見[み]られる cause a lot of confusion for Japanese learners, so much that many are left not understanding the uses for years.
In this post, I wanted to show the uses of those verbs and their brief history.
A long, long time ago, before what we call a potential form of verb emerged, in the Nara period, there were auxiliary verbs ゆ and らゆ.
As classical Japanese didn’t have an independent form for potential, the auxiliary ゆ was used instead to express:
– potential (but only in negative sentences!)
– spontaneous (something is happening spontaneously, regardless of the will or effort of the speaker – “naturally”, “cannot help but”)
It was added to 未然形 (the form that is followed by a negative form like 聞（き）く→ 聞か)
|未然形（imperfective form (things that not happened), nai stem) （みぜんけい）||え|
|連用形(conjunctive form (connects), masu stem)（れんようけい）||え|
|終止形(predicative form, ending form)（しゅうしけい）||ゆ|
|連体形(attributive form, noun modifying form)（れんたいけい）||ゆる|
|已然形(realis form (thing that happened, used with ば and ども as in けれども)（いぜんけい）||ゆれ|
|命令形(imperative form) used for orders （めいれいけい）||ー|
見ゆ、消ゆ、聞かゆ (which later became 聞こゆ). Do you see some similarities between the verbs at the topic and the verb 消[き]える？)
That’s right, those later evolved to the intransitive verbs (verbs that do not require direct objects, the acction happens by itself. It is raining.) 見える、消える and 聞こえる we know (and many don’t like) today and all of them are examples of the third use of ゆ, that is an action that happens spontaneously.
The sound changes:
⟨kika yu⟩ → ⟨kikoyu⟩ → /kikoju/ → /kikojeru/ → /kikoeru/
Eventually, in the Heian period, the ゆ was replaced with る and らる auxiliaries, though some remnants remained as set expressions like いわゆる (“so called” – 言わ, 未然形 of 言う + ゆる the noun modifying the form of ゆ). The る and らる evolved to modern passive and potential forms.
She is so called aristocrat.
Ok, so let’s move to the 見える and 聞こえる and as you will see, they simply have all the functions the original ゆ auxiliary had.
As for 見える:
– to be seen, to be found (not common in modern Japanese, passive function of ゆ)
– having the ability to see (potential function of ゆ) in context of sight being functional or not
猫[ねこ]は 暗[くら]いところでも 目[め]が 見[み]える。
Cats can see even in dark places.
目[め]が 見[み]えない 人[ひと]の 聴力[ちょうりょく]は 鋭敏[えいびん]な 場合[ばあい]が 多[おお]い。A blind person’s hearing is often very acute.
– to be (spontaneously) visible (spontaneous function of ゆ and the cause of all the problems)
左端[ひだりはし]に 富士山[ふじさん]が 見[み]える。
Mount Fuji is visible on the left. (The mount Fuji is naturally, spontaneously visible on the left. Mount Fuji cannot be helped but seen on the left.)
– to seem, to look (a certain way), to appear (passive function, usually following adverbs)
The cloud looks like an octopus.
As for the 聞こえる:
– to be heard/to be audible (spontaneous function of ゆ)
潮騒[しおさい]が 聞[き]こえるくらい 近[ちか]くに 生[い]きよう。
Let’s live so close that we can hear the waves (so close that we can hear them without active effort)
蝉[せみ]の 鳴き声[なきごえ]だけが 聞[き]こえる。
I can hear only the droning of cicadas.
– sound, be taken as (give someone a certain impression from hearing, the passive function of ゆ)
It sounds like a horror movie. (You make it sound like a horror movie)
– ability to hear (potential) in context of hearing being functional or not
「西山[にしやま]さんは 生[う]まれつき 耳[みみ]が 聞[き]こえないんです。」
‘Nishiyama has been deaf since birth.’ (though 耳が不自由です is more polite!)
The 見られる and 聞ける which are the potential forms are used when a conscious effort is needed to see something or to hear something, unlike 見える in 聞こえる where no effort is needed and something is unavoidable to be hard or to be seen.
Mount Fuji is very big, so it can be clearly seen even from far. (no effort is needed)
「 富士山[ふじさん]はとても 大[おお]きいから 遠[とお]くからよく 見[み]られる！」
If the condition is good, you can see mount Fuji with binoculars. (active effort is needed).
Due to the effort needed, 見られる is sometimes translated as ‘it can be observed that in context of observing trends and the like.
聞こえますか？ Can you hear me? (can you hear me without any effort?)
あの 店[みせ]に 行[い]くと、おもしろい 話[はなし]が 聞[き]ける。
If you go to that shop you can hear some interesting stories.
There are also sentences that can be used with different nuances.
絵[え]の 中[なか]には 幽霊[ゆうれい]のような 姿[すがた]が 見[み]られる。
The ghostly figure can be seen in the painting (likely is very small, and you need a lot of effort or imagination to see it)
絵[え]の 中[なか]には 幽霊[ゆうれい]のような 姿[すがた]が 見[み]える。
A ghostly figure is visible in the photo. (Big and easily seen ghostly figure)
You can hear the bugs (if you focus).
The bugs are audible. (can be heard without any effort).
聞こえる and 見える are intransitive counterparts of 聞く and 見る.
They are used when:
– something can be heard or seen without any active effort
– when talking about sense of sight/hearing being functional or not
– when something gives a certain impression from sight or hearing
見られる and 聞ける are used in all other cases and are potential forms of 聞く and 見る:
– for example when active effort is needed to do something
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I am mrnoone, and this was briefjapanese.