Translation:I do not eat meat.
If only it were that simple, but for this occasion, that's correct. は pronounced 'wa' (because historically the kana had that sound but pronunciation altered everywhere else) is the 'topic marker'; it introduces something as being what is generally being talked about, including allowing changing the topic from what was just being talked about.
が is usually called the 'subject marker'; it specifically identifies something as the thing doing the verb. Including selecting that thing from amongst several possible options introduced as the topic.
を is generally called the 'object marker' or 'direct object marker'; it identifies the thing the verb is acting on, and only applies to transitive verbs. It's pronounced 'o' for a similar reason to the topic marker; the kana is actually 'wo' but there is no 'wo' sound in modern Japanese.
So, Xは means "As for X", basically. Xが is "X (as opposed to anything else)". Xを is "done to X".
In the example here, you can read にくは as "Regarding meat", and parse the entire sentence more naturally as "I don't eat meat" (as in, meat, in general, not a specific piece of meat). にくを in place of the above would make the sentence translate most naturally as "I'm not going to eat the meat".
You're right and wrong... The は makes it into a generalized statement, but with を it would equate to being in the near future (most often as an immediate action).
パンを食べます → I will eat bread. パンは食べます → I eat bread.
The sentences are essentially laid out in the same manner as when you would say that you breathe:
I will take a breath. I breathe... regularly.
However, with that all being said, it is true that a lot of Japanese sentence meaning are dependent upon which parts are emphasized, but that's true of any language.
(For some reason I can't reply to your comment...) The tense does come from the verb endings, but the meaning of the sentence changes depending on the particles used. Ex: I walked [to] the dog. I walked [on] the dog. I walked [for] the dog.
All three are past tense, but they have completely different meanings. The particles used changed the meaning of each sentence.
Using は wouldn't eliminate it from being a future action, but it is more of a "I don't really do this type of thing..." kind of feel. は marks the topic of your sentences, but makes it more of a generalized statement meaning that "I do/do not [make it a practice to] verb," if used directly before the verb. To be more specific about when someone does something, they use を to say that they WILL do something, typically with the implication of the action being in the immediate future. The を marks a direct object that will be acted upon, whether it be right now, sometime in the past or a few minutes in the future.
If anyone wants more info, look it up in A Basic Dictionary of Japanese Grammar by The Japan Times (it's a yellow book). That's a fantastic resource for all the basic grammar that anyone needs in order to hold comfortable conversation with people.
Doesn't the tense come from the verb, not from the particles?
Both sentences have verbs in the non-past form, so either one could mean a habitual action or a future action. I don't see how using は would eliminate the possibility of this sentence describing a future action.
Maybe I'm missing something obvious.
は and を(or が) never, never, never imply whether an object is specific or general, as in I do not eat meat in general vs I do not eat that specific piece of meat. (I think the spreading rumor starts here...)
は is used solely for bringing up the topic to make a contrast to other food. 肉は食べません - as for meat, I do not eat. (But I do eat some other stuff) vs 肉を食べません - I do not eat meat. (plain sentence, no contrast to other stuff)
There is an excellent discussion to this via this link
As for speaking about a general meat or specific meat, Japanese often use "その" to represent a specific object that has been discussed before.
肉を食べません (I do not eat meat in general) vs その肉を食べません (I do not eat that specific meat)
How would you say that you don't eat meat (in general) vs you won't eat meat (this time)? What's the difference?
When you said that the を means you "do not eat meat," that's saying that, in general, you don't eat meat (as in, you're a vegetarian of sorts). That's a little different than what all my Japanese friends and my Japanese professor told me. When you use を, it means that you "will not (in the immediate future/in a specific instance). When you use は, just as you said, it means you "don't eat meat (in general), but you eat other things."
"Wo" would be valid if it said it in a certain contex that implies a specific peice of meat, this is because "wa" is a general topic particle and "wo" is an objectifying particle, so if your talking about a specifc object wo is more appropriate but if you are talking about a general subject wa would be the correct particle, so they were right to use "wa" becajse nothing in the phrase implied a specifc object and it was more or less a generalized statement.
Just be aware that many Japanese people do not classify fish and "meat" together. So you would need to also let them know that fish was off the menu, if you are vegetarian or vegan.
If you are wondering why fish are not meat, it very likely relates back to Buddist religious restrictions regarding meat. By placing fish in a seperate class, people could eat it even when other meats were not allowed.
No, chotto literally means "a little" or "slightly". It can be used to describe a small physical quantity or small amount of time, among other things. When used with a negative verb it means something like "very" or "not a little" or "not slightly".
"In a jiffy" or "In a short amount of time" 「ちょっと見る」
To take a glance (at).
Beyond this direct usage, it is commonly used for polite rejections in Japanese. For example:
Person 1: 土曜日に食べませんか？
"Want to go out to eat on Saturday?"
Person 2: えと, 土曜日はちょっと。。。
"Ummm, Saturday is a little ... "
The rest of the sentence is left hanging but the implication is that Saturday doesn't work for some reason ... it is a little inconvenient or a little too busy or whatever. Rather than making an outright rejection, "No, I'm busy on Saturday." or even "No I don't want to."
In this case, if you are served a meat dish by your host, but you are a vegetarian, you might say "えと, にくはちょっと。。。(As for meat, it is a little ... umm ...) then ask if they have a vegetable option, rather than bluntly stating 肉は食べません (As for meat, I do not eat it.)
Aye, it actually does. This sentence is 肉は "as for meat", 食べません "it is not eaten", with "by me" implied.
Edit: to expand on that a little, your translation implies a specific piece of meat that is not being eaten (for whatever reason), for which the Japanese sentence would become 肉を食べません。
Because honorifics are mostly only used in certain situations. Although this is "polite language" as evidenced by ません, you'd normally only use 御・お・ご in a situation where honorific & humble language were being used. Although, some foods, especially, have become essentially set phrases with the honorific attached; (cooked) rice is actually はん at the most basic etymological level, but the honorific ご has become pretty much permanently attached to make it 御飯・ごはん.
If you're curious, the kanji is 御 and the pronunciation is determined by whether it is a Japanese word or an imported Chinese word; お・ご. These days, the kanji is used a lot less, so you tend to see just the kana attached to the front of the kanji, and some words are mostly written only in kana.
I don't think that is true. Grammatically, the negative is associated with the verb "to eat" not with the noun "meat". From a strictly grammatical sense, this is "Meat not eat." or "As for meat (I) do not/will not eat (it)." The subject and direct object are implied by context, but the key point is that it is the action (to eat vs to not eat) not the noun (meat vs no meat) which is being negated.
Little cultural sidenote: I found this extremely difficult in Kyoto! Even though Japanese cuisine consists almost soley out of vegetables, rice and fish, pretty much every food place struggles to actually serve vegetarian. Every night out with the vegetarian student was an adventure to say! (I mostly cooked at the dorm, screw that!)
Japanese doesn't really use pronouns that much. So if you want to specify, you would say something like "As for John, (he) does not eat meat" ジョンは肉を食べません
Or if it is clear that you are taking about John, just 肉を食べません "(He) will not/does not eat meat". Or if it is clear that you are talking about John, but you want to emphasize that MEAT is the thing that he doesn't eat, you would use the same sentence as in this example. 肉は食べません "As for meat, (he) does not eat (it)."
The subject is implied by context. The default subject is the speaker, but if it makes sense for the subject to be someone other than the speaker, you don't have to change what you say, since the subject was never stated in the first place.
So nothing needs to change, as long as it is clear. If it is not clear, Japanese prefers introducing this information as a topic using は and continuing to leave the actual grammatical subject implied. Notice that in the final sentence, both the grammatical subject AND the object of the sentence are implied. Niku (meat) is the topic and tabemasen (will not eat) is the verb. But the subject marker and object marker are absent.
For those who are learning Chinese, it is not so difficult to understand such illogical expressions. The Chinese sentence in this case would be '肉不能食(吃)', literally meaning: 'The meat cannot eat'. In this, the subject is 肉 (niku, meat) and the real subject is only implied. Regardless of the context, the meaning of this sentence can be 'the meat is unsuitable for eating' in the general sense, 'I don't eat meat'—I am a vegetarian, or 'I will not eat THIS meat'. The logic for both Chinese and Japanese is quite different from the Western ones. The idea of GRAMMAR has been a new concept introduced to the Far East since around the 17th century. We shall always keep this in mind.