LINGUIST List 14.2769

Tue Oct 14 2003

Review: Lang Description/Japanese: Iwasaki (2002)

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

What follows is a review or discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for review." Then contact Simin Karimi at


  1. Richard Zuber, Japanese

Message 1: Japanese

Date: Mon, 13 Oct 2003 11:29:19 +0000
From: Richard Zuber <>
Subject: Japanese

Iwasaki, Shoichi (2002) Japanese, John Benjamins Publishing Company,
London Oriental and African Language Library

Announced at

Richard Zuber, CNRS, Paris

The book under review appeared in the series of London Oriental and
African Language Library. It contains 360 pages consisting of 14
chapters with the following headings:

1. Overview
2. Writing System[s]
3. Sounds
4. Words
5. Morphology
6. Argument Structures
7. Tense and Aspect
8. Grammatical Constructions
9. Noun Phrases Structures
10. Embedding
11. Information Structure and the Sentence Form
12. Discourse and Grammar
13. Pragmatics and Grammar
14. Sample Texts

The aim of the London Oriental and African Language Library is to make
available a series of reliable and up-to-date descriptions of the
grammatical structure of major Oriental and African languages, in a
form accessible to non-specialists. Following the policy of the
series[,] the language material in the book is in roman script, with
full glosses and translations. Of course, concerning Japanese this is
in some sense natural since 'romani' the traditional system of
''writing'' Japanese in roman script, is a way of rendering a rather
complicated and rich Japanese writing system in a way which makes it
more accessible in the early stages of language learning for
foreigners. The system of Romanisation used in the book is a modified
Hepburn system, which is by now a classical way of ''writing''
Japanese in 'romaji' The resulting Roman script allows the reader to
understand most examples without entering into the details of the
modification. It is a pity, however, that other ''real Japanese''
writing systems are not used in the book. This could be done at least
in the last chapter where different samples of texts illustrating
various grammatical structures described in the book are given. In
this case, the use of 'kanji' , i.e. the Chinese characters, with both
syllabaries, 'hiragana' and 'katakana', in addition to 'romaji' would
be very appropriate.

As the above list of contents indicates, the book covers a very wide
range of linguistic material and presents extensively basic
grammatical constructions of Japanese. They are well illustrated by
many examples[,] most of which are invented. So in that sense, one can
say that it gives an up-to-date and living description of Japanese
profitable for non-specialists of Japanese. Given this general purpose
of the book and a great variety of grammatical material that it
covers, it is obviously not difficult to find various points which may
be criticized. I will make basically only general remarks and very few
more specific ones.

The book is supposed to be a theory-neutral introduction to current
linguistic research on Japanese. Probably there is a sense in which
one can say that one is theoretically neutral in linguistic
description but in this case I do not think that this means that one
can ignore the difference between syntax and semantics or use vague
expressions, sloppy and useless definitions or unverifiable
statements. My impression is that it happens very often in the
book. Thus we find : ''The common nouns refer to physical entities or
abstract concepts'' (p. 33), ''Adjectives describe the state that an
entity is in'' (p.37), ''Adverbs are non-inflecting words whose
function is to modify verbs, adjectives, nominal adjectives, other
adverbs as well as sentences'' (p.40), ''Interrogative nouns: This
type of noun takes the place of a noun whose identity is unknown
(p. 35), ''quantifiers and classifiers ''enumerate'' objects (p. 52),
''transitive event'' (p. 125), ''reciprocal events'' (p. 160),
''transitive situations'' (p. 163). Similarly, when trying to explain
indirect passive with intransitive verbs, a peculiarity of Japanese,
the author says (p. 133) ''The indirect passive depicts some
psychological impact, usually identified as ''(psychological)
adversity''[...]. The degree of psychological adversity increases
counter-proportionally to the degree of psychological involvement of
the referent of the passive subject in the event depicted''.

Professional linguists, representing great part of potential readers
of the book, do not need to be reminded what an adjective or an adverb
is and other readers surely will not learn much from such definitions
and descriptions.

More perplexity causes the affirmation that there is no
countable-uncountable distinction (among common nouns, p.33). I take
it that the author has in mind the distinction sometimes referred to
as ''mass-count'' distinction. It is not clear whether any language
makes such a distinction formally in its common nouns
vocabulary. Usually it is made indirectly by the distinction of two
types of determiners (in English many vs much) or by the impossibility
of applying numerals to mass terms or making natural plurals from mass
terms. Since Japanese does not have a grammatical plural this last
criterion cannot be used. It is also true that the determiner/modifier
'takusan' can be translated by ''much'' and ''many'' (as 'sushi' can
mean ''little'' and ''few''). We observe, however, that other
determiners are not ambiguous in that way. For instance ' shooryoo' (a
small amount) can apply only to mass terms. For many speakers this is
also true with 'tairryoo' (a large amount). More importantly, Japanese
is known to have a number of classifiers. Among them the author
distinguishes (p. 53) 'quantifiers' (a very inappropriate term, I
believe). Among quantifiers we have for instance ' hai' (cups of),
'hon' (bottles of) 'saji' (spoonful of), etc. So the distinction
between, on the one hand, classifiers used to count specifically
pre-classified objects, denoted by count terms exclusively, and, on
the other hand, 'quantifiers' (in the author's terminology) used
precisely in connection with mass terms, indicates that the
distinction count-mass must exist in Japanese as well. Concerning
classifiers more generally it is a pity that nothing is said in this
context about their relationship with pluralities, reciprocity,
distributivity, group formation, etc.

For reasons of personal interest, I had a longer look at those parts
of the book which concern conditionals and related constructions. They
are essentially treated in chapter 12, devoted to discourse and
grammar. The difficult topic of ''pure conditionals'' is well treated
even though more examples would be useful. Concerning the concessive
conditionals I have the following remark. The author indicates that
the '-te' verbal form followed by the particle 'mo' (also) indicates
the the concessive conditional (''even if''). This is true (for more
on this see Fuji Yamaguchi 1989, 1990). The question we would like to
have answered, however, is why we use in this case the particle 'mo'
and not 'sae' usually meaning ''even''. This is important because on
the one hand we have also conditionals of the type ''Also if'' and, on
the other hand, we find that 'sae' when following a noun means ''only
if'' in the context of the verb in the 'ba' form. It can also mean
''if only'' after a verb with 'sureba'.

To conclude I want to say something about the bibliography. It
includes basic references in English and many in Japanese, although
none in other languages. It is a pity that many publications to which
reference is made in the body of the book do not figure in the
bibliography at the end. This is the case for instance with
Nishigauchi 1992 or Shibatani 1991 (p. 218). Furthermore, I am
surprised that no work of Ogihara is mentioned. It also seems to me
that Kuroda 1979 should be included in the bibliography.


Fuji Yamaguchi, S. (1989) Concessive Conditionals In Japanese: A
Pragmatic Analysis of the S1-TEMO S2 construction, Proc. of the 15th
annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistic Society, 291-302

Fuji Yamaguchi, S. (1990) Counterfactual Concessive Conditionals in
Japanese, in Hoji, H. (ed.) Japanese-Korean Linguistics, CSLI, 353-367

Kuroda, S-Y. (1979) The semantics of the Japanese topic marker wa,
Lingvisticae Investigationes III:1, 75-85


Richard Zuber studied mathematics, philosophy and linguistics. At
present he is a senior research fellow at the National Center for the
Scientific Research in Paris.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue