LINGUIST List 32.3562

Tue Nov 09 2021

Review: Japanese; Pragmatics; Semantics; Syntax: Nakagawa (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 25-Aug-2021
From: Jeff Peterson <>
Subject: Information structure in spoken Japanese
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Natsuko Nakagawa
TITLE: Information structure in spoken Japanese
SUBTITLE: Particles, word order, and intonation
SERIES TITLE: Topics at the Grammar-Discourse Interface
PUBLISHER: Language Science Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Jeff Peterson, Brigham Young University


“Information structure in spoken Japanese: Particles, word order, and intonation” by Natsuko Nakagawa is the eighth volume in the series Topics at the Grammar-Discourse Interface. This 318-page text comprising eight chapters is intended for traditional or theoretical Japanese linguists as well as for researchers interested in methods for investigating relationships between information structure and linguistic forms in other languages using corpora. The following is a summary of the book’s purpose and contents.

The main goal of “Information structure in spoken Japanese” is to investigate the relationship between information structure and linguistic forms in spoken Japanese. Specifically, the text explores three linguistic forms: a) particles, b) word order, and c) intonation. The text further aims to provide a unified account of word order and to use both topic and focus perspectives to discuss intonation. With these goals in mind, Nakagawa aims to answer the book’s main research question: How does language usage related to information structure affect these three linguistic forms in Japanese?

In her book, Nakagawa provides a rigorous overview of the current state of research on topics and foci in Japanese, as well as a deep dive into the characteristics of spoken Japanese related to particles, word order, and intonation. This overview provides definitions of notions associated with topic and focus previously defined in the research, as well as Nakagawa’s assumptions and definitions of these and other terms relevant to information structure. Among these definitions, Nakagawa also identifies and addresses many points of controversy among researchers in the field, as well as the disunity of different frameworks for investigating information structure. Topic, focus, and the characteristics of Japanese are contextualized using key research articles by Matsushita (1928), Kuno (1972), Reinhart (1981), and Rooth (1985), among many others. Much of what has been investigated previously was focused on written Japanese, whereas Nakagawa explores the relation between spoken Japanese and information structure. Nakagawa argues that because of the points of controversy between researchers, methodological issues in previous studies, and a focus on written Japanese, natural (spoken) data are necessary to support previous research claims.

To shore up previous methodological issues, Nakagawa proposes an analytical framework to conduct a unified investigation of the phenomena related to information structure and linguistic forms in spoken Japanese. She collects data using production experiments with Japanese native speakers and simulated public speaking from the Corpus of Spontaneous Japanese. To determine the topics and foci of the data collected, as well as other characteristics of Japanese and their relation to information structure, she employs acceptability and grammaticality judgments, analysis of native speaker production based on different contexts, and corpus annotation and analysis.

In Chapter 4 Nakagawa discusses the distribution of topic markers and case markers. Nakagawa finds that topic markers are sensitive to the given-new taxonomy proposed by Prince (1981) and gives a detailed account of how toiuno-wa, wa, copula followed by ga or kedo (COP-kedo/ga), and topic-coding zero particles (Øt) code for elements within the taxonomy. In general, toiuno-wa codes evoked elements, wa codes evoked and inferable elements, COP-kedo/ga codes declining and unused elements, and Øt can code for any of these elements. Based on her findings on topic particles, Nakagawa argues that the adjacency of the elements within the taxonomy are cognitively motivated and that this is universal. She also suggests the existence of a “strongly evoked” status of elements, splitting the evoked category into two, which can also be coded by toiuno-wa, wa, and Øt, as well as by zero or overt pronouns. Regarding case markers, Nakagawa found that particles such as ga, o, and focus-coding zero particles (Øf) are sensitive to focushood and grammatical function. She gives a detailed analysis of the distribution of these case particles and argues that among focus elements, patient elements are more frequent and tend to be coded by Øf more than agent elements are.

Chapter 5 continues the discussion on information structure with a focus on its association with word order. Nakagawa’s statistical findings indicate that shared elements or topical NPs tend to appear clause-initially, supporting the classic from-old-to-new principle. She finds that persistent elements (i.e., elements whose referent is mentioned in the following discourse) and elements coded by topic markers are likely to appear clause-initially. However, clause-initial topics are not always coded by topic markers and word order is independent of topic marking. Results also show that strongly evoked topical NPs are found post-predicatively. Nakagawa argues that because Japanese intonation units (IUs) begin with a high F0 peak and decline toward the end, these strongly evoked elements (with low activation cost) tend to appear post-predicatively. She also suggests that post-predicate elements have an interactional function similar to interactional particles like ne and sa. Finally, Nakagawa finds that new elements or focal NPs appear immediately before the predicate. Based on her findings and to explain why some word orders are not acceptable, she proposes the Information-structure Continuity Principle that suggests “elements which belong to the same [topical or focal] unit are adjacent to each other” (p. 160) and the Persistent-element-first Principle, which states that persistent elements come first and non-persistent elements come last in languages with relatively free word order.

Chapter 6 focuses on the third form under consideration, i.e., intonation. Nakagawa approaches intonation with a perspective on both topic and focus NPs. She finds that IUs correspond to a unit of processing, the form of which is influenced by information structure. Specifically, she finds that evoked, inferable, declining, and unused topics are produced in separate IUs from the predicate, whereas strongly evoked topics and foci are produced in an IU with the predicate. Based on her findings she proposes some principles to determine IUs, e.g., the iconic principle of intonation unit and information structure, and the principle of intonation unit and activation cost.

Chapter 7 summarizes the studies outlined in chapters 4–6 and provides a thought-provoking discussion of languages that grammaticalize tendencies in the study, as well as hard and soft constraints. Chapter 8 provides concluding thoughts, implications, and future suggestions.


“Information structure in spoken Japanese: Particles, word order, and intonation” provides new insights into the association of information structure and linguistic forms. Readers with a background in Japanese linguistics or information structure as well as those new to this field of research will find the rigorous overview helpful in contextualizing Nakagawa’s research questions and methods.

One reason why this book is particularly vital to the field is the lack of research on spoken Japanese and the lack of a unified account of linguistic forms. Most previous research has investigated information structure in written Japanese using different frameworks. Through the examples provided by Nakagawa, this book notes the important difference between written and spoken Japanese and its association with information structure. The study presented in this book benefits the field by taking advantage of speech corpora to show evidence of the phenomena and to support the claims of previous studies, many of which were based only on constructed examples. Nakagawa’s approach to using data taken from corpora based on spoken Japanese, as well as using a unified framework, helps to fill some of the gaps in the research.

Through the use of language production data, production experiments, and sentence acceptability, this book also contributes to one of the field’s larger goals, namely, revealing how cognition is reflected in human language in general. Nakagawa provides many insightful findings to her studies, including those on topic markers and case markers. Using her personal intuition, Nakagawa also provides an interesting analysis of topic markers and proposes a hierarchy for topic coding. Along with giving the results of the study, Nakagawa walks the reader through explanations of why she believes the linguistic forms in question are used the way they are. The book also points out the subtle differences between the linguistic forms discussed and the importance of culture in the findings. Throughout the book, Nakagawa also makes comparisons with previous studies, indicating how the results contradict or support those of previous works.

In the book, Nakagawa proposes multiple principles to provide an explanation for her results, which helps the reader gain a deeper understanding of the interaction between information structure and the linguistic forms in question. Researchers looking for new research questions to explore will find helpful the discussions of possible future directions that often follow the results sections throughout the book.

There are a few specific areas of the book that future studies could build on. Because some of the results are based on the acceptability judgments of a few native speakers, further empirical studies would help confirm the findings. Nakagawa recognizes this and even provides excellent suggestions for how these empirical studies could be conducted. Another area that could be built on in the future is the corpus used. Although the data source for most of the analysis done in the book uses a corpus of spoken Japanese, the corpus used consists mainly of formal speech. Because this study used a formal speech corpus, some examples of the phenomena related to information structure and linguistic forms are constructed rather than naturally produced. Future studies should look into data sources that use informal speech as well.

The goal of “Information structure in spoken Japanese: Particles, word order, and intonation” is to investigate the relationship between information structure and linguistic forms in spoken Japanese. Overall, I believe it has achieved this goal and serves to help expand knowledge in this field and to provide thought provoking insight into how we can move forward. The chapters of this volume cohere well, presenting a thorough overview of the present state of research in the field and following up with related results and discussion. Because Nakagawa makes an effort to link her findings to other languages and discusses why her findings pop up in multiple languages, the main audience (i.e., linguists interested in information structure, including non-Japanese linguists) will benefit from the expanded understanding this book provides.

Language Science Press has made this book freely available for download at


Kuno, Susumu. 1972. Functional sentence perspective: a case study from Japanese and English. Linguistic Inquiry 3. 269–320.

Matsushita, Daizaburo. 1928. Kaisen hyoôjun nihon bumpô [New basic Japanese grammar]. Tokyo: Kigensha.

Prince, Ellen. 1981. Toward a taxonomy of given-new information. In Peter Cole (ed.), Radical pragmatics, 223–256. New York: Academic Press.

Reinhart, Tanya. 1981. Pragmatics and linguistics: an analysis of sentence topics. Philosophica 27(1). 53–94.

Rooth, Mats. 1985. Association with focus. Amherst: University of Massachusetts. (Doctoral dissertation).


​​Jeff Peterson holds a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics/Foreign Language Acquisition from Purdue University and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Japanese in the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at Brigham Young University. His research interests include Japanese pedagogy, extensive reading, computer-assisted language learning, pitch accent training, and corpus research.

Page Updated: 09-Nov-2021