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Review of  The Phonology of Japanese

Reviewer: Mark Irwin
Book Title: The Phonology of Japanese
Book Author: Laurence Labrune
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 23.5246

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AUTHOR: Laurence Labrune
TITLE: The Phonology of Japanese
SERIES: The Phonology of the World’s Languages (Oxford Linguistics)
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2012

Mark Irwin, Faculty of Literature & Social Sciences, Yamagata University

This 296-page monograph is an updated and modified version of Labrune (2006). It examines the phonology of Japanese (modern standard Japanese, a.k.a. Tokyo Japanese) across seven chapters (proportion of the total monograph in brackets): Introduction (8%), Vowels (11%), Consonants (15%), The Phonology of Consonant Voicing (10%), Special Segments (3%), Prosodic Units (12%), Accent (30%). There is also a bibliography (6%) and index (3%).

After considering the theoretical background (general framework = generative phonology with a dash of structural phonology), Chapter 1, ‘Introduction’, offers a brief outline and history of the Japanese language, its writing system, the stratification of its lexicon, and previous western literature on Japanese phonology.

The bulk of Chapter 2, ‘Vowels’, examines vowel insertions and deletions, vowel devoicing, vowel length and ‘the problem of diphthongs’. A small amount of space is also devoted to ‘old and dialectal vowel systems’, the distributional characteristics of /e/, and the relative frequency of vowels.

After a general overview of the consonant system, in Chapter 3 L. devotes a section, or part of a section, to each of the Japanese consonants. The greatest space is devoted to /h/, the velar nasal, and to /r/. The chapter closes with a look at what L. terms the ‘new consonants’. In fact, what she is actually treating are, for the most part, new MORAS, or what Irwin (2011: 71-76) would describe as the ‘contemporary moras’ found in loanwords.

Chapter 4, ‘The Phonology of Consonant Voicing’, is divided into three major sections. The first, ‘General Properties of Japanese Voiced Obstruents’, looks at their distribution and frequency, co-occurrence restrictions, lack of gemination, instability, historical development and orthographic representation (both past and present). The second section examines ‘Rendaku’, its triggers, blocking factors, and possible correlations with accent. The third section looks briefly at ‘Post-Nasal Voicing’.

The brief Chapter 5, ‘Special Segments’, treats the mora nasal, the mora obstruent (‘gemination’) and vowel length, as well as their origin and properties.

In Chapter 6, ‘Prosodic Units’, after examining the mora and the syllable, L. offers a ‘strictly binary model of the basic prosodic unit in Japanese’ (i.e., a denial of the syllable), and then closes with examinations of the foot and the prosodic word.

Chapter 7, ‘Accent’ is the final, though meatiest, of all the chapters, occupying almost one-third of the volume. It is subdivided into seven sections: General Principles of Tokyo Japanese Accentuation; the Accent of Simplex Words (further subdivided into Yamato words, verbs and i-adjectives, Sino-Japanese lexemes corresponding to a single Chinese character (i.e. Sino-Japanese mononoms or ‘ichijikango’), Western loans, a lengthy ‘constraint based account of the accent of Western loans’, and ‘other types of simplex words’); the Accent of Compound Words (‘compound nouns with a [modifier-head] structure containing only one accent nucleus’, a lengthy ‘constraint-based account of compound noun accentuation’, compound nouns containing two accent nuclei, Yamato dvandva compounds, compound mimetics, two-character fixed Sino-Japanese compounds (i.e. Sino-Japanese binoms or ‘nijikango’), compound verbs, and numeral compounds); the Accentuation of Phonological Phrases; Dialectal and Sociological Variation in Accent; Tone or Accent?; and an Overview of Accent Studies in Japan.

Apart from a few typos, the volume is mercifully free of textual and formatting errors, though the fact that the author is not a native speaker of English is very obvious in places (especially Ch. 1). Here, more judicious editing would have been welcome. Beyond this, we find: ‘whether rendaku is still productive is a matter of controversy’. There is surely little controversy here -- it is clearly productive. To take only one example of many, Paul the Octopus (2008-2010), famous for correctly predicting the results of all Germany’s games in the 2010 soccer World Cup, was dubbed by the Japanese media the ‘yogendako’ ‘octopus prophet’. Unquestionably a neologism, here ‘tako’ ‘octopus’ undergoes rendaku in line with the majority of other compounds in which it appears (‘yudedako’, ‘sudako’, ‘mizudako’, etc.). In the same chapter (p. 121), there exists no ‘robust tendency’ whereby a final mora beginning in a voiced obstruent in the first element blocks rendaku in the second (cf. Vance & Irwin 2012). To claim that the ‘graphemes for the nasal mora /N/ … are the only [‘kana’] whose origin is unknown’ (p. 135) is incorrect (see, for example, Okumura 1972). ‘London station’ (p. 139), sadly, does not yet exist. The bulk of Ch. 6, dealing with the status of the syllable in Japanese, is broadly similar in content to Labrune (2012). Finally, the reviewer was startled by what he can only describe as the bizarre claim that ‘[t]he progressive disappearance or near disappearance of labials in the phonological system might be related to a search for a certain immobility or facial impassibility’ (p. 92). This notion appears to date back to Wundt (1900) for Iroquoian.

In her Introduction (p. 1), L. states her aims to be twofold: to ‘present the actual “state of the art” of Japanese phonology’, as a ‘synthesis of [the] two major research streams’ of traditional Japanese ‘kokugogaku’ and Western scholarship; and to ‘offer new analyses and data concerning some of the central issues of Japanese phonology in a theoretically oriented approach’.

In her first aim, L. largely succeeds, providing one accepts a priori that there are issues over which the two major research streams disagree. Many ‘kokugogakusha’, for example, regard what is spoken in Okinawa Prefecture and the far offshore islands of Kagoshima as ‘Okinawan’ dialects of Japanese (as do the mass media, whose influence should not be taken lightly), while the vast majority of Western scholars regard what is spoken in this area as a number of different languages belonging to the Ryukyuan language family. L.’s presumably deliberate decision to take the latter line means that any discussion of dialect variation (e.g. in Chapter 7) must ignore Ryukuan and cannot reflect Okinawan-inclusive mainstream ‘kokugogaku’ scholarship. But this is a minor quibble: L. recognizes that these ‘two ways of doing linguistics … usually ignore each other’ (p. 2) and her attempt to make the twain meet is laudable.

L. also succeeds in her second aim of offering new theoretically-based analyses but, ultimately, one has to wonder to what end. In her Introduction, L. states that the volume is ‘intended for a general audience of students with no specialized knowledge of the Japanese language, and non-linguist Japanologists who want to obtain up-to-date information in the field of Japanese phonology’ (p. 2). Although the Japanese phonologist can learn much from this volume, it is difficult to imagine a non-linguist ‘-ologist’ of any hue, let alone a mere student with no specialized knowledge of the Japanese language, benefiting from a volume which presumes too much and whose frequent excursions into theoretical exegeses muddy even further already murky waters. There IS competition out there -- in the name of Vance (2008) -- and Vance (2008) wins hands down in any race for non-specialist readership. This reviewer can’t help concluding that L.’s volume would have been more readable and more accessible without the theory.

Irwin, Mark. 2011. Loanwords in Japanese. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Labrune, Laurence. 2006. La Phonologie du Japonais. Leuven and Paris: Peeters.

Labrune, Laurence. 2012. Questioning the universality of the syllable: Evidence from Japanese. Phonology 29: 113-152.

Okumura, Mitsuo. 1972. Kodai no on’in. In Nakata, Norio (ed.), Kōza nihongoshi 2: oninshi, mojishi. Tokyo: Taishūkan, pp. 58-171.

Vance, Timothy. 2008. The sounds of Japanese. Cambridge: CUP.

Vance, Timothy & Irwin, Mark. 2012. The first statement of Lyman’s Law. Paper presented at the 25th Paris Meeting on East Asian Linguistics, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

Wundt, Wilhelm. 1900. Völkerpsychologie I: Die Sprache. Leipzig: W. Engelmann.

Mark Irwin is an associate professor at Yamagata University, Japan. His research interests include the phonology, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and sociohistorical linguistics of the Japanese language.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199545839
ISBN-13: 9780199545834
Pages: 320
Prices: U.K. £ 70.00