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Review of  Argument Encoding in Japanese Conversation

Reviewer: John Fry
Book Title: Argument Encoding in Japanese Conversation
Book Author: Mitsuaki Shimojo
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Issue Number: 17.66

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Date: Fri, 30 Dec 2005 07:51:23 -0800
From: John Fry
Subject: Argument Encoding in Japanese Conversation

AUTHOR: Shimojo, Mitsuaki
TITLE: Argument Encoding in Japanese Conversation
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2005

John Fry, SRI International

Linguists with even the most cursory acquaintance with the Japanese
language are likely aware that it encodes grammatical and pragmatic
features using postpositional particles, for example '-wa' (topic
particle) and '-ga' (subject particle). A vast literature in Japanese
linguistics attempts to explain the nuances conveyed by these
particles, often by contrasting minimal pairs like 'hi-ga noboru' ('the
sun rises') and 'hi-wa noboru' ('the sun, it rises'). The question is
often put this way: when does a speaker choose '-ga' instead of '-wa',
and vice-versa?

A welcome and insightful addition to this literature is Mitsuaki
Shimojo's _Argument Encoding in Japanese Conversation_. Relying
on quantitative and qualitative analyses of spontaneous Japanese
conversations, Shimojo develops an account of how Japanese
speakers encode subject and object arguments using a variety of
grammatical strategies, among them wa- and ga-marking. Shimojo
explains the speaker's choice of encoding strategies in terms of
discourse salience and ''mental processing instructions'' in the tradition
of Talmy Givon (1983, 1993).

The book consists of three introductory chapters, followed by five
chapters that detail Shimojo's analyses and results.

Chapter 1, the introduction, delineates the scope of the investigation.
Shimojo restricts his attention to the core argument roles of subject
and direct object; peripheral argument roles such as locatives and
indirect objects are ignored. Next, Shimojo identifies six ''encoding
types'' to be investigated; that is, six ways that the subject and object
arguments can be manifested in actual Japanese utterances. The six
encoding types are: (1) ga-marking; (2) o-marking; (3) wa-marking; (4)
zero anaphor (i.e., argument ellipsis); (5) zero particle (i.e., particle
ellipsis); and (6) post-predicative encoding (postposing).

Chapter 2 is a comprehensive yet engaging review of the previous
literature on the six encoding types. Most earlier studies (e.g. Fry
2003) focused on the grammatical or discourse properties of just one
encoding type, such as wa-marking or ellipsis, in isolation. By
examining all six encoding types within the same conversational
corpus, Shimojo hopes to develop a more coherent, integrated
account than the ones he reviews in this chapter.

Chapter 3 describes the conversational Japanese data on which the
book's analyses are based. Following the methods of Maynard
(1989), Shimojo recorded, videotaped, and transcribed the
spontaneous conversations of eight pairs of native Japanese
speakers. The resulting four hours of conversational data yielded a
total of 7909 ''clausal units''. This chapter also describes how subjects
and objects were identified within the conversational transcripts. One
question this chapter does not answer is why Shimojo went to the
trouble of creating and transcribing a brand new set of Japanese
conversations in support of his research. Were no existing
conversational data appropriate (for example, the transcribed
Japanese conversations available from the Linguistic Data
Consortium)? Also unclear is why the conversations needed to be

Chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with discourse salience. Following
Givon (1983), Shimojo adopts two quantitative measures of saliency:
Referential Distance (the backwards distance to the most recent
coreferential expression, measured in clausal units) and Referential
Persistence (encompassing frequency of reference and uninterrupted
persistence, again measured in clausal units). These chapters,
stuffed full of tables and statistical results, are a bit tedious to read,
and perhaps could have been shortened. The upshot is that the
Referential Distance measurements show that zero anaphors tend to
encode highly salient entities, while ga- and o-marking are associated
with newer or less salient information. In terms of Referential
Persistence, wa- and o-marking is associated with highly persistent
entities, while zero particles and the post-predicative construction are
both associated with less persistent information, which suggests that
these two encoding types have a defocusing function.

Chapter 6, entitled ''The Six Argument Encoding Types as a System,''
presents a single unified account of argument encoding in Japanese.
The most striking feature of Shimojo's system is how he organizes the
six encoding types into contrasting pairs. A typical linguistic analysis
of Japanese will contrast wa-marking with ga-marking. Shimojo,
however, proposes that wa-marking is better contrasted with particle
ellipsis, and that ga-marking and o-marking should be contrasted with
argument ellipsis. His reasoning runs roughly as follows. First, ga-
marking, o-marking, and argument ellipsis all contribute to 'cataphoric
focusing' (i.e., maintenance of salience), but they differ in that ellipsis
is applied to anaphorically salient (e.g., old) information, while ga-
marking and o-marking are applied to nonsalient (e.g., new)
information. On the other hand, wa-marking and particle ellipsis can
be contrasted in terms of how they are used to specify referents.
Particle ellipsis is used for 'absolute' (i.e., non-contrastive)
specification of an entity, whereas wa-marking encodes
contrastiveness (and thereby helps to maintain salience). Finally, the
post-predicative construction stands apart from the other five
encoding types; its function, which is to defocus unimportant
information, does not contrast directly with any of the others. Shimojo
offers dozens of example utterances from his corpus in order to
illustrate and support his thesis (which is one reason why this chapter
weighs in at almost 100 pages).

The last section of Chapter 6 recasts Shimojo's system into a
discourse processing account, whereby each encoding type
represents a specific set of ''mental processing instructions for the
hearer''. For example, a zero anaphor instructs the hearer to search
for a coreferential link and to continue the activation of the referent,
whereas a post-predicative construction invites the hearer to
deactivate the referent. At a meager seven pages, this is the only
section of the book that I wished had been longer. How literally are
we to interpret these ''mental processing instructions''? What kind of
mental discourse model is presupposed here? Is there a relevant
psycholinguistic literature? This section deserves its own chapter,
along with expanded background material and discussion.

Chapter 7 elaborates further on the Japanese post-predicative
construction. Accounts of this construction traditionally have been
production-based (speaker-oriented), whereas Shimojo's account in
Chapter 6 is comprehension-based (hearer-oriented). Shimojo
defends his approach by identifying flaws in the production-based
accounts and showing that his conversational data are better
explained in comprehension-based terms.

Final conclusions are offered Chapter 8, where Shimojo further
develops and refines his thesis that the argument encoding system
serves to guide the hearer's processing of utterances in spontaneous
conversation. Shimojo emphasizes that the speaker's choice of
encoding type is made not in isolation, but rather in relation with other
encoding types within the system.

In sum, Shimojo's book is an impressive example of quantitative and
qualitative linguistic analysis of spontaneous conversation. The
overall thesis, that six different argument encoding types form a
system that guides comprehension, is original, insightful, and
empirically defensible. While perhaps overly long, the book is
engagingly written, with no apparent typos. Researchers in Japanese
linguistics, especially those interested in discourse analysis and
processing, will want to read it.


Fry, John (2003) Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese conversation.
New York: Routledge.

Givon, Talmy (1983) Topic Continuity in Discourse: a quantitative
cross-language study. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Givon, Talmy (1993) ''Coherence in Text, Coherence in Mind.''
Pragmatics & Cognition, 1:171-227.

Maynard, Senko K. (1989) Japanese conversation: self-
contextualization through structure and interaction management.
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

John Fry is a Research Linguist at SRI International in Menlo Park,

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1403937052
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 304
Prices: U.K. £ 55