Classical Japanese verb categories: are they fucking with us?

In Amida's latest (and second) post, he notes in passing:

I love that "keru," "to kick," gets a class of its own even though it is indistinguishable to me from kamiichidan verbs.
The twisted logic behind this is something I've been considering blogging for a while, and now I have a reason to. (Warning: heavy-duty linguistics ahead.)

Here's the deal: keru started out in the Nihonshoki as kuu, a shimo-2-dan verb conjugating kuwe, kuwe, kuu, kuuru, kuure, kuweyo. (Its true self was "kuwu", basically.) The kuwe form then turned to ke, presumably via a relative of the process that turned words like kwaidan into kaidan, which caused problems with the kuu- forms because keu would get pronounced kyou and that would really make the verb irregular.

So, the ancient Japanese did what they always did when unsure what to do with single-mora mizen/renyoukei verbs: standardized the root and threw as many rus at it as they could spare. The end result was ke, ke, keru, keru, kere, keyo, which is indeed exactly the same as a kami-1-dan (i.e. kamiichidan) conjugation in all important respects.

But keru made the fatal mistake of having a stem that ends in e, whereas all the kami-1-dan verbs have stems ending in i. Thus, it cannot be in the same class, and since Japanese vowel order is a, i, u, e, o, the i stems get to be "kami" (upper) while the e stem got relegated to "shimo" (lower).

From a morphological point of view, this is a rather obtuse way to classify things. The sensible thing to do would be to group everything together into the "STEM, STEM, STEM+ru, STEM+ru, STEM+re, STEM+yo" category, and add a footnote pointing out that all the stems end in i except for ke(ru).

But the kami/shimo system was applied anyway, probably just to be consistent with the 2-dan verbs, which are also divided kami/shimo based on the i or e distinction. It makes sense to do this for 2-dan verbs: the i/es in question aren't part of the stem and can't be deduced from it. If you don't know whether a 2-dan verb is kami or shimo, you don't know what its mizen, renyou or meirei forms are. But extending the kami/shimo system to the 1-dan verbs, where it was entirely irrelevant, served only to enrich Big Conjugation Charts and related industries.

The tragic ending to our tale is that although keru was the first and for many centuries only shimo-1-dan verb, it eventually cracked under the pressure, and by the time everyone started speaking modern Japanese it had become a regular 5-dan verb. All of the current shimo-1-dan verbs are simplified refugees from the shimo-2-dan category.

Popularity factor: 12


I knew the reason for putting it in shimo-nidan, but I didn't know about the verb's history. Whatever it is, I WANT that book!

Whether I can afford it until next payday is another question.


Sigh. Shimo-ICHI-dan, as in, I need to start sleeping before ICHI-ji.


That's fantastic--thanks! I knew there most be a good-but-involved reason for that. And speaking of the Big Chart Industry, I needed some charts just to navigate all that! They are never far from my side these days.I often forget about the literal meaning of the dans and the gyous. I think maybe we are spoiled in learning Japanese with romaji at the beginning. I think of verbs, for example, as ending in -u, not as having endings from the third column. My Taiwanese friends who studied Japanese at home said in class they referred to change-1, change-2, etc.I also have a tendency to eyeball these things and instinctively just see a Kanji, forgetting about the yomikata. Kanji are something like roman numerals, I think-- no matter how good your second language gets, you will always instinctively read them in your first. (Someone once told me if you want to see what someone's first language is, watch how they do math. For Asian languages, see what yomikata pops up first.)5-dan? Do you mean 4-dan? Or is this a category for modern verbs which conjugate using a,i,u,e, and o? Minna no Nihongo didn't exactly get that in-depth with its linguistic terminology so I'm a bit behind in that arena.


By the way, that post is now athttp://amidaworld.blogspot.com/2005/10/ru-raru-su-sasu-shimu-zu.html


Yeah, I think some traditionalists are stubbornly sticking with the 4-dan terminology, but since there's absolutely no question that the -ou form is "o" and not "a" these days, I prefer 5-dan if only because it immediately distinguishes itself from the bungo 4-dan category.

(Although really, when talking about modern Japanese, I think the "group 1", "group 2a", and "group 2b" terminology is the most helpful of all.)

I'll update the link later!


Azuma: You can probably find a nice Iwanami Bunko or Koudansha Gakujutsu Bunko edition of the Nihonshoki secondhand at your local Book Off. Only a couple hundred yen! (Especially if you only buy the first volume.) If you can get to the secondhand bookstore area in Kanda, Tokyo you can probably find an even more scholarly edition for not much more cash...

Nice blog, by the way! I'll add a link later..


Oh, I didn't mean the Nihonshoki. I thought you perhaps had some book on Japanese historical linguistics you got that from. Oh well.


Alllll that information was extrapolated from the Iwanami Kogo Jiten, which I recommend with an intensity bordering on extremism.

Although I first realized what type-x-dan actually meant after seeing the relevant tables in a textbook for high school kids.


I don't know wenough about the history of all the sound changes, but I wonder about the closeness of the relation between the disappearance of the wa-gyo w and that in kango. (My guess is they could wed in most states.)

The traditional verbal classification system is another tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind, in its ability to devise order, to complete the puzzle even with a lot of the pieces missing. Sort of like the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, the planets (and the sun and moon) whirling merrily about on all those cycles and epicycles!

And ultimately just as flawed. The traditional linguists can be forgiven for not making the conceptual leap required to see beyond the orthography, but why is the system still being taught in these "enlightened" times?

There's a Big Industry involved, to be sure.


Oh, I didn't mean the disappearance of we and wi in general, just the specific case of kuwe -> ke (presumably via kwe). It struck me as too similar to the kwa -> ka change to be coincidence. He said, rendering himself a laughing stock among those who know better.

I suppose one reason they still teach things the old way is that so that old materials on the topic remain comprehensible. That's a vicious cycle, of course, and only makes sense if you're willing to keep doing things the old way forever...

(I also have to admit that I personally feel a great and perverse satisfaction when I finally comprehend the reasoning behind some obscure, unnecessary appendix to the extra-baroque system. But I do draw the line at the old way of memorizing.)


Oh, my bad!

This (the "scientific" = modern linguistic analysis of J verbs) is another one of my (too many?) sore spots. (Look, the human pin cushion!) I used to go round and round with my students on this; anymore, too few of them learned or remember enough to make it interesting. (Even for me. A sad comment on the falling standards of education in this country? Ah, whee, pi = 3 and happy we be!)

But back to the sound changes; I fished out Vance (1987) and found two relevant references. The wa-gyo w appears to have disappeared by 1200 in Kyoto-ben. The Sinitic w's survived only before 'a' after the 13th century and were lost by the 16th (although kept alive until much later in the kana, like so much else).

So while one and the same process zapped the non-pre-a w's everywhere, it seems to me to be a different one than went for those in kwa/gwa (since these persisted a while); the latter culprit being the change that left 'y' the only possibility for X in CXV in modern J.

What bothers me is why kuwu didn't play nice like wuwu (to plant) and instead went off on the bizarre shimo-ichidan > go-dan route in the first place. ?!?

(If I've learned anything, it's that languages don't give a fig for the analyses or efforts of linguists and pedagogues!)


What bothers me is why kuwu didn't play nice like wuwu (to plant)...

Obviously when I'm on drugs I'm really out there but good. wuwu? (sigh) Make that uwu, please. Fell into the same "kana trap" I was berating the traditionalists over.

I'd never applied the analysis I use in my comparative grammar classes to the Old Japanese verbs, but when I did so this afternoon (Culture Day, after all!), it was amazing how much simpler the whole thing becomes. Ignoring the true irregulars, you still end up with the same four conjugations; they're just easier to get a handle on.

I'm planning on putting up a page on this linked from my blog....

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