As for the elephant

Jiří Matela’s Heritage of Mikami Akira: A Note on Linguistic Typology is a nice, short introduction to its subject. Mikami Akira 三上章 was a Japanese linguist who created the sentence Zō wa hana ga nagai (“elephant TOPIC nose ?SUBJ/NOM long,” “Elephants have long trunks”). I say ?SUBJ/NOM because, while these are the two analyses typically applied to this sentence in the English literature, well…

Mikami’s objection to the concept of subject in Japanese is a terminological one. Mikami refuses to use the word “subject” for something that does not correspond to the concept of subject in the western linguistics, where the concept originated. […] Mikami’s position is to associate the subject with the noun phrase in the nominative case. However, a nominative noun phrase should control the finite verb and cause a grammatical agreement, the way we know it from European accusative languages, to be recognized as the subject. In Japanese, there is no such morphological agreement, therefore there is no nominative case, and therefore there is no subject.

If we take a look at Mikami’s emblematic sentence, Zō wa hana ga nagai, or “Elephants have long trunks”, we can see Mikami’s point. There is no overt agreement between the predicate adjective nagai, “long”, and either of the two noun phrases (zō wa and hana ga). The word hana does not control the predicate, it is merely semantically connected to the stem of the predicative. The word , on the other hand, is the sentence topic, since it is a result of the “topicalization”, a transformation that raises a deep structure genitive noun phrase (zō no) into the sentence topic, marked with the particle wa. Although from the point of view of e.g. construction grammars the notion of transformation (topicalization etc.) is quite problematic, for Mikami, to put it simple, if there is no structural justification to call a noun phrase a subject, there is no reason to ever introduce the concept of subject into the description of the Japanese grammar.

The obvious question: If hana ga isn’t a subject, what is it? Matela doesn’t explore this, but as I understand it (I don’t think I’ve ever read one of Mikami’s own books, shamefully enough), Mikami argues that NPs like hana ga are “subject[ive] complements” (shukaku hogo 主格補語). Might sound like splitting hairs, but that’s science, I guess.

Pellard on etymology: Whence pira?

Following last week’s opaque and diffuse system, here’s another recent one from Thomas Pellard: “A (more) comparative approach to some Japanese etymologies” (PDF available from here).

Great reading as always, especially for the mass of data from the southern branches of Japonic it supplies. My only objection is that the proposed etymological connections to Ainu feel way underbaked. As far as I can tell (from text and bibliography), Pellard picked up Tamura Suzuko’s dictionary of the Saru dialect of Ainu—which admittedly is probably the best single Ainu dictionary there is—and looked through it for words that sounded kind of the same. I’ve got no problem with this procedure as an ideas generator, but I don’t think it’s justified to take casual findings like this and present them as something that “could hardly be a coincidence.” The first rule of historical linguistics is that absolutely everything can be and probably is a coincidence, and that goes double when you’re cold-searching a dictionary.

That said, I don’t necessarily mean to argue that every link Pellard proposes is wrong. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Take as an example OJ pira ( > NJ hira). This would usually be glossed “flat” but Pellard has issues with its appearance in some mountain terminology, e.g. yomo tu pirasaka in the Kojiki:

The word pîra-saka is surprising, since the semantic spelling of the Nihon shoki clearly means ‘flat slope/hill,’ and the root pîra is indeed well attested in Japanese with the meaning ‘flat.’ The same oxymoron is seen in other toponyms such as pîra-yama ‘flat mountain’ (平山, MYS 9.1715), pîra-woka ‘flat hill’ (枚岡 Norito 394, 比良乎加 Wamyō ruijushō Genna vi-v6).

First of all, I’m not convinced that this is even an oxymoron. “Smooth, easy-to-climb slope,” “Mountain with a flat top,” “Hill with evenly sloping slides”—all these seem fine to me. Even “Mountain that is lower than the other mountains around it” seems reasonable as an etymological justification for pirayama. Pellard, however, apparently does not share this intuition. Fair enough. He investigates the Ryukyuan languages:

Turning to the Ryukyuan languages, the same meanings are attested for this etymon, and a PR form *pira (a), and PJ *pira 2.1/2, can be reconstructed from the following forms: Yamatohama çiɾa ‘road over a mountain pass,’ Kamikatetsu çìɾá ‘slope at the top of a mountain,’ Yoron pjaː, Izena ɸíɾáː, Nakijin pˀjáː, Shuri ɸíɾà, Ishigaki psɨsá ‘slope’, Taketomi piɕə ‘slope (of a roof).’

Note that for none of these do we need hira to mean anything other than “flat surface”—as long as we don’t care about the angle of that surface relative to the ground. (Also note that I was unable to recreate the Ishigaki orthography properly and others may be suspect too. Please refer to original paper.)

Anyway, long story short:

The relationship between ‘hill, slope’ and ‘flat’ is not obvious, but I propose that ‘flat’ is the original meaning of *pira and that the sense ‘hill, slope’ is a secondary development through ‘mountain pass, plateau’.

I agree that “flat” is the original meaning of *pira; as above, though, I don’t think you need to go through any mountain passes to get to “slope.”

Pellard then offers a connection to Ainu:

Interestingly, Ainu has a word pira meaning ‘cliff’, and also a verb pirasa ‘to spread out.’ The phonological and semantic match with Japonic *pira is perfect and could hardly be a coincidence.

As noted above, I dispute “could hardly be a coincidence” on anti-hubristic grounds. I’m also deeply skeptical about the quality of the phonological match—it looks good, but shouldn’t we get a diachronic model of premodern Ainu involved, if we’re going to be comparing it to Old Japanese? But let’s put that aside and consider the semantic match.

First of all, it may be of interest to note that Ainu pira seems to imply a specific kind of cliff. Tamura Suzuko’s Ainu dictionary doesn’t mention this, but, for example, Chiri Mashiho’s Chimei Ainugo shōjiten (Small Dictionary of Place-name Ainu) glosses the word as:

Cliff; a cliff where the soil has collapsed/crumbled and the earth is revealed

(Incidentally, Chiri also mentions the possible connection to Korean that Pellard brings up.)

Kayano Shigeru’s Ainugo jiten (Ainu Dictionary) glosses it as:

Cliff: A cliff with neither trees nor grass growing on it

It seems to me that the word pira “cliff” is more likely to have an etymology referring to bareness or dirt than to flatness, mountain passes, etc.

In Yamada Shūzō’s Ainugo chimei no kenkyū (Study of Ainu place names), vol. 1, he says that place names including pira “remain widely distributed” around Hokkaido. On p. 26 he also says:

Place names including pira usually survive today with the kanji 平 [NJ hira, “flat” < OJ pira] applied [to that element]. In Matsuura [Takeshirō]’s travel journals (nisshi), it appears not only as a place name, but also in sentences like ‘Here is a series of pira’ [kono tokoro pira-tsuzuki nari]. Going to the place in question, we find not a series of flat plains but a row of cliffs. From this it is clear that he used 平 with the meaning of “cliff.” In ancient Japanese, 平 hira [= OJ pira] means “steep slope” 急傾斜, and is still used in the dialects of the mountainous parts of northern Tōhoku [northeastern Japan]. Presumably Matsuura knew this well, and that was why he casually used 平 to indicate a cliff.

I’m not an expert on Tōhoku dialects, but a search through the Nihon hōgen daijiten (Big dictionary of Japanese dialects) seems to support Yamada’s contention. Hira or an obvious variant appears as a dialect word for “low/flat region” and/or “slope” all over Japan, but as a word meaning “steep slope” only in Niigata, Iwate, Aomori, and Hokkaido (the northeast, basically). It’s also attested as a word for “cliff” in Iwate, Yamagata (northeast), and… Kagoshima, way down south. Okay, that’s a surprise—but the general pattern is clearly that steep slope/cliff meanings are clustered up north.

So what does all this mean? Well, to start from the obvious, it seems very likely that speakers of Japanese dialects borrowed the word pira “cliff” from Ainu when they moved up north. (I severely doubt that the borrowing went the other way, as I am not aware of any other word for a basic geographical feature that the Ainu borrowed from Japanese and then used for lots of place names all over Hokkaido.) Note that at this point, the Japanese speakers would also already have had the word corresponding to modern hira, and would have been using it for “flat place” and “even slope.” So they might have seen the new “cliff” meaning as an extension of that.

If pira in OJ pirasaka is related to Ainu pira “cliff,” the mechanism would have to be either common ancestry or borrowing at a much earlier stage, from a hypothetical language related to Ainu but spoken in central/western Japan. That second scenario doesn’t sound impossible… but personally, I find “cliff slope” and “cliff mountain” rather less convincing as place names than “level/smooth slope,” “flat-topped/low/smooth mountain,” etc. Essentially, I don’t see anything motivating this scenario, and am inclined to stick to the null hypothesis: Japonic had pira “flat,” which expanded to refer to level slopes and so on; Ainu had pira “cliff”; they are a bit mixed up in the northeast due to A→J borrowing but are not related in any meaningful way. (Oh, yeah, and a cosmic ray or something hit a certain dialect in Kagoshima and created an inconvenient mutation. If there are actually multiple examples like this west of Kyoto, I’d be interested to hear about it.)

Turning to the “verb pirasa ‘to spread out’”… this English gloss is liable to cause misunderstandings, I think. The verb is transitive, so it doesn’t mean “spread out like a plateau.” It’s more like “spread out like a person spreads out toys on a rug.” In Hattori Shirō’s Ainugo hōgen jiten (Ainu Dialect Dictionary) it appears as every single dialect’s translation for hirogeru/spread it out—in the section about actions done to physical things—and it appears as an element in several items under the heading chirakasu: to scatter, to put (a room) in disorder.

In other words, the core meaning of pirasa seems to be something like “cause things that were close together to not be that way any longer.” There’s no Ainu-internal reason to suppose that it has anything to do with the word pira cliff. It is used for “unroll a skin so that it lays/hangs flat,” apparently, so I guess it’s possible that it’s related to modern Japanese hira, hirogeru, etc… but unless someone can explain the -asa part, again, I’m sticking with the null hypothesis.

I know it’s boring, but an overlooked phoneme here, a fudged definition there, and before long you’re committed to Japanese being Basque.

His matchless discernment: Tomioka Tessai

Nice article [PDF] full of old-fashioned talking-in-paragraphs about Japanese painter Tomioka Tessai by “Bishop Kojo Sakamoto, Abbot of Kiyoshi Kojin Seicho Temple” (which today styles itself Kiyoshikôjin Seichô-ji Temple). I guess the exhibition it refers to was held in the 50s or 60s.

Once he said, “People are always coming to me boasting of their calligraphy. All of them write very well, but none so well as I do. If only Kobo Daishi were still alive, the two of us would have a real ‘meeting of minds’ about calligraphy!” I was struck with admiration for his matchless discernment.

I honestly don’t think it takes a whole lot of discernment to identify Kūkai as one of Japanese calligraphy’s all-time greats. It’s like saying “Now Michelangelo, there’s a guy who was on my level.” You really have to be Tessai to get away with it. (Katō Shūichi said that B. C. Binning put Tessai on the level of about Cézanne, as I recall.)

An opaque and diffuse system

New (I think) article on Ryukyuan from Thomas Pellard and Masahiro Yamada! “Verb morphology and conjugation classes in Dunan (Yonaguni)” (also redirected from Here’s the abstract, broken into two paragraphs by me for readability:

Most Japonic languages have a relatively simple and transparent morphology. Their verb morphology is usually characterized by a highly agglutinative structure that exhibits little morphophonology, with only a few conjugation classes and a handful of irregular verbs. In sharp contrast with its relatives, Dunan (Yonaguni), a highly endangered Japonic language of the Southern Ryukyuan branch, spoken by approximately 400 speakers located on Yonaguni Island (Okinawa prefecture, Japan), exhibits a unusually complex verb morphology for a Japonic language, mostly due to some drastic historical changes. The verb morphology of Dunan seems be the most complex one within the whole Japonic family, and a systematic description challenges in several interesting ways morpheme-based approaches.

The following presents an outline of the verb morphology of Dunan, limited to the basic synthetic forms of regular verbs. Focus is put on the partition of verbs into classes and its morphomic pattern. Three morphomic factors are identified as partitioning verbs into conjugation classes: stem alternation, suffix allomorphy, and metatony. The resulting system of paradigm classes is found to be opaque and to show little interpredictability between paradigm cells, i.e. few reliable inferences can be made from one inflected form about other forms. Morpheme-based approaches are not well-suited for the analysis of Dunan’s verb morphology, which rather calls for an abstractive Word and Paradigm approach.

To a hardened Indo-Europeanist, the morphology Pellard and Yamada describe is probably just barely sufficient to raise a single eyebrow, but (as they observe) in the highly agglutinative context of Japonic, it is quite off the chain:

[T]he number of distinct stem forms per verb does not exceed three. However, the distribution of stems within paradigms is not uniform for all verbs (Table 2.7). For instance, in the case of verbs with three stems, the shortest stem usually appears only in the perfect cell, but not in the case of sigmatic verbs, where the same stem is shared by the hortative, medial, and perfect cells. On the other hand, for sigmatic verbs, the shortest stem is used in the negative cell only, while for most other classes the negative shares the same stem as the present and imperative forms.

The number of stems needed to account for the whole pattern of stem alternations across the different classes amounts to seven, i.e. more than twice the number of distinct stem forms for any verb (Table 2.7). This leads to the unexpected conclusion that there are almost as many stems as basic forms.

(Seriously, check out table 2.7. It’s on page 37.)

Overall, a very satisfying read for a construction grammar zealot like me, although with a real gut-punch of a conclusion:

The most realistic hypothesis is that speakers memorize whole inflected forms (minimally, principal parts) as part of a network of interdependencies with an implicational structure. Unfortunately psycholinguistic tests are hardly feasible in the case of Dunan, a highly endangered language still spoken by elderly persons only. A more computational approach, based on entropy and complexity measures (Ackerman et al. 2009, Finkel & Stump 2009, Sagot & Walther 2011, Blevins 2013) is a more realistic goal for future research.

’Twas well we had your pencil and your tongue

Great article by De-Min Tao on “mutual understanding and misunderstanding among Japanese, Americans, and Chinese, and the status of Chinese as a negotiating language in the communications of two non-Chinese speaking nations”: “Negotiating Language in the Opening of Japan: Luo Sen’s Journal of Perry’s 1854 Expedition.”

When talking about the opening of Japan in 1853-54, many people simply assume that the negotiations were carried on with the assistance of English and Japanese interpreters, as bilateral talks between the two nations would be today. Few give any attention to the question of what languages were actually used. As a matter of fact, Chinese and Dutch were the principal languages employed.


[Samuel Wells] Williams was hired as the chief interpreter despite having told Perry clearly at their initial meeting in 1853 that “I had never learned much more Japanese than was necessary to speak with ignorant sailors who were unable to read even their own books, and that practice in even this imperfect medium had been suspended for nearly nine years.” He considered himself “ill prepared upon the duties of this position.”

Williams did speak Chinese, of course, but “still needed a Chinese assistant to help him polish his translations and copy them in elegant calligraphy that would impress the Japanese officials with whom Perry would be conducting diplomacy.” (This is basically why I started printing labels for the envelopes I use to send out invoices.) So he hired…

[…] his Chinese tutor, an old man named Sieh 薛. It would seem that the choice was not carefully made, for Sieh was actually an incurable opium addict. Smoking heavily during the voyage, he eventually died a month before the Kurihama meeting, when the fleet was still anchoring in Ryukyu.

Luo Sen was Sieh’s replacement.

Luo Sen (Xiangqiao 向喬, ca. 1821-ca. 1899) was from Nanhai 南海 county in Guangdong province. At the time Williams employed him, he was doing business in Hong Kong, and his occupation brought him into contact with Englishmen and Americans. Asked by a friendly Japanese official why he had accepted a position with Perry’s expedition, Luo frankly confessed that his dissatisfaction with Qing officialdom had entered into his decision:

During the war with the English [the Opium War], I led a body of braves, and put forth all my strength in the service of my country. Yet afterwards the officers of the government, bent on nothing but gain, made no account of my devotion and efforts. It was this neglect which set my mind on traveling abroad, and led me to my present position on board this steamer.

The whole article is full of this stuff—vivid detail, quotations from diaries. Absolutely fantastic reading.

JAH-Q 2 debut

Volume 2 of the Journal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University (JAH-Q) (love the acronym) is now online in its entirety for your reading pleasure. (Also available as one big PDF at editor Cynthia Bogel’s faculty member page.) Bogel sez:

JAH-Q is an annual double-blind, peer-reviewed publication in English. We consider research articles, state-of-the-field essays, and short reports (conferences and other events) on Asian humanities subjects (broadly defined) for publication.

Issue 2 includes an article by Pawel Pachciarek on Kusama Yayoi (“[I also] explore potential Zen Buddhist influences in her unpublished play script ‘The Gorilla Lady’”); Elizabeth Tinsley’s consideration of Matsui Fuyuko and Itō Seiu in the context of kusōzu, a genre of painting depicting the female body in progressive stages of decay (don’t worry, it’s a Buddhist thing); and a review of Heather Blair’s Real and Imagined: The Peak of Gold in Heian Japan:

It achieves what all books should but few do: it is historically and philologically rigorous, determinedly interdisciplinary, theoretically sophisticated, and lucidly written. This brilliant book should go down as a classic, serving as a model for how place and pilgrimage should be studied both in Japanese religions and beyond.

Publisher Harvard University Press claims that the book draws on “archival sources, archaeological materials, noblemen’s journals, sutras, official histories, and vernacular narratives,” so philological rigor wouldn’t have been a trivial matter.

Nominalizing with no

Sakai Mika 坂井美日’s “Historical Development of the Nominalization Construction in the Kamigata Dialect of Japanese” (上方語における準体の歴史的変化) was selected by the Society of Japanese Linguistics as one of the two best papers they published that year. Here’s the abstract, with year ranges added by me:

This paper examines two types of nominalization (zero type and no-type henceforth) found in the Kamigata variety of Classical Japanese, with an exclusive focus on argument positions. It aims to give an account of the historical development of the no-type nominalization based on the following two facts. First, the nominalizer no started to be employed as a regular means to nominalize (i.e. head a noun phrase carrying) the adnominal clause two hundred years or so after it first began to attach to adnominal clauses in the Middle Japanese. During this period, the nominalization construction was used both for the referential and event uses with no statistically significant difference in frequency. Second, the no-type nominalization started to replace the zero type first in the referential use (during the Meiwa-An’ei era [1764–1781] to the Kansei-Bunka era [1789–1818]) then in the event use (during the Bunsei-Tenpo era [1818–1844] to Taisho era [1912–1926]). These facts indicate that there is no reason to believe that no was originally a pronoun designating a person or thing. Rather, it is reasonable to assume that the morpheme was a cognate of the genitive no, which does not have any specific referent. Furthermore, it is argued that the development of the no-type nominalization over the zero type is more naturally explained by addressing the structural reanalysis that occurred in the referential use of nominalization than the loss of the distinction between the conclusive and adnominal forms as often argued in the literature. This hypothesis is supported by the data from other dialects.

In Classical Japanese, the adnominal form (rentaikei 連体形) of a verb can function as a noun all on its own. Sakai gives two examples, both from the Tale of Genji (translations below added by me):

(1) a. 花の下に歩きて散りたるを多く拾ひて [“Walking below the flowers and picking up many of those that had fallen…”]
    b.(風が吹き花が) 乱れ落つるがいと口惜しうあたらしければ [“The scattering [of the flowers in the wind] being most pathetic…”

(Incidentally, (1)a is what the abstract calls “referential use” [形状タイプ], while (1)b is “event use” [事柄タイプ]. In the former case, the verb is to be understood as a modifier—“[the Z that] Ys”—while in the latter, it refers to the act itself: “Y-ing”.)

The contemporary Japanese equivalents of these sentences need a no (or similar) to nominalize the verb:

(2) a. 散ったを多く拾って
    b. 花が乱れ落ちるがとても口惜しい

When did this change, and why? As Sakai explains, neither question has been satisfactorily answered yet. There is a vague idea that it was because when the conclusive form (shūshikei 終止形) merged with the adnominal, the no might have been added to help distinguish the two cases, but (again relying on Sakai) that is hard to believe because there is a multiple-century time lag involved.

Sakai’s argument is that the no started being added to these verb forms by analogy with “genitive + no” constructions (e.g. Ise ga no), where the no is basically redundant. Adnominal + no then survived for a couple of centuries as a rare variant of plain adnominal until, for some reason (Sakai offers a couple of reasonable-sounding theories but no firm conclusion), people decided that plain referential-use adnominals weren’t sufficient, upon which adding a no became more common and eventually required.. Event-use adnominals lagged behind, but caught up by the early 20th century.

From this, as mentioned in the abstract, it follows that the no in contemporary uses like chitta no “those that fell” was not descended from a word that means “thing” or similar, as is sometimes theorized (based on the similarity to constructions like chitta mono “things that fell,” where mono is unambiguously a noun). Instead, it comes directly from good old genitive no, and doesn’t really mean anything.

That is, when we say chitta no, the no might feel like a (formal) noun, but etymologically speaking we’re still using a very nearly plain adnominal with only the sparsest of syntactic decoration.