Japanese Syntax (Part 1)

The following is an unedited post created on our Tumblr page. You may find the original here.

(Hello everyone! I’m so sorry that I won’t be able to share my other syntax tree. Here in Puerto Rico it’s a holiday and I’ve had to attend to some unexpected family matters and haven’t had the time to do everything I’ve wanted to do. But I did want to at least write something.)

As a follow up to my post about synthetic and analytic languages, I am writing this post on Japanese Syntax proper. 

Last time we talked about how things in Japanese do go in some general order, but that it’s not super strict. This time, I want to slightly complicate the story by talking about hierarchies and Japanese phrases.

I wish there existed a way of discussing them separately, but that’d be more confusing than it needs to be. So bear with me, as so many of you do, and for which I am always grateful. 

A phrase is a collection of words that together have a singular main identity. Further, a phrase can have one of more smaller phrases. So let’s look at a phrase:

Noun phrase– “the extremely red fox”

You’ll notice that even though it’s a noun phrase, there’s more here than the noun. You’ll note that there’s also an adjective and a adverb. Further, that adverb is modifying “red”, not “fox”; but in the same way, “red” is modifying “fox.”
That game of one phrase modifying another phrase modifying another is what we call hierarchy.
The identify of a phrase is determined by the most important word in it and its function. In this case, it’s the word “fox” and hence it is a noun phrase with a noun at its “head.” That’s intuitive enough, right?

In Japanese, we have five kinds of phrases: Noun Phrases, Verb Phrases, Adverb Phrases, Post-positional phrases, and Inflectional Phrases (a.k.a. Sentences).

Wait, aren’t there Adjective Phrases?

That can be a complicated question: the short answer is no. What the textbook and Japanese tradition says is that you have are two kinds of adjectives: i-adjectives (in Japanese “Keiyoushi”) and na-adjectives (”Keiyoudoushi”).

i-adjectives are lexemes (or meaningful stems such as, in English, hyrdo-, aranca-, and tree, which have the same meaning regardless of the suffixes added to them) that don’t receive much, if any, use, besides working with the quasi-copula “-i.” This is the same “-i” that appears in the negative conjugation of “-nai” and then turns into “-katta” in the past/perfect tense. It’s the same one. Works just the same. It’s “adjectival” quality comes from where it’s located in the sentence, not from the suffix itself.

na-adjectives are almost the same story except that the lexemes that take “-na” are much more often used for other things, mainly as nouns. The “-na” suffix, tradition states, comes from the verb “naru,” which means “to become” and is often used in a copula-esque way.

There are also some other suffixes you’ll see now and again working with “-na,” such as “-yaka,” but we don’t have to worry about those for the sake of understanding syntax because when they’re in that attributive position — when they’re standing immediately before a noun phrase — they too will take “-na.”

So what are adjective phrases in Japanese, really? They’re verb phrases.

The most important phrase to understand is the inflectional phrase. Essentially, an inflectional phrase is anything that, by itself, is a sentence. In Japanese, most verb phrases can be a sentence. The only exception is when they take adverbial suffixes.
An inflectional phrase in Japanese is composed of an optional topic phrase, an optional noun phrase, and a verb phrase. The optional topic phrase is itself a noun phrase that ends with “-wa.” The optional noun phrase is the subject of our sentence. The verb phrase is the verb plus the objects of the sentence. Those objects include noun phrases AND inflectional phrases.

A noun phrase can have a post-positional phrase, which itself will have a noun phrase plus a post-position, that gives us spatio-temporal information.
An adverbial phases move more loosely but it’s understood that it should stay out of inflectional phrases if it is not modifying the verb of that specific inflectional phrase.

As stated before, the order of the phrases doesn’t matter much, except that they generally cannot go after the verb.

Let’s look at a few easy Japanese sentences:

“Watashi wa kao ga kawaii.” [On the topic of myself, [my] face is cute.] (Which is a sentence one should never say.)

“Watashi wa kao ga kawaii.”
“Watashi wa” is a topic phrase.
“Kao ga” is a noun phrase, working as our subject.
“Kawaii” is our verb phrase.

“Chichi ga boku ga enpitsu wo taberarenai to iita.” [[My] father said that I cannot eat [a] pencil. ] (Which is also a sentence you should never say.)

“Chichi ga boku ga enpitsu wo taberarenai to iita.” is an inflectional phrase.
“Chichi ga” is a noun phrase.
“boku ga enpitsu wo taberarenai to iita” is our verb phrase.
“boku ga enpitsu wo taberarenai to” is an inflectional phrase.
“boku ga” is a noun phrase.
“enpitsu wo taberarenai” is a verb phrase.
“enpitsu wo” is a noun phrase.

“Okane ga nai oji-san ga hirugohan wo kaenai.” [[The] guy that has no money cannot buy lunch.]

“Okane ga nai oji-san ga hirugohan wo kaenai.” is an inflectional phrase.
“Okane ga nai” is an inflectional phrase. BUT because it is placed BEFORE a noun, it modifies that noun which heads the noun phrase.
“okane ga” is a noun phrase.
“nai” is a verb phrase.
“okane ga nai oji-san ga” is a noun phrase.
“hirugohan wo” is a noun phrase.
“hirugohan wo kaenai” is a verb phrase.

“Kono sarariman wa kawaii oshiri ga aru.” [This salaryman has a cute butt.]

The only thing I’ll point your attention to in this one is “kawaii oshiri ga,” which is a noun phrase.
Like the last sentence, “kawaii” is a verb phrase modifying “oshiri,” which is a noun.
The head of the verb phrase “kawaii” is the “-i” suffix. But since “kawai” has no real function, it is conventional to group it with its suffix as a verb and call it all a verb. In the case of “-na” adjectives, you can call the lexemes nouns generally without a problem.

Hopefully tomorrow I’ll get the chance to go through my syntax tree and one other with you. Thanks a lot!

**Had to make an edit on the “-yaka” tidbit because I didn’t phrase what I meant right.