Searching for Real Japanese Adjectives

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So last night I made the claim that i had discovered real Japanese adjectives.

I’m sure that to some of you, that may have sounded strange and confusing; and thus I hope that if we can backtrack a bit and talk that things will seem a bit less weird. (@kawaimakaokalani, I hope this helps!) Let’s start with some backtracking

The story we have all heard from the textbooks and those that follow that predagogic style is that Japanese has two forms of adjectives: い-adjectives and な-adjectives. They can be in the attributive position (before the noun) or in the predicate position (after the noun). They conjugate for tense and positivity/negativity (which in linguistics is called polarity), meaning that they look different depending on whether the description applies to the past or present/future. な-adjectives only have the な suffix in the attributive position and in the predicate position will take the copula です (because textbook keep on pretending that です is a base form of a copula when it isn’t) which is what inflects. い-adjectives have the い suffix in both the attributive and predicate positions; and the い suffix will change to くない in the present negative, かった in the past, and なかった, in the past negative.

So why the heck am I saying that there aren’t any adjectives in Japanese?

Well, adjectives shouldn’t be able to conjugate. That’s something verbs do. What they look like are verbs; and it turns out that we can treat them like verbs. So that’s what linguists do. As a consequence of this, we get to say that basically everything that modifies a noun (or noun phrase) is a subordinate clause, because there’s a verb present.

In English, a subordinate clause modifying a noun looks like this:

“The beverage that is hot

In Japanese, it looks like this:


(And 熱い is an い-adjective.)

Either way, one has to learn how い and な adjectives behave; but at the end of the day, when you’re trying to explain syntax, you’re much better off thinking in terms of subordinate clauses and IP’s than you are in terms of Adjectival Phrases.

So where are these real Japanese adjectives?

Well, some of them are kind of hidden and inconspicuous and another few of them are talked about in Japanese as 連体詞 (rentaishi).

Here’s the story with rentaishi, to my understanding. Rentaishi are a very small set of words that are used solely in the attributive position. You can’t find them as standalone nouns or in the predicate position or any of that. Some examples: その (that one), この (this one), あの (that one, but not close enough to use その)大きな (ookina, big), 同じ 、我が (waga, our)、and いわゆる (so-called).

The problem with most of these is that you can kind of break them down to a point where they are revealed to be something else.

In the case of その, この, and あの, you have these そ, こ, and あ stems. They show up in other words, like そこ, ここ, and あそこ. So we know what the stems are and we know that they carry the meaning of these words. The の can be seen as the form the copula だ takes in the attributive position. So suddenly we’re back in the verb game. So these can be seen as non-adjectives.

In the case of 大きな, this is a remnant of an older form of Japanese where you’d see 大きなり, and that なり is where we get the な from the な-adjectives. And it behaves like a な-adjective except that it can’t be in the predicate position and thus doesn’t conjugate. And this is what I want to see from an adjective: a lack of conjugation. So even though it looks like a な-adjective, it doesn’t fully behave like one.

いわゆる is another historical remnant. It seems to have been a legitimate passive conjugation of the verb 言う (iu) though now it is not the case. But it hags around to be in the attributive form. Whether or not it can be conjugated in polarity and tense eludes me, but I don’t believe this is the case.

我が is trickier to decipher, I find, because it can written as either 我が or 我(but in both cases its said the same), which makes it difficult to analyze. If the original form is 我が, which I do believe to be the case, then it’s a compound of “wa”, which would be the original reading of 我 (and I do know for a fact that wa is a legitimate reading of this Kanji; but I don’t know for sure when that became the case) and が, which is a very common particle and once upon a time (not so much now) was used in a possessive manner (like の is nowadays.)

My point here in this short analysis is that these are mostly remnants of older aspects of Japanese that, due to the grammatical changes in Japanese, have become limited to a single use. While historically we know why they’re there and that they did not start out as adjectives, in my book they’re close enough to be considered adjectives. Why not consider them whatever they are historically? Because if I were to call them what they used to be, then I’d be implying that I can use them as such. I can’t call something a verb if I can’t actually conjugate it. I can’t call something a な-adjective if it doesn’t act like the other な-adjectives, which are famous for being considered nouns when they do’t have the な. So they just cause more problems for me.

So here are a few other adjectives I’ve stumbled upon that aren’t fossils.

We have words like 二三日 , 二三年, アジア研究, and 赤ワイン, which are nouns preceding nouns. 二三 (nisan) means “two or three.” アジア means (Asia) and 赤 (aka) means “red.” So you have “two or three days,” “two or three years,” “Asian studies,” and “red wine.”

(The reason I’m not calling them compound words is because a compound word tends to imply that this is a whole new thing, neither the first or the second word. A forklift is neither truly a fork nor a lift, for example. None of these words exhibit that transformative quality.)

Adjectives, one can argue, at the end of the day are just nouns that have occupied a special place in the order of a sentence; and this thus implies that another noun, which they are modifying because of their position, has the qualities of the first noun. For example, in the case of English, for nouns X and Y such that they are ordered “XY,” X is syntactically considered an adjective.

This is why an word like “bad” can be functioning adjectivally in a phrase such as “the bad dog” and as a noun in a phrase such as “I can see the bad in him.”

This is also why a word such as “bird” can function as nouns in phrases such as “the early bird catches the worm” and adjectivally in phrases such as “the bird tamer”

And this idea of juxtaposing nouns and one of them functioning as an adjective does work in English alone. It’s pretty much the case in most (if not all) Indo-European languages.

What I’m suggesting here is that something similar is at work here in Japanese: where IF a noun is preceding another noun, then that noun syntactically should be considered an adjective. Otherwise I need to consider it all a compound word, which feels disingenuous; or I need to give it some function in the sentence, which, because it lacks particles and postpositions, becomes very difficult and it’s much easier to consider it an adjective.

Here’s the problem

Adjectives should be something you can create more of; and there should be a lot off the bat. Japanese doesn’t really have rules for generating adjectives as I’m describing them. The duty of generation of anything like an adjective is delegated to the creation of な-adjectives (which I just said aren’t really adjectives). So you slap a quasi-copula on them and make them a subordinate clause to the noun.


These adjectives, then, are real, in that I can call them adjectives in my syntax trees without a problem; but they’re “accidental” adjectives. They’ve arisen by chance and popular use, somehow not dying out or through extensive shorthand where two nouns have been stuck together and we just learn to live with them.