The J-Sub Experiment Starter Kit (Part 6)

Those who have followed our work will know that we do not believe that the things Japanese calls adjectives are actually syntactically adjectives. That’s just to say that one can explain Japanese just fine without having to call the vast majority of adjectives, well, adjectives. That makes this following part extra complicated; but bear with us.

The following will be the most complex part of this Starter Kit. It may be easier to learn about it the conventional way (through textbooks and the like) before listening to us talk about it. But, here it goes.

We should also note that this is a controversial topic; and, like before, we do not have the last say on the matter. We hope that our ideas on this matter, as with many others, will mature over time.


While Japanese’s nouns don’t change a lot, its verbs make up for it in spades. You’ll remember that we called the changes nouns go through declension. The equivalent phenomenon in verbs is called conjugation. The general term for both phenomena is inflection.

Japanese verbs conjugate for two voices, two tenses, two poles, and three moods. That sounds like a lot, but we’ll get through it.

Verbal Stems

Verbal Stems are the verb without any verbal suffixes that make it conjugate. To find the verbal stem, one just removes all the suffixes. If one looks it up in the dictionary, one will find the indicative, positive, active, present/future conjugation of the verb. To that, one just has to take off the final /u/ or /ru/ and one will have the verb stem.

For example:

たべる (taberu) ー> tabe
きく (kiku) ー> kik
よむ (yomu) ー> yom
つかう (tsukau) ー> tsuka

That’s the stem in the underlying form. The underlying form is a level in morphology that exists before the word is said or written. It is similar to how things are 0’s and 1’s in a computer under they appear on the screen. The opposite is the surface form, which is how they appear in elocution.

The surface form of the verbal stem involves one adding an /i/ to the end of the verbs except when the stem ends in /e/

Tabe ー> (ends in /e/, no addition) たべ (tabe)
Kik ー> (does not end in /e/, add /i/) きき (kiki)
Yomー> (does not end in /e/, add /i/) よみ (yomi)
Tsukaー> (does not end in /e/, add /i/) つかい (tsukai)

The verbal stem is seen in use as a participle, meaning that it modifies a variety of things with its verbal meaning. They’re very frequent; and in our parsings we run into tons of them.

The constructions of our verbs will be based on the underlying form of the verbal stem.


Mood is a linguistic term to describe how some verb’s actions do not take place in reality, but as possibilities, thought experiments, logical processes, etc.

For example: “I eat an apple.” vs  vs. “I can eat an apple.” vs. “I made him eat an apple.” These are all slightly different and in Japanese involve different moods.

Japanese’s Three Moods:

  • Indicative– indicating that something is happening in reality.
  • Potential– indicating that something can happen.
  • Causative-indicating that something is made to do something.

The Indicative

The indicative is the easiest to understand, and lucky its suffix is a zero suffix, meaning that it involves no additional suffix.

The Potential

Hold onto your hats. Things are going to get crazy. The suffix in the underlying form is -βαβe. And before you tell us to go to hell, hear us out! β is going to be our stand-in letter meaning that it is an extremely weak consonant  that, if it does make it to the surface form, will be /r/. α is our stand-in for a weak vowel that, if it does make it to the surface form, will be /a/.

Here’s the rule:

Both β and α it to the surface form IF what precedes is ε and only ε. So it’s an all or nothing deal with the stand-ins.

(Again, before you tell me to piss off, ε is a stand-in for a letter in the underlying form that may or may not be there in the surface form; but if it is, it’s an /e/. The stem “tabe” has a ε. )

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain βαβ) たべられ (taberare)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out βαβ) きけ (kike)
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out βαβ) よめ (yome)
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel, drop out βαβ) つかえ (tsukae)

Oh, and by the way, that last /e/ in the suffix is a ε. I just didn’t want you to freak out too much.

The Causative

The suffix of the causative is -σasε. Similar story as before. σ is a stand-in for a letter that, if it makes it to the surface form, it is an /s/.

Here’s the rule: δ makes it to the surface form ONLY IF it is preceded by ε. It’s the same rule as before.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain σ) たべさせ (tabesase)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out σ) きかせ (kikase)
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out σ) よませ (yomase)
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel, drop out σ) つかわせ (tsukawase) NOTE

Here is another morphological rule: if the stem ends in /a/ and the suffix has an /a/ and the two are juxtaposed, a /w/ comes between them, as is the case with /tsuka./



Voice refers to how the verb treats the agents (the subject and the objects). Japanese has two voices: active and passive. Active is to say “John ate the apple.” and Passive is to say “The apple was eaten by John.”

The Active Voice

The active voice has a zero suffix.

The Passive Voice

The suffix is -βarε. We know the rules for β. Let’s see them in action!

Indicative Passive

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain β) たべられ (taberare)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out β) きかれ (kikare)

Potential Passive

Taberarεー>(ends in ε, retain β) たべられ (taberare) NOTE
Kikー>(ends in ε, retain β) きけられ (kikerare)

Causative Passive

Tabesasεー>(ends in ε, retain β) たべさせられ (tabesaserare)
Kikasεー>(ends in ε, retain β) きかせられ (kikaserare)

The second extraordinary morphological rule we note is an anti-duplicate rule, stating that if two suffixes are going to look exactly the same, one becomes a zero stem. So the meaning is still there; but one cannot see it. (And this one mood might have a periphrastic, but we’ll let you know when we find out if it’s an actual periphrastic and not just an equivalent.)


Tense and Polarity

Japanese has two tenses and a periphrastic tense that gives the tense aspect. Tense refers to the time in which something happened. Japanese has two tenses: imperfective and perfect. The imperfective tense, or the present/future tense as many call it, indicates that the action happens now or will happen in the future. The perfect tense indicates that something happened in the past, and is not the case now. We’ll talk about the periphrastic progressive aspect later.

The truth of the matter is that Tense and Polarity work together. It is very difficult to talk about one without the other, given that the affirmative has a zero suffix and the negative suffix has its own present tense suffix. So we will look at them together.

Let’s do this systematically:

1. The suffix for the affirmative, imperfective is -βu.

It works beautifully for the potential and causative moods. It is always -ru is the surface form.

With the indicative, you are back to deciding on whether or not the conditions are met for β to make it to the surface form. But if it doesn’t then it’s just an -u.

Tabεー>(ends in ε, retain β) たべる(taberu)
Kik ー>(ends in consonant, drop out β) きく(kiku)

2. The suffix for the affirmative, perfect is -ζα

ζ is the big bad wolf in the underlying form. There is a certain logic to it; but that’s a long story. Here’s what results from it. (There are exceptions to this.)

A) If the word its attaching itself to ends in β, then it turns itself into /t/.
B) If the word its attaching itself to ends in a vowel or /ts/, then it turns itself and the /ts/ (if present) into /tt/.
C) If the word its attaching itself to ends in a /k/, then it turns itself and /k/ into an /it/.
D) If the word its attaching itself to ends in a /d/, then it turns itself and /k/ into an /id/.
E) If the word its attaching itself to ends in a /b/, /m/, or /n/, it turns itself and the consonant into /nd./

Tabεー>(ends in ε, turn into /te/) たべた (tabeta)
Kikー>(ends in /k/, turn into /ite) きいた (kiita)

3. The suffix for the negative, imperfective is -κnaω

The rule for κ is the opposite of α, in that it disappears then ε precedes it and in no other case; and also, it’s surface form is /a/. ω is a bigger big bad wolf. When it it is in final position, it makes it to the surface as /i/.

Tabεー>(ends in ε, drop out /κ/) たべない (tabenai)
Kikー>(ends in /k/, retain /κ/) きかない (kikanai)

4. The suffix of the negative, perfect is -ζα applied to ω.

ω + ζα = /katta/

たべなωー>たべなかった (tabenakatta)
きかなωー>きかなかった (kikanakatta)

And that finishes things off with verbs!


Gerund (Te-Form)

The gerund is like the participle in that it’s a non-verb with verbal qualities. In Japanese,  what the Te-form does is make a verb atemporal and makes it either adjectival or nominal (a noun).

The suffix for the gerund is -ζe. ω + ζe = /kute/

Tabeー>たべて (tabete)
Kikー>きいて (kiite)
namenaiー> なめなくて (namenakute)


Periphrastic Progressive

Progress is an aspect. Aspect is a linguistic term referring to the time in which an action takes place. Japanese verbs normally have simple aspect, which means that one can assume that they will happen an unspecified amount of time. “John eats one apple.” can mean that John eats an apple once or that maybe he eats an apple as a habit. Progressive aspect refers to the action still taking place. “John is eating an apple.” and “John was eating an apple.” reflect progressive aspect.

Here’s the construction: V[gerund] + “iru”

“Iru” is a copula, meaning “to be” or “to have.” This is now your main verb. (Grammar calls it an auxiliary verb, but really it is now the verb that will go through any necessary conjugations).
So conjugate “iru” as you need it, and you have progressive aspect.

The stem of “iru” is /iε/, in a case where ε does not surface.


First Order Suffixes

There are a series of suffixes we shall know as first order suffixes, which means that they occur at the same level as tense and as such go where -βu would go if it were an affirmative, present sentence.

The Volitional

The volitional indicates an encouragement to do something. “Let’s eat an apple!” The suffix if is -υou.

The rule is the same as β and σ: Only if it is preceded by γ will it make it to the surface. And if it makes it to the surface, it is /y/. The nice thing about the imperative is that once you’ve attached its suffix it’s a fully functioning verb, nothing else needed.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain υ) たべよう (tabeyou)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out υ) きこう (kikou)
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out υ) よもう (yomou)
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel, drop out υ) つかおう (tsukaou)

The Imperative Positive

The imperative indicates an order. “Eat an apple!” The suffix is -βe.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain β) たべれ (tabere)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out β) きけ (kike)
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out β) よめ (yome)
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel, drop out β) つかえ (tsukae)

The First Conditional

There are two conditional suffixes in Japanese. This one tends to have an implication that one is focusing on the conditions and not the result. The second is the opposite. The suffix is -ρeba. This is the only suffix of the three that interacts with ω.  ω+ρeba = /kereba/

The rule is the same as β and σ and υ. We can call these “weak consonants,” if we want to, since they follow the same rule.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, retain ρ) たべれば (tsukareba)
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out ρ) きけば (kikeba)
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant, drop out ρ) よめば (yomeba)
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel, drop out ρ) つかえば (tsukeba)
Namεー> (ends in ω, becomes /kereba/) なめなければ (namenakereba)

Polite Suffix

The polite suffix is something that is harder to pin down in terms of function than one would think. Yes, it makes the verb polite. But when one uses it is on the practical level depends on the person. The way the textbooks teach it is that one uses it only in the main verb, but in day to day speech one finds it elsewhere as a sub-standard form of hyper-politeness.

The suffix is -ιmas, with the ι being a vowel that drops out when it precedes γ and in the surface form is /i/.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, drop ι)  tabemas
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, retain ι) kikimas
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant,retain ι) yomimas
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel,retain ι) tsukaimas

Then one adds the tense and pole suffixes -βu and -ζa for the affirmative. For the negative, it has some “special suffixes,” which are Western regional things that creeped their way into standard Japanese.

Negative imperfective: -en

Negative perfect: -en deshita

The negative perfect is a periphrastic construction, meaning that it depends on another verb to get to that meaning. The verb is the polite, negative, perfect of the copula “da,” which is a truncation of a historical form of the verb (de aru ー> de arimashita).


Second Order Suffixes

Is a series of suffixes that go after a certain tense and pole. So they are the last thing one needs to add in a conjugation.

The Second Conditional

This is the conditional focusing on the result. The suffix is -ra. This attaches to the affirmative, perfect tense.

たべた (tabeta)ー> たべたら (tabetara)
きいた (kiita)ー> きいたら (kiitara)
よんだ (yonda)ー> よんだら (yondara)
つかった (tsukatta)ー> つかったら (tsukattara)
なめなかった (namenakatta)ー> なめなかったら (namenakattara)

The Volitional Negative

This indicates that does not intend to do something. The suffix is -mai. This attaches to the affirmative, imperfective.

たべる (taberu) ー> たべるまい (taberumai)
きく (kiku) ー> きくまい (kikumai)
つかう (tsukau)ー> つかうまい (tsukaumai)
みされられる (misaserareru)ー> みさせられるまい (misaserarerumai)

The Imperative Negative

This indicates that one orders another to not do something. The suffix is -na. This attaches to the affirmative, present.

たべる (taberu) ー> たべるな (taberuna)
きく (kiku) ー> きくな (kikuna)
つかう (tsukau)ー> つかうな (tsukauna)
みされられる (misaserareru)ー> みさせられるな (misaserareruna)


The Desiderative Mood?

There is one mood we did not talk about; because we are unsure if it is a mood; it is the desiderative, which only exists in the active, hence our reservation.

The suffix is -ιtaω. It attached to the verbal stem without any real problems. Then the ω conjugates as needed.

Tabε ー> (ends in ε, drop ι)  tabetaω
Kik ー> (ends in a consonant, retain ι) kikitaω
Yom ー> (ends in a consonant,retain ι) yomitaω
Tsukaー> (ends in a vowel,retain ι) tsukaitaω



Now that we’ve talked about ω, talking about adjectives becomes much easier. ω is what we call a copula. It’s a verb that tells us whether something is or isn’t, was or wasn’t something. They tend to lack some or all other moods.

Conventional Japanese Grammar talks about i-adjectives and na-adjectives. It will admit that na-adjectives are nouns with a verbal suffix when in attributive position (“na” for the present affirmative.) It will hold, however, that i-adjectives are true adjectives, however.

We say nay. Why? Because the /i/ in i-adjectives are ω; and we know that ω is verbal. It conjugates for the tenses and poles, and for the gerund. So let’s look at that.

Affirmative Imperfective: i

Affirmative Perfect: katta

Negative Imperfective: kunai

Negative Perfect: kunakatta

Gerund: kute

All this data indicates that ω is something like /kuξ/, ξ is something that, if left alone, turns everything into /i/ and if paired with ζ somehow turns everything into /katta/. These are things to do research on.

So i-adjectives are verbs. The only thing is that semantically they are adjectival; but that is not so strange.

Having said that: Japanese does have adjectives, except that they are not an open class. By that we mean that one cannot make Japanese adjectives. They end up being nouns that in one way or another modify another noun through verbal suffixes (so -na or the attributive form of the copula da, which is no.)

The adjectives that do exist are created over time through shorthands or historical variants on old lexemes. Even then, we have reservations about some of these; and we’ve written about this before. This is one of specialty topics, so expect to hear from us a lot about this.

Okay, enough with the parts of speech. Next time: Syntax! And after that, we’re done!!