The J-Sub Experiment Starter Kit (Part 7)

Syntax

We’ve talked about a lot! Now that we understand parts of speech, we can talk about Syntax, and after this you’ll have a very good grasp of what goes on in Japanese sentences.

Syntax refers to the way that the ordering and grouping of words and phrases in specific orders conveys specific meanings. Syntax wonders why “John ate the apple.” and “The apple ate John.” are very different sentences.

Japanese is what linguists call a synthetic language, meaning that one has a fair amount of flexibility with how the phrases are ordered while preserving meaning. This is possible because our particles tell us the function of the phrase and not the phrase’s place in the sentence (as is the case in English.) It’s not the most synthetic language out there, and there are structure rules, but it’s something to be aware of.

What we will provide here is the core of syntax: the relationship between the arguments, the adverbs, and the verb. We will write more on syntax in the future.

Let’s start out with a guide of the different kinds of phrases and what they’re made up of. Everything optional is in green.

Inflexional Phrase: [Inflexional Phrase][Conjunction][Noun Phrase][Verb Phrase][Conjunction][Inflexional Phrase]

Verb Phrase: [Adverb Phrase][Noun Phrase][Verb]

Noun Phrase: [Verb Phrase][Adjective Phrase][Noun]

Adjective Phrase: [Adverb Phrase][Adjective]

Adverb Phrase: [Adverb Phrase][Adverb]

(We won’t talk about Adjective Phrases because they’re rare, but we’ll talk about the rest.)

So here are some important things to note.

The only thing necessary in an inflexional phrase is a verb. An inflexional phrase is essentially a sentence, or at least a complete idea.

In a verb phrase, the noun phrases we’ll call arguments: the subject and the direct and indirect objects.

Verb phrases that precede nouns are modifying the noun.

In this way of seeing things, we do not easily account for quotations; but quotations are a kind of adverb that is restricted in its positioning.

Interjections are IPs in themselves. They do not really exist as part of another sentence.

A Japanese sentence ends with a verb, aside from the ending particles, and any phrase coming after the final finite verb is called a displacement, which means that its position is irregular.

The head of a phrase is the part of speech that corresponds to the phrase; and it is always at the end of the phrase.

So let’s look at a sentence!

お母さんは高い寿司を食べて、お父さんがお酒を飲んで、お姉さんが速くタバコを吸う。
(Okaasan wa takai sushi wo tabete, otousan ga osake wo nonde, oneesan ga hayaku tabako wo suu.)
“My mother eats expensive sushi, my father drinks alcohol, and my sister smokes tobacco  quickly.”

This is a weird sentence, but it is a sentence.

Let’s identify the IPs 

[Okaasan wa takai sushi wo tabete]
[otousan ga osake wo nonde]
[oneesan ga hayaku tabako wo suu]

Now let’s identify the conjunctions

The conjunctions stem from the function of the gerunds (Te-forms) “tabete” and “nonde.” That’s okay.

Let’s identify the topical phrases in the inflexional phrases

That would be [Okaasan wa] in the first IP; and there is no other.

Let’s identify the main verb phrases

[takai sushi wo tabete]
[otousan ga osake wo nonde]
[oneesan ga hayaku tabako wo suu]

Let’s identify the main verbs

[tabete]
[nonde]
[suu]

Let’s identify the noun phrases

[takai sushi wo]
[otousan ga]
[osake wo]
[oneesan ga]
[tabako wo]

Let’s identify the modifying verb phrases

[takai]

Let’s identify the adverb phrases

[hayaku]

So everything is identified! That wasn’t so bad. Now let’s get it into the structure we described in the beginning:

[IP [IP [NP Okaasan wa] [VP [NP [VP takai] [N sushi wo]] [V tabete,]]] [conj. gerund] [VP [NP [N otousan ga]] [NP [N osake wo]]  [V nonde]],[conj. gerund] [VP[NP N [oneesan ga]] [AdvP [Adv hayaku]] [NP [N tabako wo]] [Vsuu.]]]

And that in a tree will look like this!

syntax-tree

Okay, thats it!

I hope all this has been helpful. We do explain things over and over again in our lessons, so don’t feel as if you have to memorize all this. We’re not here to test you, we’re here to help you. This is not the definitive guide to Japanese by any stretch of the imagination; but it should be enough to get you going.