Japanese Case Particles and Their Evil Twins!

Originally posted on Tumblr on March 22nd, 2017

Hey guys!

We wanted to take a moment to return to the idea of case particles and perhaps create a more refined model.

So, to review some terms real quick…

Nouns in Japanese don’t generally decline for number (meaning that they are not explicitly plural or singular or anything in between), but they decline by case.

Grammatical case refers to a function or identity that the noun carries. In English, the pronouns decline into nominative, genitive and objective.

Nominative: He, She, They

Objective: Him, Her, Them

Genitive: His, Her, Their

Japanese marks case through particles. Indo-European languages, like English, tend to do them by suffixes that are sometimes to figure out. So we’re very lucky, in a way.

Linguists aren’t in total agreement as to how many cases Japanese has, mainly because of a few odd places one sees Japanese’s case particles. But here are the cases that are indicated.

Topical (は/wa): indicates the topic of the sentence. It exists pretty independently.

Nominative (が/ga): indicates the subject of the sentence.

Accusative (を/wo): indicates the direct object.

Genitive (の/no): indicates possession of categorization.

Dative (に/ni): indicates the indirect object and location.

Instrumental (で/de): indicates a tool or cause.

Lative [or Locative] (へ/e): indicates direction toward.

Ablative (から/kara): indicates direction from.

Cases in any given language will tend to have multiple functions. In fact, there is a good likelihood that secondary functions of the same cases are repeated between languages. That is to say, if the accusative in Japanese can sometimes indicate motion through, it is likely that another language will have one such indication. And that is the case. There are also various “datives of manner,” which is what the “adverbial ni” actually is.

We here for now tend to talk about a topical, nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and locative. We don’t talk about the ablative, and the idea of calling the locative lative seems to be a remnant from the old idea that Japanese is related to Uralic languages (like Finnish and Estonian.) But it works really well, so we’ll keep it around.

(By the way, it’s generally accepted that Japanese is a language isolate. The idea of an “Altaic” family has been discredited, which I believe is a concept that was taught many years ago to Japanese (and Korean) students, so you’ll find language books claiming that Japanese (and Korean) is an Altaic language.)

The ablative, on the other hand, we’re afraid to indicate because of its “evil twin.” An “evil twin” is a counterpart to a case particle that works in a manner that is very different from the original case particle.

We often see “kara” as a post-position (or you can call it a conjunction, it really doesn’t really matter right  now.) The thing is that it will work with an entire verb phrase, which is not okay.

Japanese Evil Twins:

から (kara): marks a cause or reason. (”because”)

が (ga): conjunction, marks that both inflexional sentences are not comparable, meaning that you wouldn’t figure that one follows from the other. (”though…”)

で (de): post-postition, marks the location of an action when the location itself is not very relevant to the action. (”at,” or “in”)

の (no): attributive copula, serves as the copula in an attribute phrase. (”…that is…”

と (to): conditional conjunction, marks that the occurrence of an action is dependent on another. (If…)

We didn’t speak of “to,” because we are unsure if it’s a conjunction or if it is a comitative case marker. The comitative case marks that an action is done with or in the company of, which is possible in Japanese but it is rare. (E.g. 僕と行きますか? Will you go with me?)

The plot thickens:

If から is a case particle, an ablative, then まで (made) surely must be a case particle. And some have suggested to call it a “limitative” case, which would be unique to Japanese (as far as we know). But the nice thing about cases is that they’re something you can see in multiple languages, so we’re hesitant to concede that. That’s why we’d rather treat both as post-positions.

Japanese grammar tends to deal with this by calling them all “particles” and then giving them as many jobs as needed, but thinking of them all as a single grammatical unit. The bad thing about this, of course, is that then you don’t have “case” particles and it ignores the patterns seen in the case particles when compared to so many other languages.

But it is very strange that we have so many evil twins. It’s easy to dismiss one or two, but five (or six), that is a lot. The answers to all this probably lie in the history of the language, with things stemming from Old and Middle Japanese, some things most likely lost to us (things like idiomatic phrases truncated). So we’ll have to wait a while to figure it all out.

Anyway, we just thought you’d find this interesting. Food for thought.