Japanese doesn’t need a subject because the elephant’s nose is long

As an active Japanese learner I extensively studied grammar among other things to get to this point now. And when I tried to learn Japanese at first I learned that sentence construction in Japanese is SOV (Subject-Object-Verb) as opposed to the English structure SVO (Subject-Verb-Object).

(Edit:I didn’t have beginner learners of Japanese in mind when I wrote this article, If you’re a beginner it might just confuse you)

This is the very first basic lesson I learned about Japanese grammar, however as I learned more, and as I gained more experience, I started to feel that is not really a practical lesson. I felt that it’s something like a mnemonic to make sure you don’t mess up the order of the sentence. Especially that in speech I rarely noticed any implicit subject. Most people explain this as “The subject is omitted” “The subject is inferred”. That explanation wasn’t enough to convince me, so I kept wondering whether there was actually any subject, until I found this book.

日本語に主語はいらない」(金谷武洋著、講談社メチェ刊)

I will introduce what I found out from this book about whether there is a subject in Japanese grammar or not.

The reason we look for the subject in the Japanese sentence is that when Japanese people learn grammar at school they look for the subject as they do in English, so they simulate the sentence as if it was constructed the same as English, and look for the subject. And because they’re told that there is a subject, they look first at the predicate they have and try to figure out what the subject might be, sometimes speculate and just make it up.

The famous example of 「私はあなたを愛しています」which of course no one would ever say. What a Japanese native would say is「好きだ」or「愛しているよ」and it would be considered a complete sentence, and communication happens. However, in education either for Japanese learners or Japanese natives we are taught the there is a hidden inferred subject as well as a hidden inferred object.

 

The fact of the matter is, there is no subject, Kanaya asserts that Japanese sentence can be formed by the predicate only. The concept of requiring a subject began to appear in the Meiji period after making contact with European culture; It was a period Japanese people tried so hard to keep up with, and excel over other developed countries.

You must know that Indo-European languages require a subject to form a sentence, so the Japanese thought if they have a subject, then we must have one as well. That’s probably why they pretend to have a subject now.

Japanese subject
Cut me some slack, I’m not talented.

Kanaya’s theory was the answer I had been looking for all this time, it made the scales fall from eyes, although this theory doesn’t have consensus among linguists I found it very true.

He dropped a bombshell when he said “Japanese sentence can be formed with only a predicate”, it’s worth mentioning that Kanaya wasn’t the first one to think so, before him Akira Mikami a grammar researcher also had the same theory. Kanaya In order to explain his theory he raised 3 basic complete sentences as an example, but his definition of a complete sentence was, if you can form the negative and past tense by slightly altering it, then it stands as sentence.

「その基本文を変形するだけで否定や過去形に出来るかどうか、それができればそれは文である。」

基本文

否定形 過去形 備考

1

好きだ。 好きじゃない。 好きだった。 名詞文、形容動詞文も含む
2 楽しい。 楽しくない。 楽しかった。

形容詞文

3 笑う。 笑わない。 笑った。

動詞文

 

You can see that the above three types of basic sentences are all complete according to Kanaya’s definition, in other words, There is no need for the concept of having a subject. There wasn’t any in the first place. However, a question surely will pop up in your head. You would think about who is doing the action of the verb? He? She? Who?! And to whom does the action occur? you will still presume that you need a subject.

It might be easier to understand if we think about the English sentence, if we take the sentence 「好きだ。」as example, you know “Love,” is not a sentence. It must be something like “I love you,”or” He loves it,” not only there has to be a subject in the sentence, but also the conjugation is dependent on the subject. If the subject is “He” then the verb conjugation changes to “Loves”, moreover, transitive verbs require an object as well, unless all the factors are present in a sentence it wouldn’t be complete. In the Japanese sentence「好きだ。」is a complete sentence , however, the equivalent English sentence needs a subject and a correct conjugation that agrees with it to be complete, so because such Indo-European languages require a subject, they need to look for one.

In the Japanese sentence, even though it does not require a subject you will want to know who is doing the action of the verb, this has to do with meaning more than grammar. Kanaya thinks that we only think this way because we have been brain-washed in school to always look for a subject, when in fact the Japanese sentence can be valid without one. Of course there are grammar researchers and famous linguists like Chomsky who would disagree with me, but even though I only started to study grammar and linguistic for just a couple of years, this is how I understand it:

日本語では、その「状態」を述べれば、文・言語が成立するということ、そして欧米語ではその「状態」だけでなく、その状態と関わる「人物・主体」が同時に示されないと文・言語が決まらないということです。

 

In Japanese the language (sentence) is valid by conveying the state of things, however in languages of Europe and America unless you convey the persons or the subject related to the state of things the Language (Sentence) wouldn’t stand valid.

 

For example, 「白い。」would be a valid complete sentence in Japanese representing the least amount of information needed to form one. Of course, someone might ask「何が?」then you can answer 「雪が」「雲が」either way the meaning is conveyed, you can always add complements to convey more information, but the crucial part is that a simple 「白い。」is a complete sentence. On the other hand, the least amount of information to form the same sentence in English is “It’s white” the absolute necessity of the subject “It” is the distinctive difference, “White” doesn’t form a valid sentence on its own. That’s why a subject is not needed in Japanese. The point is they do not omit it on purpose in every sentence. It’s just not there and it’s not needed.

This topic has been so controversial and many scholars have tried to tackle it, and this sentence is famous as an example when trying to explain it:

「象は鼻が長い」

Kyotami Kusano explains it as:

象は

鼻が 長い
総主 主語

説明後

In contrast with the above, Shinkichi Hashimoto explains it as:

象は

鼻が 長い

総主

主語

説明後

述語節

As for the first sentence, Kusano explains that the subject is 「鼻」, and in the second sentence Hashimoto explains that the subject is「像」, they both at least agree that there is a subject. However, Kanaya who is also a supportive of Akira’s theory say that they are both wrong and that there is no subject in Japanese.

 

この文には主語がひとつもない。日本語にそもそも主語など不要なのだから当然と言えば当然だが、二重主語どころではないのだ。「象は」は主題であり、文がここで切れている。「象について話しますよ」と聞き手の注意を引いておき、それに続く話し手のコメントが「鼻が長い」だ。「主語」という外来の範疇に囚われているから総主「論争」などが出てくるので、これは初めから前提が間違っている「疑似問題」なのである。 (『日本語文法の謎を解く』79~80ページ)

 

“There is not even one subject in this sentence, Japanese doesn’t even need a subject not to mention two. 「象は」is a topic, and the sentence is cut to grab the listener’s attention that further information will follow. The complement of the sentence is the speaker’s extra information 「鼻が長い」, it’s only because we try to find a subject we clash with such pseudo problems.”

 

This explains that Japanese sentence doesn’t have a subject but “a topic” and the topic has some connection with the particle 「は」, Kanaya again brings up two famous example sentence to explains the special characteristics of 「は」. The first one is called「うなぎ文」and the second one is 「こんにゃく文」, look at the following examples:

うなぎ文

In a setting when a group of people go to a restaurant and someone orders 「俺は、天ぷらにする」and another one orders「俺はうなぎだ」
こんにゃく文

When typically saying「こんにゃくは太らない」you can of course guess that this is a dieting advice.

If we are to contrast this with English, 「俺はうなぎだ」is translated as “I am an eel,” which gives a completely different meaning. In the same way「こんにゃくは太らない」becomes “Kon’nyaku doesn’t get fat”, you see if you systematically consider「は」as a subject marking particle we get this weird sentences. If we want to properly translate those sentences it might be something like “as for me, I will have an eel” and “as for Kon’nyaku, it won’t make you fat”

So the particle「は」introduces a topic, not a subject. It’s roughly translated as “as for” “regarding”.

So what about 「が」, for the above example 「鼻が長い」the 「が」after「鼻」is functioning as a modifier to add more information about its preceding word. And again this particle is not to mark the subject. Another example is words like 「我が国」「我が家」The 「が」in such sentences is modifying the preceding word and adding more details or information about it.

 

The bottom line is, the particles「は」and「が」that were thought to mark the subject, turned out to have a completely different function. 「は」Introduces a topic, and「が」modifies a word by adding explanatory information. Furthermore, 「は」doesn’t only relate to one topic in one sentence, but its range goes beyond several clauses that follows. Akira Mikami explains more about this by taking an example from the well-known novel 「吾輩は猫である」as the first few sentences make a great example of how 「は」can be related to several consecutive sentences.

 

 吾輩は-->猫である。

-->名前はまだない。

-->どこで生まれたか頓と見当がつかぬ。

-->なんでも薄暗いじめじめした所でニャーニャー泣いて居た事丈は記憶して居る。

こう説明されると、「は」のスーパー助詞ぶりは明らかだろう。それぞれの述語との文法関係とは一切無関係のまま、「は」はひとつひとつの文に係っては結び、その勢いを次へ次へと及ぼすことが出来るのだ。「は」がひとつの文を越えるとは!(『日本語文法の謎を解く』72~73ページ)

 

 

If you like me find this a fascinating unique characteristic of Japanese language, I hope you share your thoughts with me in the comment.

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