Linguistic debate on the existence of subjects in Japanese (from three points of view)

By | June 1, 2016

Recently I came across this interesting post by fellow blogger Moaz Elgabry. For only having studied Japanese a few years, his Japanese writing skill is quite impressive, and I’m curious to see his thoughts on different topics.

His post discusses whether the Japanese language really needs to have a grammatical subject and how such a subject should be defined (for example, where is the subject in the sentence ”像は鼻が長い”?). It is well researched with quotes from a few Japanese scholars with his own English translations for some of them. This topic struct a chord in me since I had actually written a post about subjects in Japanese over 2 years ago here, and to this day I still feel that how subjects are handled in Japanese is one of the bigger challenges for English-speaking learners.

At first, I was going to write a brief comment to Moaz’s post with some of my opinions on this matter, but then I realized it might get long so I decided to make a whole post out of it. I also realized that rather than just focusing on subjects in Japanese, I wanted to talk about how this type of  linguistic discussion can serve different purposes depending on what your relation to the language is. So, I’ll be writing some commentary from three points of view: Japanese learner,  linguistic expert, and Japanese teacher.


POV: Japanese Learner

From the point of view of a Japanese learner, the two most important things are being able to fully comprehend what is heard and read, and being to express oneself in writing or speech. This is very utilitarian, and rightly so.

While perfect grammar is important, it is secondary, not just because these main two priorities can be fulfilled to a certain extent without perfect grammar, but also because the “rules” of grammar are a bit uncertain to begin with. In fact, for nearly all languages the “rules” we know are actually reverse engineered from how natives actually speak. This process is often done by native scholars, but it can be done by fluent foreign speakers as well. In English, we have rules like “I before E except after C”, which help us memorize proper spelling, however these were made after the fact when someone “discovered” this rule. Contrast this to something like a programming language, where humans have created every single rule from the bottom up, and those who write programs in that language must follow the grammar and syntax letter-per-letter.

A critical point here is that not only do we have to discover these grammar rules, but that they are not all that consistent once discovered. English and Japanese are both full of these, whether it’s irregular verb conjugation (pretty common in English) or just how a word sounds vs. how it is written (very irregular in English). These inconsistencies get even worse when you cross into conversational language, where things can get shortened or words dropped completely (ex: “you up for it?”)

Anyway, back to the Japanese student who is working his or her ass off to learn Japanese grammar rules. It’s definitely a good idea to learn these, but you always have to supplement your learning with a dose of “native-ness” to see how the language is really used. After all, grammar rules on their own don’t tell you which combination of words is necessarily the most natural. This brings to mind something my favorite Aikido teacher told to me, which is that “You have to learn rules in order to break them”. Although he said it in reference to learning formalized patterns in martial arts which could be then changed to apply to real-world situations, I think this also applies to learning grammar rules for a language. You learn the major rules which have the most applicability, and then you learn places where it’s safe to break these rules like in informal conversation.

On the matter of whether Japanese has, or should have subjects: the fact that (according to Moaz’s article) various academic figures disagree on what exactly defines a “subject” (主語) in Japanese is good evidence that this is an esoteric, abstract argument. Whether you call it a tuh-MAY-to or tuh-MAH-to matters little to the person eating it, as long as it’s red, juicy, and fresh. Similarly, whether the sentence “像は鼻が長い” has a subject or not is mostly irrelevant to learners of Japanese as well as native speakers.  If we translate it to the English sentence “Elephants have a long noses”, I think it’s hard to refute that it does have a subject (“Elephants”), at least if we are thinking in English terms. But once the concept of what “subject” means is open to discussion, anything is possible.

As long as a Japanese learner keeps in mind that subjects, or rather words in general, are much more frequently in Japanese than in English, I think they will be on the right path to fluency.

POV: Linguistic Expert (or someone interested in linguistics)

To a person into linguistics, grammar holds a special place as the nuts and bolts of how a language is made, how the words interact, and how to construct valid sentences. Areas where there is no clear agreement among experts can make for great debates, maybe even thesis or book material. It’s these treasure troves of possibility where grammatical rules and other concepts have not been defined yet, or at least not in a satisfactory way.

The debate on how subjects work in Japanese, and how this has evolved over time, is one of these great topics that some linguistic academics seem to be spending a great amount of thought on. I’ve studied some linguistics in my own time (here is one book I’ve read long back), and I can totally appreciate the interest and passion these people have for things like this, though I haven’t actually read the books referred to in Moaz’s article.

Having said that, I have some doubts about to what extent new revelations on this matter will impact learners of the language. Ultimately, this may end up being a “机上の空論”, a Japanese expression that refers to topic that may be fun to think about, but have little usage in the real world.

POV: Japanese Teacher

Although I am not doing any formal teaching of Japanese at present, I do have some teaching experience in other areas and hope someday I can help others learn this challenging language. I guess this blog is partially fulfilling that dream, but being able to interact with students in person will be even more rewarding. In any case, I enjoy thinking about the process and methods of teaching Japanese.

I feel that how things are defined and what terminology is used are very important elements of any foreign language learning program. When I first started learning Japanese, I read that words like 食べ and 飲み are in what is called the “pre-masu form”, and to this day that term still comes to mind when describing Japanese grammar to someone. It is both easy to understand and remember, especially after you have learned the words 食べます and 飲みます.

However, there are some Japanese teachers that instead use the technical term 連用形 (renyoukei) which amounts to the same thing. If you are planning on becoming a linguist (as in the previous POV I discussed), then surely it would benefit you to learn this and other similar terms. But is there any reason to prefer this over the more easily understood “pre-masu form”?

As I mentioned earlier in this post, it’s undoubtably important for students to learn the basic grammar rules, which includes when it is appropriate to use a sentence of the form “AはBがC” (which our example “像は鼻が長い” fits nicely into), and how the various pieces fit together gramatically.  The way I learned it was that “A” would be the “topic” and “B” would be the “subject”, although the latter of these disputed in Moaz’s article. To be honest, I don’t really like the terms “topic” and “subject” that much, since they feel so similar semantically, though if I think about it I can remember the differences (“topic” is more broad, and “subject” is talking about the do-er of a specific action).

While I’d like to find less confusing ways to describe these parts of a sentence (especially the “subject” term), Moaz’s description of が as “functioning as a modifier to add more information about its preceding word“, while it may be correct to a certain extent, could be confusing for basic learners of the language.

Ultimately, unless you’re going to become a linguist, the terminology is just a way to help transfer the concepts into your head (essentially a crutch), after which you can reformulate things in your own thoughts. It’s just a bunch of rules to make so you can forget (and break) them later, as you hopefully become fluent and develop an intuitive sense for what is natural and what isn’t.

Regardless of what terminology a teacher chooses, he or she must strive to keep students interested and focused on the material. This means that introducing the complex questions of “Is a subject really needed in Japanese sentences?” or “What is the actual subject of this sentence?” may confuse beginner to mid-level students and cause a lost of interest. In particular, bringing up how scholars are still debating on what a subject means with respect to Japanese grammar is likely to have them running for the hills. A skilled educator should know how to obscure, or at least not overly focus on certain things until the students are ready to fully appreciate and understand the more advanced material. This is one reason having two parents have an argument in front of a little child isn’t usually lauded as a good idea, since it will just confuse the child who is in such a naive state.

There is an important connection between the academic linguistic field and teaching a foreign language, which is when discoveries in the former lead to more effective methods in the latter. For example, one could look at the Japanese subject debate and decide to avoid using the word “subject” altogether in the classroom due to it’s vague and overloaded meanings.

On a final note, compared to over 20 years ago when I started learning Japanese, now we have the Internet with it’s nearly unlimited foreign language learning resources. I would argue that it’s harder to keep students in the dark about the ambiguities of languages, since if they do enough searching around they can find any material a teacher tried to steer them away from, just like giving an iPad to a small child carries risks of exposing undesirable information. The best we can do as educators is to let the self-learners do study freely as they like, and try to make sure our methods are tailored to provide proper support to those who lack the interest, time, or resources to study a language on their own. For that reason, we still have to be careful about the teaching methods we employ in our classroom, whether it is a physical classroom or virtual space online somewhere.

In closing

I feel that there is a bit of each of these point of views inside me, and it’s interesting to view a topic from multiple angles. Or should I say subject? (:

As always, I’m open to any comments or anything, or suggestions for articles.


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3 thoughts on “Linguistic debate on the existence of subjects in Japanese (from three points of view)

  1. Moaz

    Thank you for your response, I like how you break it down to different points of views.

    I wanted to add some comments as well.
    I personally study grammar to better understand language I already know. I understand that people usually learn grammar to be able to use the language at first, but once they can converse comfortably they neglect grammar, advanced grammar to be exact. while the same rules you learn as a beginner will be much different when you try to learn it again as an advanced learner, at least you will understand it in a different way as your point of view is changes in every stage of your language study. the same goes for current linguistic theories. it helps understand the subtle nuances of grammar used in daily conversations, which will make you a better user of the language, but only when you’re at the right level.

    As for my article, I don’t recommend beginner learners to read it, as I didn’t write it as a guide nor a grammar reference. keep in mind that it’s a controversial theory that hasn’t gained consensus.

    “something like a programming language, where humans have created every single rule from the bottom up, and those who write programs in that language must follow the grammar and syntax letter-per-letter.”

    I had a chance to see a friend coding a dictionary with translation features, and noticed how the ambiguity of the subject is causing the translation to be so messy. because when humans learn Japanese they can understand where the subject is (semantics-wise) but the program can’t.

    “There is an important connection between the academic linguistic field and teaching a foreign language, which is when discoveries in the former lead to more effective methods in the latter. ”

    I think that developing educational methods should be done by a combination of linguists, psychologists and pedagogy experts to be able to develop the right method.

    1. locksleyu Post author

      I agree with all of your points (:

      I realize you wrote this for a certain level of learner, but reading it made me think about these three different ways to view linguistics in general.

      Thanks for providing interesting stuff to think about (:

  2. kaoru

    The French method I had in high school (mid-2000s) was using the grammatical word “prédcat” instead. Except they didn’t use it the right way. They tried to avoid the word “subject” for は and が the best they could though.
    Your article makes sense and I don’t see why there is a controversy to be fair. It seems like the Japanese tried to understand their language from the Indo-European ones at some point and it’s confusing. Some sentences in English and French are grammatical correct without a subject (like imperative forms, interjections (Hello!)…) and nobody seem to care. It shouldn’t be a far fetched to apply that logic to a whole language.


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