Sumary: Japanese word order

Bittor Hidalgo v.hidalgo at
Fri Jul 29 15:26:25 UTC 2005

Some 20 days ago I addressed a question about the real or claimed rigidity of verb-final order of Japanese (just to prod the discussion somehow a prototypical citation from «MSN ENCARTA - Japanese Language»: «Japanese permits a variety of word orders as long as the verb remains at the end of the sentence. // The most significant part of a clause or sentence is referred to as the head, and in Japanese the head is always placed at the end. The verb is the head of a typical Japanese sentence and appears at the end»). But I especially asked about this "rigid" order possible historical evolution, and dialectal or sociolectal (children language, ...) variability. I explicitly cited Clancy (1982), Shibamoto (1985) and Matsumoto (2003) as different testimonies of the existence of -at least- exceptions to the verb-final rule. I addressed the same question to LinguistList, Funknet and Jpling, and will resume the most interesting answers.

Tom Givon and Dan I. Slobin remembered that these kinds of discussions were like "old hats" that "must already be" surmounted (even if they are not). T. Givon explicitly stated that: "All natural languages with 'rigid' word-order have much free-er word-order in actual natural (oral) communication, with much pragmatically-determined variation. Put another way, rigid VO [WO] is relative, never absolute." And added: "The normal degree of VO [WO] variability in most 'rigid'-VO [WO] languages is 5%-10% of the total sample."

Bart Mathias stated in the same way: "Spoken Japanese is not quite a *rigid* verb-final language, but when the verb (plus suffixes) is followed by anything, what follows is always a sort of afterthought, or correction--addition of data that might not be understood after all. // The "afterthoughts" may be themes, subjects, objects (direct or indirect), or adverbials."

But I have not received not found myself many references of works studying these not verb-final sentences' uses, their values, circumstances and real quantifications, and I don't understand that absence of interest (it is so easy to find statements about Japanese verb-final rigid condition -as that from Encarta-, and why is it so difficult to find the other references? Don't they exist?). Here some references that I received or found myself:

Clancy, P.M. (1982) «Written and Spoken Style in Japanese Narratives». In D. Tannen (ed.) Spoken and Written Language. Exploring Orality and Literacy (2nd printing), Ablex Publishing Corporation, Norwood, New Jersey, 1984, 55-76.

Endo, Y. (1996) «Right dislocation». In M. Koizumi, M. Oishi, U. Sauerland (eds.) Formal Approaches to Japanese Linguistics 2, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 29, 1-20.

Fujii, Y. (1989) Right dislocation in Japanese discourse. M.A. thesis, Univ. of Oregon at Eugene.

Matsumoto, K. (2003) Intonation Units in Japanese Conversation. Syntactic, informational and functional structures. J. Benjamins, 2003.

Ono, T; R. Suzuki (1992) «¿Word order variability in Japanese conversation: Motivations and grammaticization». Text 12, 429-45.

Sells, P. (1999) «Postposing in Japanese». (www)

Shibamoto, J. (1985) Japanese Women's Language. London Academic Press.

Shimizu, H. (2000) Information Status and Free Word Order in Japanese: An Analysis of Scrambling and Right-Dislocation. (Linguistics Students Association. Department of Linguistics - San Diego State University - Recent Graduates)

Siegel, M.; E.M. Bender (2004) «Head-Initial Constructions in Japanese». Proceedings of the HPSG04 Conference, Univ. Leuven, S. Müller (ed.), 2004, CSLI Publ. (www)

Simon, M.E. (1989) An Analysisi of the Postposing Construction in Japanese. Doctoral dissertation, University of Michigan.

About historical data Bart Mathias clearly states: "Whether it has *always* been so [rigd verb-final], who can say? We only have data for a millennium and a quarter. In that data, so far as I have seen, such postposing of pre-verb elements does not occur in prose, even in dialog. (I suspect cases might be found in poetry.)" But I didn't find either any reference about word order historical variation. Maybe because it is absolutely true as G.B. Sansom states (An Historical Grammar of Japanese 1928 [1995], 339) "word order can be said to have remained unchanged -c'est à dire, has been verb-final- since the Nara period -710-784 a.D., I think-"?. But the same Sansom cites there lists of exceptions (338-9),"most in poetical or rhetorical language, but corresponding usages are to be found n modern colloquial" // or "Japanese prose writers are often tempted to imitate Chinese word order" -not rigidly verb final at least-).

B. Mathias explicitly cites also the fairly omission of the verb in Japanese, but he confesses to have not idea where find a study and collection about theses cases in real discourse.

And I would be very interested in them, because as discussed with Mark A. Mandel it seems that the verb, and the verb position in a sentence (in long sentences) has a close relationship with processing difficulty in *any language* (and because of that the advice taken from «Sometimes it is good to start from the end of the sentence and work your way to the beginning. In that way you will learn the most important info first (the verb) and move to what is made to happen and who does it.»). I will bring here part of our discussion, just in case anybody is interested to participate, because it can be enlarged to other reputed (more or less rigid) verb final languages as Korean, Turkish or Basque.

We compared the relative difficulty/facility of processing "in any language" of the next 2 sentence orders (I don't know if the English -syntax, ....- is very correct, but for the example it is the same), and will repeat the discussion:

*A friend of mine asked me last weekend if I could ever be ready to run in the face of the bulls in Pamplona as Hemingway did in his youth, or at least counts in his books, in these first days of July*

And asked: "Can you imagine a sentence of that type (not so strange at least written) with the main verb final? Read it again:"

*A man that I met here some mounts ago, if you were apt to understand what had happened with the many he borrowed from your old sister when he was ill and couldn't work at all for a long year, didn't ask me*

A possible reader (hearer) won't know clearly what is the sentence talking about until (s)he receives the final verb, and just as (s)he doesn't know what kind of verb will be (because it can be *asked me* instead of *didn't ask me* (or in other sentences *said me* or *denied me*, etc.), the message receiver can not erase from his/her working memory any part of the sentence before receiving the main verb because (s)he doesn't know any predicative universe to integrate it, and try to maintain all the information active until the verb, which seems very difficult because of general limitations of our verbal working memory. I don't know if you feel at easy reading the second sentence, but I can assure you that we, Basque users -as I myself am-, feel not at easy. And Basques don't normally give -and have not historically given- verbs final in long sentences, at least as frequently as they can give them final in short ones. And I wanted to know what happens with Japanese or Korean users in these conditions, and because of that was my question, with the last citation from the web ("start reading by the end"), which is also what Basque teachers recommend their pupils when they have to read an author that wants to be especially verb final as a rule.

The discussion then can be extended to all pretended more or less rigid SOV languages as Korean, (more similar to Japanese, but with a lot of non verb final exceptions), Turkish (where as Dan I Slobin states (and others) statistical data are not conclusive and children don't show especial preference for SOV) or Basque (that statistically is nowadays and has historically been SVO without any doubt (%55,3), against the pretended SOV (%23,4) as I show in my papers; even if Basque acts undoubtedly as an OV language, better XV -where X = any complement- in short sentences, or short sentential segments -head final-). The question is that at least in Basque things change a lot in longer sentences or longer segments (as T. Givon explicitly states talking about OV languages in general: "longer complements (verbal complement clauses) tend to be post-verbal more often than shorter (nominal) objects/adverbs.") My big question is how do Japanese, Korean or Turkish people actually manage in these long sentences. Because reading the papers it seems they continue being "rigidly verb final". Can anyone help me?


Thanks also to Melanie Siegel and Mark Mitchell for their post-verbal particles' comments.


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