Japanese equivalents of adjectives
The Japanese language does not have words that function as adjectives in a syntactic sense, i.e. tree diagrams of Japanese sentences can be constructed without employing adjective phrases. However, there are words that function as adjectives in a semantic sense. This article deals with these words.
Types of adjective
In Japanese, nouns and verbs can modify nouns, with nouns taking the 〜の particles when functioning attributively (in the genitive case), and verbs in the attributive form (連体形 rentaikei). These are considered separate classes of words, however.
Most of words that can be considered to be adjectives in Japanese fall into two categories– variants of verbs, and nouns:
- adjective (Japanese: 形容詞, keiyōshi, literally "adjective"), or i-adjectives
- These can be considered specialized verbs, and have a conjugating ending -i which can become, for example, past or negative. For example, atsui (暑い) "hot":
- 暑い日 (Atsui hi) ("a hot day")
- 今日は暑い。(Kyō wa atsui.) ("Today is hot.")
- These can be considered a form of noun; these attach to a form of the copula, which then inflects, but use 〜な -na (rather than the genitive 〜の) when modifying a noun. For example, hen (変) "strange":
- 変な人 (Hen-na hito) ("a strange person")
- 彼は変だ。(Kare wa hen da.) ("he is strange.")
Both the predicative forms (終止形 shūshikei "terminal form") and attributive forms (連体形 rentaikei) of adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns can be analyzed as verb phrases, making the attributive forms of adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns relative clauses, rather than adjectives. According to this analysis, Japanese has no syntactic adjectives.
Japanese adjectives that do not fall into either of these categories are usually grouped into a grab bag category:
- attributives (連体詞, rentaishi, literally "attributive")
- These may only occur before nouns, not in a predicative position. They are various in derivation and word class, and are generally analyzed as variants of more basic classes, where this specific form (possibly a fossil) can only be used in restricted settings. For example, ōkina (大きな) "big" (variant of 大きい):
- 大きな事(Ōkina koto) ("a big thing")
A couple of small sub-categories can be distinguished in these categories, reflecting former grammatical distinctions or constructions which no longer exist:
- -shii adjectives (form of -i adjectives, see below)
- -yaka na adjectives (see below)
- -raka na adjectives (see below)
- taru adjectives (ト・タル形容動詞, to,taru keiyōdōshi, literally "to, taru adjectival noun")
- These are a variant of the common na-nominals (adjectival noun; see article for naming) that developed in Late Old Japanese and have mostly died out, surviving in a few cases as fossils; they are usually classed as a form of 形容動詞 (adjectival noun), as the Japanese name indicates.
- These are words that were traditionally earlier forms of na-nominals, but that followed a path similar to taru adjectives, surviving in a few cases as fossils. These are generally classed as rentaishi.
Adjectival verbs (keiyōshi) may predicate sentences and inflect for past, negative, etc. As they head verb phrases, they can be considered a type of verbal (verb-like part of speech). Their inflections are different and not so numerous as full verbs. Conversely, the negative plain form of a verb is an adjective: it ends in 〜ない -na-i, which then inflects as an i-adjective.
The stem of i-adjectives can combine (prepend on the left), similar to the stem form (-masu stem) of verbs, though this is less common than for verbs. Conversely, nouns or verb stems can sometimes prepend i-adjectives, or two i-adjectives can combine, forming compound modifiers; these are much less common than Japanese compound verbs. Common examples include omo-shiro-i (面白い, interesting) "face-whitening" (noun + i-adjective) and zuru-gashiko-i (狡賢い, sly) "crafty-clever" (i-adjective stem + i-adjective), while haya-tochiri (早とちり, going off half-cocked) "fast-fumble" (i-adjective stem + verb stem) shows an adjective stem joining to form a noun.
A number of i-adjectives end in 〜しい -shii (sometimes written -sii). These are overwhelmingly words for feelings, like 悲しい kanashii "sad" or 嬉しい ureshii "happy". These were originally a separate class of adjectives, dating at least to Old Japanese, where the two classes are known as -ku and -shiku (corresponding to -i and -shii), but they merged over the course of Late Middle Japanese, and now shii-adjectives are simply a form of i-adjectives. See Old Japanese: Adjectives and Late Middle Japanese: Adjectives for details.
Adjectival nouns (keiyō-dōshi) always occur with a form of the copula, traditionally considered part of the adjectival noun itself. The only difference between nouns and adjectival nouns is in the attributive form, where nouns take no and adjectives take na. This has led many linguists to consider them a type of nominal (noun-like part of speech). Together with this form of the copula they may also predicate sentences and inflect for past, negative, etc.
-yaka na adjectives
There are a number of na adjectives ending in 〜やか -yaka, particularly for subjective words (compare -i adjectives ending in -shii). This is believed to be a combination of two suffixes 〜や -ya and 〜か -ka, where -ya mean "softness" and -ka meant "apparent, visible" (similar to modern 〜そう -sō, which is also followed by 〜な), hence the combination -ya-ka meant "appears somewhat ..., looks slightly ...". This was believed to have been used in the Nara era, and have become particularly popular in the Heian period, but is no longer productive. In some cases the original word is now only used (or almost always used) in the -yaka form, such as 鮮やか aza-yaka "vivid, brilliant", 穏やか oda-yaka "calm, gentle", and 爽やか sawa-yaka "fresh, clear", while in other cases the word is used in isolation, such as 雅 miyabi "elegant, graceful", which is used alongside 雅やか miyabi-yaka "elegant, graceful", and in other cases a related word also exists, such as 賑やか nigi-yaka "bustling, busy" and the verb 賑わう nigi-wau "be bustling, be busy". The most basic of these is 賑やか nigi-yaka "bustling, busy", but many of these are everyday words. Due to the -yaka being originally a suffix, it is written as okurigana, even though the compound word may now be a fixed unit.
-raka na adjectives
Similarly, there are also a few na adjectives ending in 〜らか -raka, of similar origin. These are generally less subjective, but declined in popularity relative to the -yaka construction in the Heian period Notable examples include 明らか aki-raka "clear, obvious" and 柔らか／軟らか yawa-raka "soft, gentle". As with -yaka words, the 〜らか is written out as okurigana.
A variant of na adjectives exist, which take 〜たる -taru when functioning attributively (as an adjective, modifying a noun), and 〜と -to when functioning adverbally (when modifying a verb), instead of the 〜な -na and 〜に -ni which are mostly used with na adjectives. taru adjectives do not predicate a sentence (they cannot end a sentence, as verbs and i-adjectives can) or take the copula (as na-adjectives and nouns can), but must modify a noun or verb. Note that sometimes na adjectives take a 〜と, and Japanese sound symbolism generally take a (sometimes optional) 〜と, though these are different word classes.
There are rather few of these words, and they usually considered somewhat stiff or archaic; this word class is generally not covered in textbooks for foreign language learners of Japanese. One of the most common is 堂々 dōdō "magnificent, stately". These are referred to in Japanese as ト・タル形容動詞 (to, taru keiyōdōshi) or タルト型活用 (taruto-kata katsuyō – “taro, to form conjugation”).
There are also a few naru adjectives such as 単なる tannaru "mere, simple" or 聖なる seinaru "holy", which developed similarly to taru-adjectives. As with taru adjectives, these cannot predicate or take the copula, but must modify a noun (though not a verb – these only modify nouns via なる, not verbs via ×に), and often occur in set phrases, such as Mother Nature (母なる自然 haha-naru shizen). In Late Old Japanese, tari adjectives developed as a variant of nari adjectives. Most nari adjectives became na adjectives in Modern Japanese, while tari adjectives either died out or survived as taru adjective fossils, but a few nari adjectives followed a similar path to the tari adjectives and became naru adjective fossils. They are generally classed into rentaishi.
Attributives (rentaishi) are few in number, and unlike the other words, are strictly limited to modifying nouns. Rentaishi never predicate sentences. They derive from other word classes, and so are not always given the same treatment syntactically. For example, ano (あの, "that") can be analysed as a noun or pronoun a plus the genitive ending no; aru (ある or 或る, "a certain"), saru (さる, "a certain"), and iwayuru (いわゆる, "so-called") can be analysed as verbs (iwayuru being an obsolete passive form of the verb iu (言う) "to speak"); and ōkina (大きな, "big") can be analysed as the one remaining form of the obsolete adjectival noun ōki nari. Attributive onaji (同じ, "the same") is sometimes considered to be a rentaishi, but it is usually analysed as simply an irregular adjectival verb (note that it has an infinitive onajiku). The final form onaji, which occurs with the copula, is usually considered to be a noun, albeit one derived from the adjectival verb.
It can be seen that attributives are analysed variously as nouns, verbs, or adjectival nouns.
Various archaic forms from Middle Japanese remain as fossils, notably 良し yoshi "good, ok" and 無し nashi "nothing" – in modern grammar 良い yoi and 無い nai, respectively. Similarly, 古き良き furuki yoki "good old (days etc.)" uses archaic forms of 古い furui "old" and 良い yoi "good".
Adjectival verbs (i-adjectives) are inflected by dropping the -i from the end and replacing it with the appropriate ending. Adjectival nouns (na-adjectives) are inflected by dropping the -na and replacing it with the appropriate form of the verb da, the copula.
|present||past||present neg.||past neg.|
|i adjective||あつい (atsui)||あつかった (atsukatta)||あつくない (atsuku nai)||あつくなかった (atsuku nakatta)|
|na adjective||へんだ (hen da)||へんだった (hen datta)||へんではない (hen de wa nai)||へんではなかった (hen de wa nakatta)|
The de wa in the conjugation of the copula is often contracted in speech to ja.
Both adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns form adverbs. In the case of adjectival verbs, -i changes to -ku:
- atsuku naru "become hot"
and in the case of adjectival nouns, na changes to ni:
- hen ni naru "become strange"
In a few cases, a 〜に form of a word is common while a 〜な form is rare or non-existent, as in makoto-ni (誠に, sincerely) – makoto (誠, sincerity) is common, but *makoto-na (×誠な, sincere) is generally not used.
Both adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns are made more polite by the use of desu, but the way that desu is used is different. With adjectival verbs, desu is added directly after the inflected plain form and has no syntactic function; its only purpose is to make the utterance more polite (see Honorific speech in Japanese). With adjectival nouns, desu is used in its role as the polite form of the copula, therefore replacing da (the plain form of the copula) in the plain form of these adjectives.
|plain||polite||polite past||polite neg.||polite past neg.|
|keiyōshi||atsui||atsuidesu||atsukatta desu||atsuku arimasen
atsuku nai desu
|atsuku arimasen deshita
atsuku nakatta desu
|keiyōdōshi||hen da||hen desu||hen deshita||hen de wa arimasen||hen de wa arimasen deshita|
|This page||Japanese (kanji)||Japanese (rōmaji)||Other names|
|adjectival verbs||形容詞||keiyōshi||adjectival verbs, i-adjectives, adjectives, stative verbs|
|adjectival nouns||形容動詞||keiyōdōshi||adjectival nouns, na-adjectives, copular nouns, quasi-adjectives, nominal adjectives, adjectival verbs|
|attributives||連体詞||rentaishi||attributives, true adjectives, prenominals, pre-noun adjectivals|
The Japanese word keiyōshi is used to denote an English adjective.
Because the widespread study of Japanese is still relatively new in the Western world, there are no generally accepted English translations for the above parts of speech, with varying texts adopting different sets, and others extant not listed above.
- In the traditional Japanese grammar, keiyō-dōshi, literally "adjective verb", includes the copula, while the adjectival noun in the analysis shown here does not include it. For example, in the traditional grammar, kirei da is a keiyō-dōshi and kirei is its stem; in the analysis here, kirei is an adjectival noun and kirei da is its combination with the copula. Considering the copula is a kind of verb and kirei is a kind of noun syntactically, both names make sense.
- 3.11. Why are there so many adjectives ending in yaka?
- post by JimmySeal on 2007 October 06 in What on earth is a たる adjective? at Reviewing the Kanji forum
- A list of taru adjectives is given at: List of -taru Adjectives, Michael Panzer, BlastitWonner, February 24, 2009
- answer by Boaz Yaniv, 2011 Jun 13, to What exactly is a “taru adjective” at Japanese Language & Usage, StackExchange
- post by akibare on 2005-12-23 at -たる? on linguaphiles forum
- Why does Japanese have two kinds of adjectives? (-i adjectives and -na adjectives), Boaz Yaniv, 2011 Jun 13, Japanese Language & Usage, Stack Exchange