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THE NATURE OF THE JAPANESE VERB, SO-CALLED.
BY BENJAMIN SMITH LYMAN.
(Read April 12, 1912.)
In the first place, what is properly a verb? The term was first applied to a clearly defined class of Greek and Latin words, and has ever since been supposed to belong to words of essentially similar character in those and other languages. As the old grammars undertake to describe that character, a verb is a word that signifies to be, to do, or to suffer; that is, broadly an action; but is the definition not so general that it might include even the words existence, action, experience? Is a verb not more precisely and distinctively a term that in a single word expresses not only being, doing, or suffering, but at the same time indicates personality, time, mood and voice, either all of them, or, at least, personality ? Under personality, may be included an indication not merely of the person strictly speaking (whether first, second or third) of the subject, but its number, and in some languages its gender. Even the so-called impersonal verbs of Latin showed that their true subject was of the third person, either some undefined being, as in tonuit, it thunders, or a clause, as in placet, it pleases. It may be objected that many parts of the English verb do not of themselves indicate personality at all, as in: we work, you work, they work. But it can be answered, even without urging that the word work is, in reality, not a verb, that the general scheme of inflection in a language is not invalidated by the fact that in some cases the same form recurs; as, for example, the nominative, accusative and vocative of Latin and Greek neuter nouns. It is, however, preposterous to set up a scheme of inflection where all the forms throughout all the words of the whole language are the same. To the objection that may also be raised that the infinitive and certain other parts of, for instance, the Latin verb do not indicate the person of the subject, it might be answered that those parts are not strictly verbs, any more than the
word action is, and that they have only been classed under verbs because they are in mode of formation closely connected with them, and have at least some semblance of voice, mood, tense, and govern any direct or indirect object in the same case as the other verbal forms. It may, however, be admitted that for these reasons, especially the last, certain forms without the distinction of person may be classed with verbs that have it; but it may well be considered extravagant to set up a class of verbs which do not have in any form whatever any indication of person.
The so-called Japanese verb is, clearly, not only lacking throughout every form in the essential feature of person (including number and gender), but it completely lacks also any true indication of time, mood, or voice; only in voice is there an approach to such an indication, which, nevertheless, is very readily explained without recourse to the device of calling the words verbs, and is no more marked an indication than is found in the very words existence, action, experience, which no one pretends to call verbs. Indeed, one of the absurdities of our foreign grammars of Japanese has been that the same particle that was called an indication of the object (the accusative) of a verb in the active voice, was necessarily called the sign of the subject of the same verb in the passive voice. If it be objected that, according to these principles, there would be strictly speaking no passive voice in English, the fact may readily be admitted; for the English passive seems really to be wholly a factitious one, the nearest translation we can give of the Latin.
The Japanese verb, then, is a word that indicates neither person, gender, number, time, mood nor voice; has, therefore, not a single distinguishing characteristic of the verbs of other languages. It is plainly nothing but a verbal noun (like working, striking, loving), with which it agrees in every respect, not only in the presence of the features which it has, but in the absence of those which it has not. Just like other nouns, it has, at times, postpositions joined to it, and is joined to other nouns as an adjective, just as nouns are used as adjectives in English.
This real character of the Japanese verb did not clearly appear to me, at field-work in Japan, in 1873, until after six or eight months of greenly groping, misled by the common grammars; but, then, the
idea was of the greatest value in aiding progress in the use of the language. It seemed, however, certain that a principle so elementary, important and obvious must have been long ago perceived by professed philologists, and should have been made familiar to schoolchildren at the outset of linguistic studies. At length, after two or three months more of absence in the mountains, a return to Tokio made possible a confident and successful search for some previously published elucidation of the facts. It was, to be sure, found only in one place, in a brief and much too neglected note by the great Wm. von Humboldt on Oyanguren's Japanese Grammar, published by the Société Asiatique in the Supplément à la Grammaire Japonaise du Père Rodriguez, Paris, 1826. Notwithstanding Humboldt's knowledge of Japanese was doubtless very slight, compared with what hundreds of Americans and Europeans now possess, his acumen was sufficient to perceive that the Japanese verbal forms essentially differed from the European verb. He said (page 6): "Les verbes Japonais portent moins que ceux des autres langues le caractère verbal, par la circonstance que leurs inflexions ne varient jamais, quant aux personnes (gram. de Rodr., § 26); car ce qui caractérise surtout le verbe, c'est qu'il doit toujours y avoir une personne qui y soit affectée, tandisque les noms ne se rapportent aux personnes que dans certains cas, ou sous certaines suppositions.” He further points out that the subject of the so-called verb is connected with the verb by the postpositions no and ga, genitive particles turning the pronominal subjects into possessive pronouns, " et le verbe est ainsi traité comme un nom substantif. Le Japonais n'est pas la première langue dans laquelle j'ai cru trouver ce singulier phenomene.”
On my pointing out, some weeks later, this evidence of the substantive character of the verb to a fellow American exile who was beginning to talk Japanese, he said: “But what difference does it make whether you call it a verb or a verbal noun?" Certainly, the recognition of the difference by name, and in fact, aids greatly in learning the language. You, thereby, readily acquire the habit of boldly, and to the Japanese altogether intelligibly and naturally, connecting the verbal noun with other nouns or pronouns by the possessive or other particles, or of using the verbal noun simply (like any other noun) as an adjective before another substantive; and, knowing the real meaning of the verbal noun, you do not habitually attribute to it the distinctly different significance of a true verb, to the greater or less bewilderment of the Japanese hearer.
The varied forms of the verbal noun to which the names of voice, mood, and tense have been given are compounds, especially with the so-called substantive verb, more or less closely welded into single words. The passive voice is formed by compounding the verbal noun with another verbal noun, of which the root is e, meaning getting, or receiving; as, striking-getting, or striking-being-getting, or striking-receiving, being struck, or to be struck. The passive is sometimes used in a potential sense, and is so called; as, for example, it is (to be) heard. Other compounds form what have been called the indicative, imperative, conditional, conjunctive, concessive, causative and desiderative. In like manner, yet other compounds have been called tenses, present, past and future. The so-called future, with the termination 00, or ou, or an, en or in (so written, but really nasal vowels), derived from amu of the older language, is sometimes more correctly called the dubitative, but is much used as we use the future, something doubtful, or probable, being applied more particularly to future things; but often, as our so-called future with us, of present things; as, “it will be so," in the case of some probable explanation of a fact. The derivation of the termination from amu seems really to show that we have here a clear case of what some learned philologists would consider a shocking impossibility, a derivation pointing back even to the language, or utterances, or noises, of brute animals; though it can hardly be seriously denied that human speech must have been originally derived from the utterances of brutes, nor that it is wholly possible, and not a quite absurdly extravagant supposition, that here and there some traces, or relics, of that remote age may yet be found. The amu seems, in fact, to be originally the h’m of doubt, a nasal with the mouth closed, which is still used by lower animals in modern times, as a part of what may be called their language, the smelling of an unknown object. But a nasal made with the mouth open, commonly softened to an n, is essentially a mark of rejection (as regards the mouth, ejection, or a snort in the lower animals); that is, of denial.