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In this question, we are presently trying to better understand the function of the は that happens here:


meaningwhise, we are all agreed that the sentence means:

As a child I had no way of knowing how my mother felt at that time.

(I'm just going with ssb's translation).

My question here is: can the は after 子供の私に be removed or does that make the sentence ungrammatical? / Is this は just a topic marker? a topic marker and a contrastive marker? or something further?

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I personally believe “topic は” is not strictly semantically defined and “contrastive は” is the origin of all other はs. Different はs may functionally overlap. In you sentence, には can be viewed as a marker of the subject of a potential form, e.g. 私にはわからない, 私にはできない etc. But a topic は is not necessary when in relative clauses, so this は can be viewed as a “negative は” or “contrastive は”, which is used to emphasize the “ない” or “子供の” part. – Yang Muye Apr 21 '14 at 3:39
Interesting enough. But I also ask whether the sentence can work without the は. What do you think? – virmaior Apr 21 '14 at 4:14
We have some existing discussion on this topic under various names. If you look up "dative subjects" or "dative constructions" or such you might be able to find it. – snailboat Apr 21 '14 at 4:22
up vote 2 down vote accepted


I just remembered that there is a には which can not be replaced by に or は. It's similar to にとっては, which might fit better here. e.g.


This kind of には is inherently contrastive so you always use は. (But にとって is still contrastive without は, it's a litter hard to explain.)

Whether this には in included in the scope of the subordinate clause is a little tricky. You can say something like:


But you can definitely use it in subordinate clauses without dropping the は.

I can't find much explanation in dictionaries. 大辞林 has only a single line for it:

「…にとっては」の意を表す。 「ぼく-,ぼくの考えがある」

But it's not clear if this には is に + は, e.g. people say


大辞泉 does not mention this usage.

The following is a part of the original answer.

I personally believe “topic は” cannot be solely semantically defined, because I can't find reasonable criteria and even Japanese linguists seem to disagree on the scope of “topic は”. e.g. some linguists consider “には” and “では” as “contrastive は”, while some think they are “topic は”.

If we talk about the “topic は”, I think we usually means:

  1. It's often used in the main clause and can't be omitted

  2. It's often not used in subordinate clauses.

For other kinds of は, they may freely appear in relative clauses.

The structure of your sentence can be understood as follows


In this sentence, the は appears in a subordinate clause, so it's not likely to be a topic は.

I also think “contrastive は” is the origin of all other はs. Different はs may functionally overlap so it's possible a single は has several functions or several different は appears in the same sentence.

Arguably “topic は” is always contrastive, because everything is different.

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"the は appears in a subordinate clause". I think that calls for an explanation. I disagree. – dainichi Apr 21 '14 at 7:01
@dainichi, I think 子供の私には知るべくもない modifies こと. But you reminds me that there is a には which is similar to にとっては that fits well here. This kind of には cannot be replaced by に or は. But I didn't find any explanation in the dictionaries. – Yang Muye Apr 21 '14 at 7:19
Hm, I first parsed 子供の私には as top-level, but the more I look at it, the more I think your parse is better, and at the very least permissible. I retract my comment. – dainichi Apr 21 '14 at 8:57
@dainichi, In fact I first thought 子供の私には might be top-level, too. But 知るべくもない is similar to 分からない, which makes me believe it should be in a clause. But after some thinking, it seems that this には doesn't require negative or potential forms. After some searching, I found I'm not the only one who mixed them up. Some people believe the に in ~に~できる functions the same as にとって, which etymologically should not. It becomes unclear to me whether 私には分からないことだ should be parsed as に + は or には. Now, I'm somewhat convinced that it might be better to think 子供の私には to be lop-level. – Yang Muye Apr 21 '14 at 9:28
Sometimes it's not obvious if a phrase belongs to the main clause or not. e.g. some people suggest that the 私は in 私は見たことがある belongs to 見た rather than ない, because 私に見たことがない(こと) is impossible. But this is very counterintuitive. Sometimes はization(topicalization) promotes a phrase in a subordinate clause to a higher scope. The same thing happens with と. “それとは別のものだ”, I feel とは is somewhat top-level, which is parallel to “それとは違っている” – Yang Muye Apr 21 '14 at 9:31

When we get in to complicated sentences the black and white grammatical rules become harder to apply but if we analyse the sentence:


Then my non-native parsing is that:

母がどんな気持だったのか、="topic/subject"(I'll come back to that)

~ことだった= nominaliser linked to the "topic/subject"

知るべくもない= item being nominalized=characteristic of topic/subject, in this case something that could not be known to me at the time. "Known to me" is somewhat literary way of saying "understood by me"

Regarding the には: it seems to equate to "by" or even "to" as in "something that could not be known BY/TO me [as a child].

I agree with Yang Muye, that the "には"is close to "にとっては” and, very conveniently, I have found the following sentence in spaceALC:

I hardly dared (to) hope for it.

When I said you could drop the は and it would still be grammatical I meant it in exactly the same way that you could drop it from にとっては and the meaning would still be pretty clear, ie にとって=to me, after all, it is not unusual for にしてー>に. If the sentence was spoken then perhaps the は could be replaced with a pause (?)

In the sentence "私にとっては望むべくもないことだった" the topic/subject (ie "it") is not stated but "それは” would suffice. In the same way I parsed "母がどんな気持だったのか、" as the "topic/subject" of our sentence.

To me the "、” is marking the topic/subject as は would in the construction AはBことだった. Of course you could not follow か with は, but the question does not arise because the that is not what the writer has done anyway.

The は that follows に is helping to make the contrast between the writer at the time of writing and as a child and is drawing the readers attention to what follows.

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The 望むべく sentence is quite interesting and useful. – virmaior Apr 22 '14 at 9:13

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