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From what I understand, is the topic marker, is the subject marker, and is the object marker.

One of the first sentences I learned doesn't seem to fit the rules I described above. The sentence is:

わたしは日本語がわかります.
watashi wa nihongo ga   wakarimasu
I   topic Japanese subject understand
'I understand Japanese.'

In this sentence, why does 日本語 have the subject marker attached to it? Shouldn't 日本語 be the object of the sentence?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is a class of Japanese verbs (and more generally, predicates) whose subjects and objects take が.[1] For example:

  • あの学生がその本が要る。(Ano gakusei ga sono hon ga iru. "That student needs your book.")
  • 猫が魚が好きだ。(Neko ga sakana ga suki da. "Cats like fish.")
  • 私が日本語が分かる。 (Watashi ga nihongo ga wakaru. "I understand Japanese.")

(Of couse, these がs can be replaced with は, も, etc. depending on the sentence.)

What is the difference between these verbs and verbs whose objects are marked by を? Volition. From my textbook:

These relate to conditions or occurences which come about apart from human decision, will, or volition, such as understanding, needing, or being able.

You cannot help understanding Japanese — you just do. Thus, 「日本語」 is not something you are doing something to, and does not take を.

Edit: I should add that in modern colloquial Japanese, sometimes the object of these verbs takes を, which changes the focus of the sentence a little. See my answer to this question.

[1] My textbook (Japanese: The Spoken Language) calls these "double-ga predicates" or "affective predicates," contrasted with "operational predicates." I am not sure what other names they go by.

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The first が in your example sentences should probably be は. As they are, they place extra focus on the subject. For example, 猫が魚が好きだ, which could be reordered as 魚が好きなのは猫だ, answers the question, "What likes fish?" ("Cats like fish."). At the point when you answer the question, "like fish" is old information, and so it follows the subject が (as in your example) or precedes the topic は (as in the reordered version). To express, without preceding context, the general truth that cats like fish, 猫は魚が好きだ is best. The same applies to the other example sentences. –  Derek Schaab Aug 8 '11 at 12:35
    
I was about to edit your answer, but I was unsure whether this would create a conflict between the example sentences and your "double-ga predicate" conclusion. –  Derek Schaab Aug 8 '11 at 12:36
    
@Derek Sure, these sentences are not as likely to come up in a normal conversation, but I was using them to illustrate the fact that some predicates use が to mark both their subjects and their objects. It's good to point out that they sound awkward for various reasons, though. –  Amanda S Aug 8 '11 at 15:59
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To me, the concept of "double-ga predicates" sounds like it was made up to make things easier for learners. These are simply intransitive verbs (or not even verbs at all, like 好き) in Japanese grammar, and have no object. In 魚が好き or 本が要る, 魚 and 本 are the subjects. –  LaC Aug 8 '11 at 23:02
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These verbs are still transitive verbs as transitivity refers to whether or not the verb accepts an object. It's just that these verbs mark their objects with が rather than を. Instead, the distinction between these two classes of verbs is whether or not they are stative. Also, while there are sentences in Japanese that do have multiple subjects, these examples do not. –  Nathan Ellenfield Jan 23 '12 at 21:22
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Because 分かる is an intransitive verb meaning "to be understood". If you wanted to keep the structure as close as possible to the original, you could literally translate 私は日本語がわかります as "regarding me, Japanese is understood". But, as you may have noticed, English and Japanese seldom share the same sentence structure; in English the same concept is expressed by the transitive verb "understand", so you have "I understand Japanese".

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Expressions like 相手の気持ちをわかってください are not very common but not unheard of, either. Do you think that they are incorrect? –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 7 '11 at 23:54
    
@TsuyoshiIto I would say that 相手の気持ちをわかって(あげて)ください is completely correct, and I think it is because わか(ってあげ)る here means "be understanding about", which is active, whereas "understand" is not an action. –  dainichi Jan 20 '12 at 5:25
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I found this interesting page about the etymology of 分かる

http://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1228751687

According to this, 分かる, an archaic intransitive form of 分ける, meant (the intransitive) "split" or "divide", similar to the modern 分かれる. And figuratively also meant "be categorizable, be understood".

Eventually, the figurative meaning was the only one that survived, keeping its intransitive syntax. Even when used in a forced transitive context the verb would keep its intransitive form, e.g.

相手の気持ちを分かってあげてください

not

相手の気持ちを分けてあげてください ← WRONG!!

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This sort of explanation is what I came in here to post, but you beat me to it :) This is how I explain 「~が分かる」 to people--it's like concepts dividing themselves in your mind into categories. The etymology of the word gives us a very cool way of thinking about understanding in general! –  NattyBumppo Jan 20 '12 at 5:54
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Something I just noticed, while writing it.

I don't know why but in this case, it's not が but を

「やりたかったことをわかってくれる人」

I remembered then this question on SE and got confused but a native confirmed me the を was correct (and not the が) here. Crazy japanese.

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