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Ok, so there seems to be some controversy over whether we can really say that there are 'の-adjectives', or whether we simply use a noun in an "attributive" way (a term which I don't actually really understand). But it's clear that there's something interesting going on here, a deviation from the "default" understanding of の (as marking the genitive case), and I'd like some clarification.

Let's look at what seems to be for whatever the classical example:

○ 「永遠の愛」 "eternal love"

It's clear that we can't just apply the pattern "X の Y ⇔ Y of X" here*. But what is really going on? How do we know that the usual pattern doesn't apply here - is it contextual? A matter of set-phrasing? Is it because 永遠, being abstract, would need to be reified to be used in the normal way?

* It's worth noting that the pattern doesn't even hold in English here, which does seem to be a special case.

"love of eternity" - a strange thing to talk about, but in English, reification is implicit so this works just as well as "love of gold".

But what is more strange is that with "love" in particular, this doesn't have the normal genitive-case meaning - an English speaker parses "love of gold" not as the love which is expressed by gold, but love such that gold is the thing that is loved. Similarly for "eternity", following the same role.

And it doesn't even work the same way with similar words... * "desire/lust of gold" - should be "desire/lust for gold". But regardless, a love which is eternal is not the same thing as a love which is expressed by (belongs to, really; but in what other sense can love be possessed than by expressing it?) eternity-seen-as-an-entity, which would be the default interpretation of the pattern.

What happens in Japanese with that example? 「金の愛」 - grammatical? How would it be interpreted? How about with explicit reification (「金のことの愛」・「金のものの愛」)?

And how literal is it to translate 「永遠の」 as "eternal"? Can we describe what's going on here more pedantically? What determines our ability to use a noun this way with の?

And am I getting too philosophical? :)

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Don't expect a one-to-one correlation between languages. Languages are different. –  user458 Aug 21 '11 at 0:03
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Of course not; the point is to understand the difference more properly. –  Karl Knechtel Aug 21 '11 at 0:21
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According to dictionaries, the English preposition "of" has 17 different meanings and the Japanese case particle "の" has 20 (=14+1+1+1+3) differnt meanings. If you were taught the 20 meanings of "の" individually, would you be satisfied? –  Gradius Jul 30 '12 at 22:47

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

As I understand it, the term “no-adjective” simply means “nouns which are typically translated to adjectives in English and other languages.” If we treat Japanese as a language in its own right, distinguishing them from nouns as different parts-of-speech is completely artificial.

The particle の makes a modifier of a noun. The exact relationship between the modifier and the modified noun can be almost anything; Daijisen lists fourteen relationships such as ownership, belonging, location of existence, location of action, time, and so on, and one of them is “attribute and condition.”

瀕死の重傷 (ひんしのじゅうしょう) a life-threatening injury
縦じまのシャツ (たてじまのシャツ) a shirt with vertical stripes

(The examples are from Daijisen, the English translation of the first example is by FumbleFingers on english.stackexchange.com, and the translation of the second example is by me.)

The の in 永遠の愛 is the same thing. The noun 永遠 (えいえん; eternity) is turned to a modifier 永遠の, and it describes an attribute of the love.

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How do we figure out which relationship is associated with a given noun? –  Karl Knechtel Aug 20 '11 at 23:39
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@Karl: Because の does not specify the exact relationship, we figure out the relationship from the meaning and the context. For example, 校長の話 can be both “story by the principal” or “story about the principal” depending on the context. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 20 '11 at 23:43
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@Karl: I am not a language teacher and am just answering your question. At least these examples show that “XのY ⇔ Y of X” is not a good correspondence in either direction. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Aug 21 '11 at 18:37
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@Karl Knetchel: "no" is ambiguous, there's nothing you can do about it. So is "of" in English: "the love of a mother" could mean either that "a child loves his mother" or that "a mother loves her child". –  Axioplase Aug 23 '11 at 2:02
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@Karl Languages were not defined by rules. This is important. We will use an expression if it works in a certain context. Although languages are ambitious by nature, native speakers know commonly used patterns, for example, we never say "金の愛". This is the same as all languages including English. You probably counldn't figure out the meanings of fireball, firearm, firewall and fireball if you didn't know their meanings. –  Gradius Jul 30 '12 at 22:21

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