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好きこそものの上手なれ。 We tend to be good at those things we like. / People become best at what they love the most.

How does the こそ work here? Is this use of こそ common outside of proverbs?

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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Edit in revision 4: If you are interested in this proverb, do not miss the answer by Matt to another question, where he cites an earlier form of the proverb.

Edit in revision 2: I rewrote the answer completely to give a more detailed explanation. If you prefer a shorter answer, see the old revision.

こそ signifies emphasis. In other words, it adds the meaning of exclusiveness (as sawa wrote in a comment to this answer). It is not archaic, and it is common to see こそ outside of proverbs or set phrases (see Paul Richter’s answer for examples). In this answer, I will try to explain 好きこそものの上手なれ, focusing on the role of こそ.

Without こそ, the sentence would be

好きはものの上手なり。 Liking makes mastery.

好き means the action of liking something, just as in modern Japanese. ものの[上手]{じょうず} is an archaic phrase which means a person who is very skilled at something. なり is a copula in classical Japanese. Therefore the literal meaning of the sentence above is roughly “Liking = A very skilled person,” but obviously this does not make sense because an action is not a person. I think that it means “Liking makes a very skilled person,” or in short, “Liking makes mastery,” but I do not know the exact reason this “action = person” construct can be used.

Now we add こそ and the sentence becomes

好きこそものの上手なれ。 It is liking that makes mastery.

好きこそ means “liking, and nothing else.” So the sentence means that liking and not anything else (such as aptitude) makes mastery. A similar meaning can be expressed in English using a cleft sentence “It is … that …” like the sentence above.

I changed the auxiliary verb なり at the end of sentence to なれ when I added こそ. As Chocolate pointed out in a comment, this is an instance of the grammatical phenomenon called 係り結び. In classical Japanese, when a phrase/clause ending with particle こそ modifies a conjugating word at the end of a sentence, that conjugating word takes 已然形 instead of 終止形. Similarly, when a phrase/clause ending with one of particles ぞ, なむ, や, and か modifies a conjugating word at the end of a sentence, that conjugating word takes 連体形. This phenomenon is called 係り結び.

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You are absolutely right. In other words, こそ adds the meaning of exclusiveness. –  sawa Jan 30 '12 at 5:26
    
Thank you for your very interesting link to Wikipedia. I wasn't even aware that that was a thing, but we do it so much in English! I never even realized! –  silvermaple Jan 30 '12 at 5:35
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「こそ~なれ」で、古典でやった「かかり結び」か何かのセットフレーズではないのですよね・・・?「ほたるのひかり」の歌詞の「いま'こそ'わかれ'め'」っていうのに似‌​てますけど関係ない・・?(話がずれてたらすみません・・) –  Chocolate Jan 30 '12 at 6:32
    
@Chocolate: Yes, こそ…なれ in 好きこそものの上手なれ is a 係り結び, and that is why the sentence ends with 已然形 “なれ” instead of 終止形 “なり.” But I thought that that would be too much for an answer to the current question. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jan 30 '12 at 11:39
    
@TsuyoshiIto: You could always just add it at the end of your answer as a supplement. –  Flaw Jan 30 '12 at 12:10
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It expresses the idea of "as much as" or "to the degree that", referring specifically to the most/best such thing: "The most A is the most B"

We excel in a thing as much as we like it. We excel in a thing to the degree that we like it.

Your translation "People become best at what they love the most." expresses this well in the relationship between best and most.

Here are some examples I found:

短い条文こそ奥が深い
やさしい曲こそ深い
知識は使ってこそ技術になる
速いランナーこそ要注意

So "The shortest law has the deepest meaning", etc.

If the subject is a single thing that can not vary in degree, こそ simply serves as emphasis.

If used with things that vary not in degree but possibility, it emphasizes that the thing is best/most likely by contrast with the other implicit possibilities.

彼こそ社長になるべき -> He, if anyone, should be president (instead of the current guy).
今年こそ海外に行きます -> This year, for once, I will go overseas (after giving up every year until now).

EDIT:clarified the indication of "the most" in light of sawa's comment.

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I think you are confusing こそ with ほど. –  sawa Jan 30 '12 at 5:22
    
@paul, if it is not a trouble, could you provide translations for the examples you gave? thank you. –  yadokari Feb 13 '12 at 3:17
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