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I was looking into the verb 憩う, and was surprised that all the examples I could find use …に憩う rather than …で憩う. A quick google (に憩う か で憩う) search yielded two types of answers for various forums:

  • A lot of answers stated that both usages have the same meaning, but that に has a literary tone to it. jij********さん, on yahoo, helpfully quoted the 明鏡 dictionary:
❹〔文語的な言い方で〕動作・作用が行われる場や手段などを表す。…で。…にて。

㋐ 動作・作用が行われる場を表す。
例「駅前に待つ」

  • An isolated answer, from user 酔ってないですさん (!), also on yahoo, seems unconvincing to me, but who knows:
「に」は静的な意味を持ちます。

<例> 渡り鳥が水辺に憩う。

「で」は動的な意味を持ちます。
<例> 渡り鳥が水辺で憩う。

As a side-question, I'm curious whether the latter, isolated answer has any backing to it. I wonder if they might be on to something.

But my focus is on the former set of answers : に as a literary で. Is there really no semantical nuance between the literary 駅前に待つ and the usual 駅前で待つ? I mean, it could be classified as "literary" because it expresses a subtle difference deemed irrelevant in everyday discourse. If not, if it really is merely a stylistic difference, is there a time at which that usage was jettisoned from usual discourse, making it first "old school", then inappropriate? But then, at what time of history, and "why"?

Also, 憩う is not flagged as a literary verb anywhere I could check. So I wonder if something deeper is going on. Like に憩う being a remnant of former times, a "set expression".

I realize that this question borders on the frowned-upon "discussion". But an answer to it would deepen my understanding of the Japanese language.

2 Answers 2

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Some history, mostly about Old Japanese:

Etymologically, developed as onbin form of にて during Early Middle Japanese period. にて can still be found in formal, literary or archaic contexts in modern language.

In Old Japanese and Middle Japanese, voiced plosives and fricatives were prenasalized, so b, d, z and g were actually /mb/, /nd/, /nz/ and /ŋg/. So phonological development of で was: /nite/ → /nde/ → /de/.

nite was originally the -te form of defective verb n- "to be":

Attributive (called Adnominal by Frellesvig 2010): (→ modern no)

Continuative (called Infinitive by Frellesvig 2010, called Converb by Vovin 2020): ni

Gerund (called Subordinative Converb by Vovin 2020): nite

Vovin (2020, pages 474-475) about Subordinative Converb nite:

2.4.1.3 Subordinative Converb Form n-i-te

The subordinative converb form n-i-te is a rare form in Western Old Japanese. It is attested only in the Man'yōshū, where it occurs five times. N-i-te has only two functions: (1) copula in a nominal predicate, (2) marker of a location of an action or a state.

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The subordinative converb n-i-te is attested only in Classical Ryukyuan (in Ryūka) (Hokama 1995: 508), and does not reveal itself in either Old Ryukyuan or modern dialects. Thus, it is certainly a loan from Classical Japanese. The absence of the n-i-te form in both Eastern Old Japanese and Ryukyuan suggests that this form is a result of an internal development in Central Japanese.

Frellesvig considers that usage of and ni as case particles etc. developed from forms of aforementioned copula n-. However Vovin (2020) did not speculate it.

Vovin (2020, pages 145-158) about Dative-Locative Case Marker -ni:

1.2.2.4 Dative-Locative Case Marker -ni:

The case marker ni has the following functions in the language of Classical Japanese prose: (1) dative case marker, (2) locative case marker, (3) agent marker in passive constructions, (4) directive case marker. It also has a special conjunctional usage connecting two clauses, and indicates either a reason or concession. In this last case, the case marker -ni follows the attributive form of a verb.

1.2.2.4.1 Dative Case Marker

In this function -ni is used after animate nouns only.

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1.2.2.4.2 Locative Case Marker

As a locative case marker, -ni has both spatial and temporal meanings.

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1.2.2.4.5 Agent Marker in Passive Constructions

In this function, as the following examples show, -ni marks animate nouns as agents in a passive construction. In Classical Japanese, both animate and inanimate nouns could be used as agents in passive construction (Vovin 2003: 326), but in Old Japanese inanimate nouns do not appear in this function yet. This may be due to the scarcity of Old Japanese texts in comparison to Classical Japanese texts, but overall this is unlikely: it appears that the passive construction is relatively new in Old Japanese, as only two examples are attested in the texts.

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There is one example in Old Japanese when the case marker -ni marks an agent in the sentence that includes the verb sayar- ‘be prevented,’ which is not marked by a passive morpheme, but has an inherent passive meaning

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1.2.2.4.6 Directive Case Marker

As a directive case marker, -ni indicates the direction of movement, as in modern Japanese.

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As a subvariety of this function, ni is used after the nominalized form of a verb and before a following verb that expresses the goal of a movement. Most often the verb following ni is a verb of movement, but not always, as the following example from KK 1 shows. In Classical Japanese and later periods the following verb is always the verb of movement.

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1.2.2.4.7 Special Usage

The case marker -ni occurs frequently after the attributive form of verbs. In this function, -ni serves as a conjunction between two clauses, often with the meaning ‘and,’ ‘because,’ ‘since,’ ‘as’ or ‘when,’ and, more rarely, ‘but’ or ‘although.’ It is reasonable to believe that we are dealing here with a case marker ni rather than with the converb form n-i of the defective verb n- ‘be.’ The reason for this belief is mainly typological: in other ‘Altaic’ languages that are similar to Japanese structurally, the dative-locative case marker has exactly the same function when used after attributive forms of verbs.

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There is no reliable external etymology for -ni. If Whitman is right in his assumption that all cases of OJ /ni/ are indeed otsu-rui *nï (Whitman 1985: 36–38), it is possible to speculate that OJ -ni < *-nəy, and that it is connected etymologically with Eastern Old Japanese locative -na (see section 1.2.2.6), which was already moribund in the eighth century.

Vovin (2020, pages 459-468) about Converb n-i:

2.4.1.1 Converb Form n-i

The converb form n-i ‘being’ is used in a variety of functions. It may occur after both nominals and verbs, the latter normally being in their nominalized or attributive forms.

(1) The converb n-i can be used as a copula in a nominal predicate

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(2) The converb n-i is frequently used after nouns and adjectives for adverbializations

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(3) Another usage of n-i is after the quasi-postpositions tamɛ ‘for,’ and yuwe ‘because,’ ‘for the sake of’ (lit. ‘reason,’ ‘cause,’ ‘sake’), which are historically bound nouns. Only the construction yuwe n-i is attested with relatively high frequency (50 cases in the Man'yōshū), and is found in both Early and Late Western Old Japanese. The construction tamɛ n-i is very rare (only 8 cases in the whole Man'yōshū), and it is attested reliably only in Late Western Old Japanese.

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(4) The converb n-i can be also followed by the verbs nar- ‘to become,’ se- ‘to do,’ and the adjective posi ‘be desirable. ...

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The converb form n-i is attested in Eastern Old Japanese in the same functions as in Western Old Japanese with the exception of the constructions yuwe n-i and tamɛ n-i.

The converb n-i of the defective verb n- ‘to be’ is attested in Old Ryukyuan as well as in modern dialects, including Southern Ryukyuan.

Extended copula forms were in Old Japanese: ni ar- (formed from copula form ni and verb ar- "to exist"), and contracted nar- (← ni ar-). Non-contracted forms were used more frequently than contracted forms in Old Japanese. (Sources disagree about situation in Middle Japanese, but I can guess that usage of non-contracted ni ar- was decreasing in favor of contracted nar-.)

Frellesvig (2010, page 235) in chapter about Early Middle Japanese:

Ni ar- had the variant nite ar-, with ar- following the gerund instead of the infinitive. In the course of EMJ nite ar- became de ar-, which is the source of the cNJ copula da (cf. 12.2.2, 15.2, 16.2).

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  • From Wikipedia, as a supplement to understanding: "In theoretical linguistics, a converb (abbreviated cvb) is a nonfinite verb form that serves to express adverbial subordination: notions like 'when', 'because', 'after' and 'while'." Jul 9, 2023 at 17:44
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駅前で待つ and 駅前に待つ mean exactly the same thing as far as the meaning goes, but the latter sounds to me like this is a message from 150 years ago or the title of a period drama. It's almost classical Japanese, and never appears in ordinary speech, but it may occasionally appear as an archaistic sentence (like this and this). Two other examples of this type of に, listed by 明鏡国語辞典, are ベニスに死す and 母校に会す. Note that they use rare literary verbs. 憩う is not as literary or stilted as 死す/会す, but it's still a fancy/pompous word rarely used in informal speech.

According to this presentation (PDF) and this entry, the particle で was derived from に(あり)て during the Heian period (794-1185). Saying Xにありて待つ ("to wait while being at X") was too long, so it contracted to Xにて待つ, and then to Xで待つ. This may explain why Xに待つ, Xに憩う, Xに死す and so on sound archaic, but native speakers intuitively sense the antiquity of this type of に knowing nothing about its history.

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  • Regarding "に was the only location marker in ancient Japanese": There were supposedly some rarer others, some of them already dying out during Old Japanese. Vovin (2020) described locative meaning for -ra, -na and -tu case markers. E.g. -ra was supposedly borrowed from Old Korean dative-locative case marker -la[ng] and possibly survives in pronouns こちら and そちら.
    – Arfrever
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:11
  • @Arfrever Thank you. Do you happen to know how old people distinguished "(場所)に待つ" and "(場所)にて待つ"?
    – naruto
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:16
  • I rechecked my sources and they do not say what was (if any) difference in meaning between に-locative and にて-locative in Old Japanese.
    – Arfrever
    Jul 9, 2023 at 4:33

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