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I'm confused whether 僕にしかできない事 means

(1) something (you) can do only to me

or

(2) something only I can do

My Korean brain suggests (1) because its naive translation 나한테밖에 못하는 일 means (1). But this phrase is from the lyrics of a song called 花束の代わりにメロディーを and continues as follows.

僕にしかできない事がある
花束の代わりにメロディーを
抱きしめる代わりにこの声を

From the context, (2) makes better sense because メロディー and 声 is from the singer (僕).

Which is the correct translation of 僕にしかできない事?

If (2) is correct,

  1. will taking away に as 僕しかできない事 make any difference?
  2. what should I say if I wanted to express "(1) something (you) can do only to me"?
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4 Answers 4

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僕にしかできない事 is an inherently ambiguous phrase that can mean both (1) and (2) depending on the context. In the context of the lyrics, (2) is the correct interpretation. Note that に can mark the doer of a potential verb (see: Use of に in 「私には本物の若殿様がわかります」).

Here is an example context where the same phrase means (1):

彼女にとって正直に話すことは、僕にしかできない事なのだ。
Expressing her true feelings is something [she] can do only to me.

To avoid this ambiguity, you can alternatively say:

(1) something (someone) can do only to me

  • 僕に対してしかできない事

(2) something only I can do

  • 僕だけができる事
  • 僕しかできないこと (colloquial)
  • によってしかできないこと (stilted)

But 僕にしかできないこと is natural enough and you really don't have to avoid it when there is enough context.

You can read many more similar examples with this tag:

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僕にしかできない事

Potential ambiguity here is caused by particle に having multiple functions:

  • Indirect object marker ("to ..., for ...")

  • Agent marker in clauses with passive/potential verbs ("by ...")

In English and many other languages, passive and potential are syntactically or morphologically distinct constructions, but in Japanese, at least historically, they were different functions of the same constructions.

Bjarke Frellesvig (2010, "A History of the Japanese Language", page 63) in chapter about Old Japanese (about 700 - 800):

The OJ passive functioned as a pure passive, a medium voice, and as a potential. OJ had two competing passive markers of which -(a)ye- was used rather more frequently than -(a)re- (their roles are reversed in EMJ into which -(a)ye- only survived in a number of lexicalized forms (kikoye-, miye-, omopoye-) and in reading glosses to Chinese texts, see 9.1.6). -(a)ye- was used with QD, n-irr, r-irr and UM verbs; -(a)re- with QD, n-irr, and r-irr verbs. Passives were not formed on verbs from other conjugation classes. -(a)ye- thus had a wider use than -(a)re-, both in terms of distribution and in terms of frequency. The straightforward interpretation of these facts is that -(a)ye- was the earlier passive marker and was replaced by innovative -(a)re-. There are a few lexicalized passive forms with a slightly irregular formation: kikoye- <= kik- 'hear'; omopoye- <= omop- 'think' (found alongside omopaye-, but was much more frequent).

The passive auxiliary variant -rare-, attaching to vowel base verbs, does not appear in the language until EMJ (see 8.4.1) and forms no part of OJ, although it is included in some grammars.

Bjarke Frellesvig (2010, "A History of the Japanese Language", page 338) in chapter about Late Middle Japanese (about 1200 - 1600):

The ancestor of the cNJ potential auxiliary -re- makes its appearance in the second half of LMJ. It is found with consonant base verbs in the shape -e-, e.g. yom-e-nu 'cannot read' in the Shiki-shō from 1477, and initially had the same functions as the passive: passive, potential, and respect. -E- is usually said to have developed as a reduced variant of the passive -rare- and for example in the Shiki-shō we find both yom-e-nu and yoma-re-nu 'read-PASS-NEG; cannot read'. Alternatively, -e- may have developed from the auxiliary verb -e- 'be able to' (< e- 'get'). During NJ this auxiliary became specialized as an independent potential auxiliary, but only recently in cNJ was it analogically extended to be used with vowel base verbs, e.g. cNJ tabe-re- 'be able to eat'.

Verb できる also has meanings "be able to do" (potential meaning) and "be made" (passive meaning), and other meanings.

will taking away に as 僕しかできない事 make any difference?

しか replaces が and を, so without しか this sentence could be:

  • 僕ができない事

    (This with added しか (がしか → しか) is synonymous with original sentence with にしか.)

  • 僕をできない事

    (This is invalid due to できる not allowing usage with particle を.)

what should I say if I wanted to express "(1) something (you) can do only to me"?

To avoid aforementioned ambiguity of particle に, another construction can be used, e.g. 〜の為{ため}に:

僕の為{ため}にしかできない事

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  • would 僕の為ためにしかできない事 mean (1) or (2) ?
    – jarmanso7
    Aug 5, 2023 at 14:20
  • @jarmanso7 僕の為にしかできない事 is intended to be one of possible sentences with (1) meaning. (I assume that your comment has unintentional typo (double ため).)
    – Arfrever
    Aug 5, 2023 at 14:38
  • Thank you. Yes, that's a typo.
    – jarmanso7
    Aug 5, 2023 at 18:44
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A search shows that (2) is likely the correct interpretation - (僕・自分)にしかできないこと usually translates to "Something in which only I can do."

Another instance can be viewed here:

Q: 「君にしかできない」「あなたにしかできない」 これを英語でなんと言いますか?

A: You are the only one who can do it.

To answer the second part of your question,

  1. It looks like the 「に」before a pronoun is incredibly common, though I found at least one instance here in which it is not used (あなたしかできない). In that instance, however, it appears to me that it shares the same general meaning as (あなたにしかできない) in that the person the speaker is talking to is the only one who can do it. Perhaps it is only used in situations of importance, for emphasis, or maybe the particle was simply dropped (which can happen in speech). I was unable to find any grammar or nuance explanations specifically for ~にしかできない, though there were plenty for simply ~しか~ない and だけ.

The full quote for (あなたしかできない) is below:

...「自民党にあと5年以上政権を渡してはダメ。  でないとまた(自分の癒着を棚に上げ)東電との癒着政治が続く。  福島原発事故で原発推進した私も反省する。  是非、再生可能エネルギー法案を成立させてほしい。  あなたしかできない。  と空気を入れたのだ(小泉元総理の言葉には多少の違いはあるが、おおまかこの通り)。  【転載終了】つむじ風さんのブログより :転載 記事URL コメント URL: http://ameblo.jp/wishes-cometrue/entry-10930671371.html

Another instance - 俺しかできないんだ

...家族。 大切なのは当たり前ですよね。  しかし、仕事も大切なんだ、と言う人はたくさんいるかと思います。  家族のために働いているんだ!  俺は頑張っているんだ!  俺しかできないんだ!  こう言い聞かせて満員電車に乗り込んでいる人もいるでしょう。  本当に家族のためだと思っている人は、ある意味家族の大切さを忘れないかもしれません。  ...URL: http://nanapi.jp/2342/

  1. I don't think I can answer this in a satisfying way.

Note: I've noticed the links only redirect directly to the corpus. The search term I had used was "できる" and the verb I had selected was under "Auxiliary Verb": できない. I then kept scrolling through pages until I found matches with the browser search function for 「しかできない」.

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(2) is the correct one, it's difficult to think it's otherwise even without context. (1) is possible but unconventional.

Similar to the potential:

私に(は)この漢字が読めます -> This kanji is readable (to me)

私がこの漢字を読めます -> I can read this kanji

The difference between が and を with the potential form of a verb

できる is just the potential of する. So the rules described above also apply to it.

So できる also has this kind of double polarity. 私がそれをできる vs 私にそれができる. "I can do that" vs "That is doable to me".

僕にしかできない事
Something that is doable only to me -> Something only I can do


will taking away に as 僕しかできない事 make any difference?

Because of the polarity thing explained, not really. Many people also explain this by saying that しか replaces particles like が or を. Moreover, in casual speech many particles get dropped.

what should I say if I wanted to express "(1) something (you) can do only to me"?

I don't know either. The main problem is the ambiguity between 僕に meaning "for me (it's possible)" and "to me (it's done)". Maybe something like this.

君が僕にしかできないこと

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  • I can easily imagine a context where 僕にしかできない事 can mean (1).
    – naruto
    Aug 5, 2023 at 2:31

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