Japanese has two kinds of adjectives known by several terms but the ones I know are i-adjectives and na-adjectives - why?

I recall that Japanese adjectives are much more like verbs than in English and most European languages (where they are more closely related to nouns), but does this apply to both types of Japanese adjectives or only one type?

I seem to remember that the two kinds are totally different to one another - is this true and if so how did each originate? For instance do we know if Okinawan/Rkyukyuan languages also have two types of adjectives? What about the Korean language, which is the language next most often claimed to be related to Japanese? (though far from universally accepted).


2 Answers 2


The reason for the western language learners' confusion when facing the so-called "two types of Japanese adjectives" is that they try to find similar constructs to their own native language in Japanese. And when they fail (since Japanese has no real adjectives at all), the naïve learner or teacher (which unfortunately includes most textbook writers, who are not linguistically trained) will try to force their familiar concepts on Japanese.

What is an adjective?

Before we get to discussing what the "adjectives" in Japanese really are, we first have to define and understand the concept of adjective - otherwise it would be quite meaningless talking about them. I'll have to concede here that different linguistic schools have different ideas of adjectives, so the idea I represent here represents structural linguistics and especially the ideas of some of my own teachers. Some other schools (e.g. many functionalists) have not all too different ideas, but others, generative linguists in particular, may not agree.

An adjective is most simply a word class that is used specifically to qualify and describe nouns by being in agreement (i.e. matching gender, number and/or case) with them. A classical example would be the following Latin pairs, where as the noun changes, the adjective changes as well (note that word order is not important, and adjectives don't even have to be adjacent to their nouns):

         Abacus (masculine)       Terra (feminine)
Singular novus abacus             nova terra          New abacus/land
Plural   novi abaci               novae terrae        New abacuses/lands

You've probably noticed that English adjectives do not really match this pattern, since they show neither gender nor number nor case (they did show all of that in Old English, but not anymore). And indeed, the English adjectives are not quite adjectives in the classical sense, and the line is actually quite blurred between nouns and adjectives in English (Is 'winter' in "winter clothes" an adjective or a noun? And what about 'Hollywood' in "a typical Hollywood ending"?). In fact, English adjectives resemble the na-adjectives of Japanese more than Latin (and French, German, Spanish and Hebrew) adjectives.

Japanese counterparts of adjectives

Japanese has three (or more accurately two and a half) word classes whose most members translate to adjectives in English and other European languages, and therefore they are all usually called "adjectives" in textbooks. These classes are

形容詞: Descriptive verbs

Descriptive verbs are also called stative verbs (verbs of state) or adjectival verbs by linguists, but most of us know these guys as i-adjectives or even true adjectives. Descriptive verbs are really just verbs, although they miss some verbal forms that are available to other verbs. In essence, descriptive verbs are just verbs that come before the noun and form a relative clause. There's really no difference in syntax between 踊る蝶 (the butterfly who is dancing) to 白い蝶 (the butterfly who is white).

形容動詞: Descriptive nouns

Descriptive nouns are also called adjectival nouns by linguists, but most of us know them as na-adjectives or quasi-adjectives. Despite their name, they are no less adjectives than the "true adjectives", and some of them can actually be connected to nouns by using の rather than な. Historically, descriptive nouns were either nouns followed by the genitive の or nouns followed by な, which is the attributive (before-noun) form of the copula なり. So a の-adjective like 普通の男 started out as basically just saying "a man of ordinary", and 静かな場所 (which in classical Japanese meant: 静かである場所) started out as saying "a place which is silent".

It's instructive to note that descriptive nouns actually take a completely normal copula instead of な when past or negative forms are used (e.g. 普通だった男, 静かじゃない場所), so these adjectives actually still use a copula to this very day, but it's most common form is replaced by the special な or の (depending on the adjective).

連体詞: Attributives

This class includes a rather small number of words that attach directly to the noun without a special copula and have no verb-like conjugation (like 形容詞). This includes words such as ある (some), いわゆる (so-called), 同じ (the same), たいした (great), この・その・あの, 大きな and 小さな. In fact, it's not really a real consistent class, but just a mish-mash of several frozen forms of words that used to be verbs (ある, いわゆる、たいした), descriptive nouns (大きな and 小さな), pronouns that merged with the particle の (この・その・あの) and the more special case of 同じ. There's nothing much to unite them, and this class is not productive (i.e. creating a new word in this class is very rare, and not at all trivial).

What's the state in other languages?

Well, the situation in Classical and Old Japanese was very much as it is today, except for descriptive nouns not using a special copula, but the regular copula instead. The conjugation of descriptive verbs was very different from today, but normal verbs also had a different conjugation.

I know Okinawan has at least descriptive verbs that are directly related to the descriptive verbs in Classical Japanese: e.g. takasi (tall) from Old Japanese becomes takasan. I guess it should also have a class of descriptive nouns, since they tend to be more productive than verbs, but I really don't know much about it.

As for Korean, it definitely resembles Japanese here. Descriptive verbs are conjugated like normal verbs but have some differences with them. Descriptive nouns have to be followed by the verb 하다 (hada - to do) instead of the copula, as we do in Japanese, but other than that they are very much alike.

  • 5
    Thank you for the detailed explanation. I have a question: from my Japanese-centric viewpoint, 動詞 and 形容詞 in Japanese are very different kinds of words because (1) they conjugate differently and (2) 動詞 usually describes an action whereas 形容詞 usually describes an attribute. Therefore calling 形容詞 descriptive verbs sounds strange to me. Why are they called so? Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 13:27
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    @Tsuyoshi: Well, there's nothing inherent in the word "verb" that implies an action. Etymologically, it comes from the Latin verbum which just means "word". Linguistically, a verb doesn't always describe an action: the Japanese verb ある or the English verb 'to hear' don't describe an action. Being and getting to hear something are not actions - at most they are events, which is a better definition of what verbs do. But any description of an attribute can also be put as an event: in English we might say something is terrifying, using an active participle of the verb 'terrify'.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 20:30
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    ... cont'd: so we're actually describing it as an ongoing event: the terrifying thing is causing fear. These ongoing events are usually called 'states' by linguists and this is why we call these verbs 'stative verbs', since they never describes punctual events (like 'he kicked the ball') or even progressing event ('he gradually cleaned the room') but rather static events.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 20:34
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    I'm curious that you're using a definition for "adjective" that disagrees so much with what English speakers are taught -- that an "adjective" is simply a word that describes some quality of a noun. As you note yourself, English adjectives display none of the qualities of more highly-inflected languages (i.e. matching gender, number and/or case). By this analysis, no language that has no (or even just minimal) inflection has "adjectives" -- a postulation that seems absurd, and a definition that is so restricted as to be nearly useless. Commented Aug 20, 2016 at 8:18
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    Is telling beginners that "Japanese doesn't have adjectives, and oh by the way English doesn't either!" going to be helpful to understanding these words in Japanese?
    – Leebo
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 22:24

My understanding is that な-adj are actually a completely different type of word that are closer to nouns but are taught as な-Adj.

taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_adjectives

adjectival verbs 形容詞 keiyōshi adjectival verbs, i-adjectives, adjectives, stative verbs
adjectival nouns 形容動詞 keiyōdōshi adjectival nouns, na-adjectives, copular nouns, quasi-adjectives, nominal adjectives, adjectival verbs

In fact if you say な-adj to japanese person, they'll have no idea what you are talking about.

外国の日本語教育における形容動詞 [編集]

アメリカやアジア諸国を始めとする海外の日本語教育では、形容動詞を「な形容詞(na-adjective)」、形容詞を「い形容詞(i-adjective)」として形容詞の一部に分類して教えることが多い。また活用としては名詞+コピュラとほとんど同じで、連体形をナ、連用形をニとするだけの違いであることから、ナニ名詞、na-noun, qualitative noun, adjectival nounと呼ばれることもある。

形容動詞を adjectival noun と呼ぶ場合、対比させる形で形容詞を adjectival verb と呼ぶことが多い。 いっぽう、日本語名を直訳する形で形容動詞を adjective verb などと呼ぶこともあり得るので、注意が必要である。

Also in regards to Korean, it also has the same 3 types of adj. The following also taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_adjectives

Korean has exactly the same three word classes as above, called 형용사 hyeongyongsa, 형용명사 hyeongyongmyeongsa, and 관형사 gwanhyeongsa respectively.


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