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I'm having trouble understanding why 〜に受かる means "to pass". What would the equivalent logic in English be for this phrase? (Something like the intransitive form of receive?)

Also, why is the particle に used with 受かる, here?

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Snailboat's link is a very interesting read and you should read it if possible (the following answer is mainly based on it).

First, one should note that the first usages of 受かる exist from the Meiji period. This means it is a relatively new word. Around this time, there was something called [言文一致運動]{げんぶんいっちうんどう}, where people were trying to change the written language to match what was spoken. As noted in this link, 受かる is mainly used in spoken language (主に、話し言葉で用いる), so it may have existed before the Meiji period in spoken language, but the main point from this is that it is a relatively new word which evolved out of spoken language.

As you may have already noticed, 受かる is somewhat irregular. It comes from the verb 受ける but only means 合格する and has no other meaning in modern Japanese (according to any modern dictionary). (However, this always wasn't the case though, as there was the usage 電波が受かる).

Note that many verbs come in pairs (which can be seen as transitive/intransitive), for example 見る/見える or 温める/温まる, were is used for the former and is generally used for the latter. Originally, 受かる followed this pattern and が受かる was used. However, this evolved into the modern usage に受かる and the usage has died out. Why? Because 受かる has a restricted meaning, i.e. it only means 合格する and nothing else. Note that this meaning is not the intransitive form of receive, and using the が form would make it look like that. Also, since the opposite is 試験に落ちる which uses , becomes a nice fit.

So, how did 受かる come to have such a restricted meaning? Simply due to the fact that there is no need for an intransitive form of 受ける. Any intransitive use can be replaced by another verb which is more appropriate, like 電話がかかる for 電話を受ける. Also, when you think of the transitive/intransitive pairs, generally the intransitive form is the result of the transitive. For example, in the examples 牛乳を温める/牛乳が温まる, the result of the act of warming milk is having warm milk. But what is the result of taking a test? The result would be whether you passed or failed, not just the fact that you have taken it, this why it naturally flows that 受かる came to mean "to pass".

There is a lot more in the pdf that explains things better than I do, but to sum it up

  • 受かる evolved naturally out of spoken language.

  • It does not carry the meaning of the intransitive form of receive because it can be replaced by better alternatives and there is no use for it.

  • It changed to the に form because it better fits with the opposite に落ちる and because it does not fit into the transitive/intransitive pairs like other verbs.

I may have mistakes in the above, so please let me know, but hopefully this helps!

  • I'm reading the post right now- Why would it be used for 電波? – user3457 May 14 '13 at 0:56
  • Also it still seems strange that pass or fail would have been picked for the meaning of 受かる。 Indeed with intransitive/transitive pairs you have pairs, but those pairs are not really results are they? 温まる and 温める have are two independent ideas, one being warmed by something, and one being warmed by itself. In that case though, a test by received by itself doesn't make sense. I just still feel as if result statement made is a bit of a stretch. Edit: Nevermind I agree with cause and effect and that the result of taking a test is likely to have changed into whether or not you passed. Thanks! – user3457 May 14 '13 at 1:13
  • Also, why is it に落ちる? Is it because you're falling/failing from the test? – user3457 May 14 '13 at 2:00
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    It's difficult to answer questions like "why is it に?". (Perhaps it just is, and there's no reason Japanese case particles should be explicable within an English frame of mind.) Grammatically, it's に simply because 落ちる is intransitive. Be careful with the literal meaning: 恋に落ちる means "to fall in love", and 地面に落ちる means "to fall onto the ground". If you want to think of it as "falling onto a test", feel free, but my guess is that this is not how Japanese people think of it. – Billy May 14 '13 at 2:12
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    @Tony: It's に落ちる because you need to attain a certain level to pass the test, in other words you fall below that level. – Jesse Good May 14 '13 at 3:07

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