I'm a beginner in Japanese. At my classes I'm taught like this: とまる / とめる is a pair intransitive/transitive verb.

This I understand and can memorize a table of such verbs.

I can't help, though, notice a certain phonetic change pattern in all those pairs. To this pattern in my classes I was given no explanation.

I wonder if there is any theoretical grammar explanation of that pattern for those Japanese verbs. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any good Japanese theoretical grammar textbook.

(In my native language and in some other languages I know transitive/intransitive is a lexical, not grammatical category, so I wonder, if that transitive/intransitivre explanation for Japanese is correct at all)

  • What are you asking exactly?
    – istrasci
    Mar 12 '14 at 19:23
  • 1
    @istrasci I alway thought transitive/intransitive is not a grammatical form. But I see a pattern in Japanese they explain that way. I'm asking about the true nature of that pattern. Mar 12 '14 at 20:42

Historically, Japanese has had several morphemes that change the transitivity of a verb. Most of these pairs involved lexicalised combinations of some verb with one of these morphemes.

The morphemes are:

-(a)su - causative. You can see it in words like ゆらす ('cause to shake', compare ゆれる 'shake').

-(a)ru - passive, or rather, general agent deletion (English's passive implies an agent, this doesn't). Visible in your example とまる ('come to a stop on one's own', compare とめる 'cause something else to stop').

-e(ru) - a kind of transitivity flipper, it can make transitives intransitive or intransitives transitive. An example of the first is さける ('split open', compare さく 'tear'), and an example of the second is つける ('attach', compare つく 'stick to').

Many of these pairs, とめる~とまる included, seem to have had these morphemes added to both members.

I'm not sure this is a grammatical process, at least any more; none of these morphemes are still productive as far as I know. You're probably best off remembering each word as a single lexical unit, especially considering the fact that there's a good deal of variation among what pairs up with what. Just remembering that あげる is 'raise' and あがる is 'rise' prevents you from trying to make non-words like *あがす or *あぐ.

(The Middle Japanese -(a)su and -(a)ru were nidan verbs, and became the ichidan -(a)seru and -(a)reru, which are still extremely productive in Modern Japanese. I don't have an explanation for why verb forms that incorporate them are godan.)

  • It seems that, in Old Japanese, the contrast between transitive and intransitive verbs was not complete. It's also common to see a verb jump between vowel-ending and consonant-ending verbs. As for -asu, in fact, there are some clues suggesting that -asu might have been used with vowel-ending verbs in Old Japanese. e.g. miasu-> mesu -> 召す. And here is another article about けす in old Japanese. I think /r/ /j/ and /a/ are commonly inserted to keep the syllable structure stable.
    – Yang Muye
    Mar 13 '14 at 3:44
  • It's common to see "-eru" is used for both intransitive and transitive verbs, for the reason I said above. It's also common to see "-su" and "-ru" are used for both types, because they are common verb suffixes. But it's uncommon to see "-aru" used for transitives, or "-asu" used for intransitives. As for "-ar(er)u", I personally think it might originally mean something like "ある", "見える", "現れる", which functioned like "ている" when auxiliary verbs is not common in those days. It's common to see concepts like 完了, 受身, 瞬間, 結果, 状態 are interrelated in both Japanese and Chinese (and in English, too).
    – Yang Muye
    Mar 13 '14 at 3:55

(My answer partly builds off of Siveru's answer.)

The Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar (DBJG) gives an appendix (number 3) of intransitive/transitive patterns which probably includes all the pairs you have been given plus a few more. When I first began to study I was able to learn the pairs in my text book but found the appendix a bit too much. Looking at that list now I would say that I picked up almost all those pairs "organically" have not regretted taking that approach because there are other more important things to memorize.

However (Updated in response to comments ):

There were a couple of "verb-families" in the -eru (Intransitive)-> u(Transitive)section which I still found sticky because they seem more like triplets or "pairs of pairs" and I sometimes had to double check if I had not used them for a while! These included:

破れるー>破る (splitting/separating things like broken hearts and making holes)
破けるー>破く (tearing thin things)

An example of a "triplet", not in the appendix is


For these I try to remember:

ロープをつかむ | grab a rope

Aが〜につかまる |hang on to a rope

魚を捕まえる |catch a fish

〜が捕まる |be caught

Needless to say I do looking for patterns and today, Silverju's morphemes resolved this triplet for me:

a(ru); つかむ->つまる and the flipper e(ru); つかまるー>つかまえる

The same also applies to my other hated triplet


This is how I currently remember it:

PCを インタネットにつなぐ (= アクセスする)

犬を門につないでおく =つなげる


自= 〜がつながる (=>〜がつながっている)
他= 〜をつなぐ=つなげる

But, applying the morphemes given above:

-(a)ru:つなぐ ー> つながる; and the flipper-e(ru)ー>つなげる

ie Transitive -> intransitive - > Transitive

(Thanks Silveru.)

  • There's also that adjective modifier, i.e. 深まる/深める; 高まる/高める and so on. I've been thinking that in certain cases this modifier can be explained, perhaps historically, as the reason for pairs of verbs like 集まる/集める or 止まる/止める
    – razorramon
    Mar 13 '14 at 0:38
  • つかまえる has an extra morpheme in it, though, doesn't it? *tukama-p-eru
    – Sjiveru
    Mar 13 '14 at 1:29
  • @Sjiveru: I was trying to give practical advice to a new learner because I am not really confident discussing morphemes but, it seems to fit two of your morphmes: a(ru); つかむ->つまる and the flipper e(ru); つかまるー>つかまえる(?)
    – Tim
    Mar 13 '14 at 1:38
  • @razorramon: That sounds reasonable to a non-linguist like me.
    – Tim
    Mar 13 '14 at 1:40
  • @Tim It does, and it does contain those, but there is an extra little thing in there, since つかめる is something else ^^ And I think it's not that the adjective -maru/-meru is the cause of the verb -aru/-eru, but the other way around: あつまる is atsum-a-ru (treating the 未然形 -a as another affix), but 深まる is fuka-m-a-ru. There's an -m- that makes it a verb, followed by -aru or -eru like any other verb. Think about it - atsu- doesn't still mean 'assemble', but fuka- still means 'deep'.
    – Sjiveru
    Mar 13 '14 at 2:19

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