While reading though Haruo Shirane’s Classical Japanese: A Grammar, I came across the following passage:

が started as an attributive case particle, became a subject particle, and then turned into a conjunctive particle. In the ancient period, the subject case particle did not exist. The typical structure was subject + predicate, as in 花咲く, or subject + adjective, as in 山高し. It was only beginning in the Muromachi period that the pattern 花が咲く and 山が高し, with が marking the subject, became standard.

While this makes sense looking at actual textual examples, I’m finding it difficult to understand the progression. Would anyone be able to explain what is the semantic basis for an attributive particle (or genitive case) taking on the role of subject particle (or nominative case)?

(As an aside, the same section in the same describes the uses of の as a case particle, which all correspond to the uses of が: subject marker, attributive marker, implied nominal, apposition. Is there some explanation as to why there would be two case particles which seem to serve largely the same purpose? And is this the underlying mechanism for the が/の alternation in modern Japanese attributive clauses?)

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    See The Languages of Japan (Shibatani 1990) p.347.
    – user1478
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 0:42
  • I read from somewhere that this first happened with 係り結び, in which case particles like なむ and ぞ were used and the difference between attributive clause and declarative clause was neutralized. Later both の and が were used as non-emphasized version of them, but only が is used today. (In fact, I think many なむ and ぞ were not so emphasizing and worked exactly as が today.) I just search on the Internet and found some papers ( ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110002533572 , ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110004641116) that may help.
    – Yang Muye
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 5:21
  • If you think about the English "possessive gerund" structure (e.g. "without his telling me" where many other languages would literally have "without that he tells me"), you can see how genitives tend to stand in for nominatives when subclauses are restricted.
    – dainichi
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:25
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    When it comes to particles, I guess 大野 晋's 係り結びの研究 is a must-read. I also found 山田 昌裕's 格助詞「ガ」の通時的研究 that looks helpful. Unfortunately, I don't have the time and energy to read them. :-(
    – Yang Muye
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:57

1 Answer 1


Early stages of Japanese did not have relative clauses, but it was possible to modify nouns with attributive verbs (using contemporary lexicon/morphology for ease):

咲く丘 a hill where something grows

I believe that from early stages, there was little restriction on the semantic role of 丘 in the action of 咲く, i.e. all this is really saying is "a hill that has something to do with some growing".

With no relative clauses, one would have to modify the whole noun phrase (not the verb) to say what is growing

花が[咲く丘] "a hill of flowers where growing is going on"

At some point, this was reanalyzed so 花が modifies 咲く, and we have something that looks like a real relative clause

[花が咲く]丘 "a hill where flowers are growing"

In the end, が is understand to be a general subject marker, not limited to relative clauses.

This is covered in the literature, as @snailboat mentions, but I don't have it in front of me, and I can't comment on the chronology without it. This is just in case you want some general intuition about the semantic progression.

  • @YangMuye, I've definitely simplified things, and it's very possible I have it wrong, Feel free to create another answer. I'll edit/add/delete as necessary when I get home to my bookshelf (and have time).
    – dainichi
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 4:47
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    @YangMuye, you definitely did NOT sound offensive. I'm sorry if I sounded DEfensive :D I'm happy to be shown that I'm wrong when I am.
    – dainichi
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 13:44
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    @YangMuye, having gotten back to my bookshelf and Shibatani (thanks to snailboat), I see that on p351 he refers to Hashimoto(1969), who makes exactly this speculation. Doesn't seem like it's necessarily a generally accepted theory, though.
    – dainichi
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:07
  • Personally, it's easier for me to understand how the phenomenon occurs especially in the main clause through examples whose two nouns are equivalents, like 女の髪長き. Another important factor why they got mixed is disappearance of distinction between 終止形 and 連体形 of 長き. (edited a nonsensical part)
    – user4092
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:17
  • @user4092, what do you mean "equivalent"? Also, wouldn't it be 連体形 in both cases? Not sure I see your point.
    – dainichi
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:35

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