Is there a reason why the passive and the potential form in Japanese are identical (at least for える/いる verbs)? I mean, does one etymologically derive from the other? Or were they perhaps modelled on a similar original form? If so, how does the え form for other (non-える/いる) verbs fit in?


1 Answer 1


Etymologically, various usages of れる/られる derived from one base meaning, "without someone's will". In modern Japanese, れる/られる is still sometimes used in this sense (known as 自発【じはつ】 or "spontaneous"). See: Why is the passive form used in this sentence?

故郷【こきょう】が思【おも】い出【だ】される。 I (spontaneously) remember my hometown. (I didn't intentionally try to recall that, but it occurred to me.)

Then the "passive" sense came into use. I think the reason is straightforward; the passive voice is basically used to describe something that happened to you without your will. This also explains why Japanese passive voice often implies that you were negatively affected (aka 迷惑【めいわく】の受【う】け身【み】 or the "suffering passive").

雨【あめ】に降【ふ】られた。 Rain fell (against my will, and I was bothered).

The "potential" sense of れる/られる originally derived from the negation of 自発【じはつ】. Something like "it never (naturally) happens that ~" or "not in the situation where ~" eventually became "cannot". The non-negative potential sense (i.e., "can") followed.

(archaic Japanese) 弓矢【ゆみや】して射【い】られじ。
It never happens that you shoot them with an arrow.
→ You cannot shoot them with an arrow.
≒ (modern Japanese) 弓矢【ゆみや】で射【い】られない。

れる/られる also has an "honorific" meaning. This is also an extension of "not my own will" (i.e., it's the will of "your highness", etc.).

(Note that those shifts in meaning actually happened long ago when archaic Japanese was used. /らる were the precursors of modern れる/られる.)

  • A very nice answer, Naruto: ありがとうございます! One follow-up question that derives from the above explanation: if the Passive and the Potential come from the same base-form, then why is the Potential for type I verbs (like 書く: 書ける) different from the Passive (書かれる). Where does the -える potential form come from? Is -える simply a shortened form of -られる? If so, then why did the passive form not shorten?
    – Pregunto
    Jul 13, 2018 at 9:35
  • @YairMacClanahanShophet This article discusses this topic extensively (pp. 135-146), and the author basically believes so-called 可能動詞 like 書ける derived from 連用形+得る (e.g. 書き得る), not directly from る/らる. They came into common use in the mid-Edo period.
    – naruto
    Jul 13, 2018 at 15:45
  • @naruto Do you happen to have a reference for that paper? The link died. Aug 9, 2020 at 16:24
  • @DariusJahandarie No, sorry.
    – naruto
    Aug 9, 2020 at 23:09
  • @DariusJahandarie and naruto -- there is a 2016 paper 「可能動詞の成立」 by Japanese linguistic researcher 三宅【みやけ】俊浩【としひろ】 that makes a compelling case for 可能動詞 deriving from 四段活用他動詞, in a manner very similar to the so-called "ergative" construction in English, whereby semantically transitive verbs are used in an intransitive way to describe a noun that is usually the object of the transitive verb. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:37

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