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In the textbook Japanese for Busy People I, the order of the elements in a sentence is always the same (subject - when - with whom - by what means - to where - verb) at least as far as I have made it. Like so:

スミスさんは あした かいしゃの ひとと おおさかししゃに いきます。

スミスさんは きのう ひとりで おおさかししゃに いきました。

スミスさんは きんようびに チャンさんと しんかんせんで おおさかに いきました。

Is this order always the same in the Japanese language or is it is a specificity of my textbook in order to better synthesize each element that composes the sentence?

From what I understand, the first sentence could be translated into English with variations in the order of the elements:

Mr. Smith is going to the Osaka branch office with a colleague tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Mr. Smith is going to the Osaka branch office with a colleague.

Mr. Smith is going with a colleague to the Osaka branch office tomorrow.

Can these variations occur in Japanese as well? Or does the sentence have to have the order displayed above?

Please reply in kana, as I do not know any kanji.

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  • +1 This is a good question. It should have been asked a long time ago.
    – Flaw
    Jul 11, 2012 at 15:02
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    スミスさんはかいしゃのひととあした~~ sounds also fine to me, but スミスさんはあしたかいしゃのひとと~~ and あしたスミスさんはかいしゃのひとと~~ sound the most natural to me... Likewise, スミスさんはひとりできのうおおさかししゃにいきました sounds fine to me but スミスさんはきのうひとりでおおさかししゃにいきました and きのうスミスさんはひとりでおおさかししゃにいきました sound the most natural to me.
    – user1016
    Jul 11, 2012 at 16:12
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    I think スミスさんはかいしゃのひととおおさかししゃにあしたいきます has an emphasis on あした... and I think スミスさんはひとりでおおさかししゃにきのういきました has an emphasis on きのう.
    – user1016
    Jul 11, 2012 at 16:14

3 Answers 3

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If you compare the corresponding verbs in different languages, they all have the same hierarchical structure. What make difference at the surface include the following factors:

1) The hierarchical structure-to-word order mapping is different among languages. The most basic word order in Japanese and English that corresponds to the first example are

[あした[スミスさんが[かいしゃのひとと[おおさかに いきます]]]]
[[Mr. Smith is [[going to Osaka] with a collegaue]] tomorrow]

Notice that the elements are combined together in the same order: first the verb and destination, next with means, with whom, and so on, but since the two languages have different mapping rules from the hierarchical structure to the word order, they appear differently.

2) Phrases can be moved around by various rules, which give word order variations.

  • Your second English sentence is derived by moving tomorrow to the front by a rule called topicalization. Your third English sentence is derived by moving to the Osaka branch office to the right of the verb phrase before tomorrow by a rule called heavy NP shift.
  • Japanese has a rule called scrambling in addition to topicalization. Your first Japanese sentence is derived by topicalizing スミスさんが and moving it to the front. If you apply scrambling, you get 4 factorial = 24 different word orders including the following ones:

スミスさんが あした かいしゃのひとと おおさかに いきます
おおさかに あした スミスさんが かいしゃのひとと いきます
おおさかに スミスさんが あした かいしゃのひとと いきます

but sentences like

あした かいしゃのひとと スミスさんが おおさかに いきます

are not preferred because they are ambiguous.

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  • ok, so I understand that the sentence I provided has a neutral tone. These three you provide emphasize which elements of the sentence?
    – JNat
    Jul 13, 2012 at 13:25
  • None. Scrambling does not emphasize anything. That is done by stressing or focalization. Scrambling is done mostly for parsing reasons or for binding of a pronoun.
    – user458
    Jul 13, 2012 at 13:34
  • so the three sentences above and the one I provided can be translated into the same thing? This means that the only part that has a 'locked' position is the verb?
    – JNat
    Jul 13, 2012 at 14:36
  • Yes. That is right. But the sentence you provided, which involves topicalization, is not neutral. It means, "as for Mr. Smith", ...
    – user458
    Jul 13, 2012 at 14:46
  • So the textbook only adopts that same structure because it is easier to memorize each element always in the same place? Or, despite the fact that all those possibilities in order might have the same translation, does the one I presented sound more natural/is more correct?
    – JNat
    Jul 13, 2012 at 14:49
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I think the emphasis is on the part with closest proximity to the main verb for the Japanese sentences.

As noted by Chocolate's comment:

  • スミスさんは かいしゃのひとと おおさかししゃに あした いきます has an emphasis on あした.
  • スミスさんは ひとりで おおさかししゃに きのう いきました has an emphasis on きのう.

I think there are differences with English as well. The first sentence you provided seems neutral, the second one has some emphasis on "tomorrow" and the third one has some emphasis on "with a colleague". This is what I feel.

For the extent of difference in Japanese sentences, my intuition says that there are changes, but not as dramatic as you may think they are. Even in English the nuances are not just determined by order within the sentence, but also by cues such as type of words used (if they carry connotations), tonality, volume, body language et cetera.

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  • So altering the order in Japanese makes a lot of difference, when compared to the differences in order I presented in English.
    – JNat
    Jul 11, 2012 at 15:12
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    @JNat I think there are differences with English as well. The first sentence you provided seems neutral, the second one has some emphasis on "tomorrow" and the third one has some emphasis on "with a colleague". This is what I feel.
    – Flaw
    Jul 11, 2012 at 15:15
  • the thing I really mean to know is: can the 'when' and the 'with whom' part (like I wrote on the question) be switched without having these dramatic changes in emphasis? Or do they always need to be placed in that specific order?
    – JNat
    Jul 11, 2012 at 15:16
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    @JNat. Japanese is not my primary language so regrettably I am unable to assist you further in the finer nuances. My intuition says that there are changes, but not as dramatic as you think they are. Even in English the nuances are not just determined by order within the sentence, but also by cues such as type of words used (if they carry connotations), tonality, volume, body language et cetera.
    – Flaw
    Jul 11, 2012 at 15:21
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    @sawa. The low quality information has been removed. Thanks for reviewing the information.
    – Flaw
    Jul 18, 2012 at 15:53
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Comment from personal experience:

JNat: I cannot add to the technical explanations but I started learning Japanese with "Japanese for Busy People" in my own country, completing the second half after I arrived in Japan.

If you are anything like me and at the same stage I was then, it might be encouraging to know that a few months after mastering the basics you give in your question, this structure and its variances/nuances will passively become second nature as you continue your studies.

(None the less, this is a good question. Even today as I flick through model sentences in Anki for JLPT N1 , changing the word order sometimes stimulates my interest and make them easier to remember.)

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