While reading naruto's answer to Difference in sentences (と and に), I realized that although キス is an intransitive verb in Japanese, the English kiss is almost always used as a transitive verb. Some other examples of this are アクセス and リベンジ. My question is thus is there a reason why primarily transitive English words when converted to Japanese could become primarily intransitive words?

My expectation is that primarily transitive English words like to google or to master to become primarily transitive Japanese words and primarily intransitive English words like jump to become primarily intransitive Japanese, which is true for at least those three cases. Is the way words like キス became incorporated into Japanese different from words like マスター?

  • 3
    Maybe an aside to your question, but I'm not sure whether キス is the best example of this. In English you can say "they kissed" or "he kissed her" just as in Japanese you can say キスした or 彼は彼女にキスした. The girl is the indirect object so it is still a transitive verb. So it seems to me that in both languages there is plenty of scope for both transitive and intransitive usages. Perhaps リベンジ is a more apt example as it's harder to think of normal transitive examples in Japanese. – kandyman Nov 7 at 19:00
  • @kandyman isn't "her" in "he kissed her" a direct object though? The verb "kiss" only assigns 1 object argument. (unlike "throw" which can assign a direct object argument and an indirect object argument. E.g. "he threw her at Bob"; in this case Bob would be the indirect object). – Flaw Nov 8 at 8:18
  • @Flaw I was referring more to 彼は彼女にキスした where the 'doing' of する is the 'kiss', rather than the 'her'. In Japanese you wouldn't phrase it as 彼は彼女をキスした but you could phrase it as 彼は彼女にキスをした. – kandyman Nov 8 at 8:40
  • @kandyman I'm a bit confused what you're saying when you say The girl is the indirect object so it is still a transitive verb, I thought if the girl is indirect object that means it will be a intransitive verb? Also, maybe it's just me but I've always thought They kissed was just short for They kissed each other, where each other would be the direct object. – Ringil Nov 8 at 13:55
  • @Ringil I think I could have been clearer in my first comment, but I was thinking of the context キスをする and the phrase 彼女をキスする being incorrect. I'm sure "they kissed" implies "they kissed each other" and that brings up the question of whether implied (but unstated) objects or indirect objects affect the status of a given verb's transitivity or otherwise. But I don't consider myself an expert on EN/JP transitivity so I will defer to someone more knowledgeable on the topic. – kandyman Nov 8 at 18:50
up vote 14 down vote accepted

There should be exceptions, but I suppose this is largely based on the transitivity of the original Japanese verb before it was replaced by the loanword.

  • (~に)キスする = (~に)口づけする
  • (~に)アクセスする = (~に)進入する/接続する
  • (~に)リベンジする = (~に)復讐する
  • (~に)コンサルトする = (~に)相談する
  • (~に)タッチする = (~に)触れる

When the original Japanese verb is transitive, the loanword version is also transitive.

  • (~を)スタートする = (~を)開始する
  • (~を)テストする = (~を)試験する

Occasionally, an English intransitive verb can be borrowed as a transitive suru-verb:

  • (~を)リタイヤする = (~を)退職する = to retire from

Many loaned suru-verbs are not even based on English verbs, so it's not surprising if transitivity is ignored :)

  • (~を)マイナスする = (~を)減算する
  • (~を)リストラする = (~を)解雇する
  • (~を)オンエアする = (~を)放送する

In linguistics, transitivity is a complex thing. In fact, it's not as simple as "transitive" vs "intransitive". Apparently there's a scale, and English is overall higher on it than Japanese.

This means that the brackets of "transitivity" are placed a bit differently in Japanese and in fact contain less verbs than in English. Something that may be considered an "object" of a transitive action in English is more likely to fall into the "necessary extended argument" (recipient/beneficiary/theme) of an intransitive verb in Japanese. Especially if the typical "object" of that verb is a person that has agency independent of our own, or if we are not directly affecting that thing with the action in question.

I think the general rule of thumb is this:

Is the action being done directly ON the object (を) or TO the object (に)? Does the subject/agent has power over the object? Does the state of the object change?

(Movement verbs in Japanese are weird in this context, I'd love to see someone's thoughts on that)

Thus in Japanese, we are doing an act of revenge "to someone" and not "on someone", a person being kissed is not a direct object (ideally we don't force him/her) but a recipient, and when we're accessing something, we're not changing it.

I think that's also why in Japanese "like" is intransitive ("something is liked", we're not affecting it in any way by liking it), "to understand" is intransitive (because we're not affecting the area that is being understood, and understanding is a state that we reach with little agency over the process) and "to know" is transitive (and refers in fact to that moment in which we "got to know" the information, thus we have some agency over that information, it's more direct).


(You may want to stop reading now, because it's about to get a bit more technical and skim the edges of rambling...)

As I understand it, there are two types of transitivity: semantic (what something means) and syntactic (how it's coded by the language). These aren't always the same thing.

Semantically, there are four (and not two) types of verbs (examples are from English):

  • strictly intransitive, e.g. arrive, chat
  • strictly transitive, e.g. recognize, like
  • ambitransitive verbs, where Subject=Agent, verbs allowing "indefinite object deletion", e.g. follow, win, eat, read (there's an object, we just don't say it explicitly: when we say "I read" there's a book or newspaper in there somewhere, we just don't mention it)
  • ambitransitive verbs, where Subject=Object, called also "inchoative-causative"* verb pairs, e.g. melt, trip (one may argue that those are just two different verbs in a pair, that in some languages they just "look the same", so in English "to break something" semantically doesn't equal "to break on it's own" - in this light the existence of transitive/intransitive verb pairs in Japanese is a natural thing, and English is the weird one)

Depending on the language, the verb can fall into different categories.

inchoative = denoting an aspect of a verb expressing the beginning of an action, typically one occurring of its own accord.

[source]

  • Interesting! Is there like an image showing this transitivity scale thingy, with the major languages on it? – Sweeper Nov 8 at 20:13
  • @Sweeper when I was searching for the picture visualizing languages on a simple scale by their level of transitivity that I distinctly remember seeing once, I stumbled unto this treasure watp.ninjal.ac.jp/en where you can for example compare individual verb pairs in two chosen languages by their transitivity. I just started exploring it, but it seems awesome so I thought I'll share – Arie Nov 9 at 6:59

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.