From the children's story おーい、でてこーい. A one metre wide hole has appeared in the ground after a landslide. The hole is dark and gives the feeling that it goes all the way to the centre of the earth. The villagers are talking about it:

「キツネの穴かな。」
Maybe it's a fox hole.
そんなことを言った者もあった。
There was even a person who said such a thing.

My translation of the second sentence seems very unnatural. I have two problems:

1) Why is ある used with an animate subject (者) rather than いる?

2) My translation makes it sound like the narrator is ridiculing the person who suggested it was a fox hole. Are my translations of そんな as 'such a' and も as 'even' accurate in this case? Is this sentence implying that the fox hole suggestion is ridiculous, or am I totally mistranslating it?

up vote 6 down vote accepted

As predicates, (words used to modify the subject) both ある and いる are used to express the idea of "existence". ある is used for inanimate objects, (living or non-living) and concepts/abstractions. いる is used for MOVING living objects and possibly for moving but non-living objects such as vehicles.

One other distinction between these predicates is that ある can indicate existential possession while いる indicates existential location. This distinction, for example, allows the two phrases:

(1) 子供がある。meaning "I have children. / I have a child." (or he/she has / they have, if context provides a subject other than "I")
(2) 子供がいる。meaning "There are children (there). / There is a child (there)."

(as is noted in the comments on this thread: When is it okay to use あります with a living subject? this use of ある to indicate possession of a living thing is only acceptable in cases where the relationship is permanent, unchanging. This fact also explains the examples that Chocolate used in her comment below.)

In the example from your story, 者もあった it is possible to argue that 者 is an abstraction of "person/people" (for example, the way the words "those" and "some" can be used when speaking of people), and that this abstraction makes 者もあった acceptable... However the use of いる in its "location identifying" nature would seem to make 者もいた the more logical choice... so what is going on?

Unfortunately for learners of Japanese, the answer seems to be that this style of using ある in an existential way even for animate subjects, is a literary convention in Japanese fiction. As has been pointed out in one of the answers on the link above:

 Furthermore, as is well known, even the predicate `ある` can be used with animate subjects.
 昔、ある所におじいさんとおばあさんがあった

(This COULD be an extension of the fact that fictional creations are abstracts... but that might be pushing the logic.)

In any case, your image that the narrator is slightly ridiculing those who suggested a fox hole, is pretty accurate. It's a very dismissive sentence. You are identifying そんな and も just fine.

Any translation has some wiggle room, always, so I feel that your translation is alright, though I might change "a person" to "some people" or "some":

「キツネの穴かな。」
"Could it be a fox hole?" / "I wonder if it's a fox hole."

そんなことを言った者もあった。
There were even some who said things like that.

  • 1
    宮沢賢治『雨ニモ負ケズ』ってご存じでしょう。「東に病気の子供あれば 行って看病してやり 西に疲れた母あれば 行ってその稲の束を負い 南に死にそうな人あれば 行ってこわがらなくてもいいといい...」とかね・・ – Chocolate Nov 28 at 13:05
  • @Chocolate Sometimes I despair of ever learning Japanese. I can't even begin to comprehend what you've just written. :-( – user3856370 Nov 28 at 22:17
  • 1
    @user3856370 Sorry.. I quoted a few lines from 『雨ニモマケズ』, written by Kenji Miyazawa, as a counterexample to ある is used for inanimate objects and concepts/abstractions. 者 is an abstraction of "person/people". There you can see あれば used for animate 子供, 母, 人. In (old) stories/tales you'd come across ある used with animate subjects like people or animals... – Chocolate Nov 30 at 16:25
  • yes... and I see now that I do not have enough understanding of 'でござる/ある’, and that my explanation is not correct despite receiving so many 'useful' votes. I need to edit it but I do not feel qualified to do so, since this distinction is one that I have not internalized... If I cannot edit it to my satisfaction I may just delete it... – ericfromabeno Nov 30 at 16:31
  • 2
    whether I can replace ある with いる in this sentence -- @user Yes, you can replace the ある with いる, as in...「そんなことを言った者もいた / そんなことを言った人もいた。」「昔あるところにおじいさんとおばあさんがいた / いました。」「東に病気の子供(が)いれば 行って看病してやり...」 – Chocolate Dec 1 at 5:17

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