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I came across the adverb すこぶる "greatly, extremely" and initially mistook it for a godan verb.

This seemed to me an unusual 'shape' for an adverb -- what's the etymology of this adverb, and are there other adverbs in Japanese ending in る?

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  • If it were a verb it could only be godan – Angelos Dec 13 '20 at 12:32
  • Oops, that's what I meant. Corrected. – jogloran Dec 13 '20 at 19:46
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What is the adverb すこぶる etymologically?

This word is a bit odd. Let's dive in.

Main sources:

Beginnings and meanings

The word is first cited to a text from 984, with a meaning of "a little bit, not many / not much", as a synonym for 少【すこ】し.

Then, by 1135, it's cited with the completely opposite meaning of "an awful lot, extremely".

Neither the KDJ entry nor the DJS entry have anything useful to say about why this meaning shifted this way. The GA entry mentions that the word was used mostly in 漢文【かんぶん】訓読【くんどく】 contexts, and that some confusion may have arisen somehow. (漢文【かんぶん】訓読【くんどく】: literally "Chinese text, meaning reading". This means reading texts written in a form of Classical Chinese, but pronouncing them in Japanese, even reworking the grammar to fit -- almost more like sight-translating Classical Chinese into Japanese.)

Exploring this shift in meaning, we see that the kanji 頗 has meanings of "leaning to one side; biased" (like 偏る【かたよる】), or "very, extremely" -- see the Wiktionary entry, WWWJDIC. Also, older texts didn't always mark voicing, and some early attestations of すごい show unvoiced すこい instead (such as adverbial form すこう in a quote from The Tale of Genji dated around 1014, as listed in the KDJ entry). I wonder if the すこ in すこぶる might have been confused somehow with the unvoiced stem すこ of すごい?

At any rate, the "a little bit" meaning has been largely replaced by the "an awful lot" meaning.

Origins and derivations

That すこ stem of すこぶる is generally regarded to be the same すこ in 少【すこ】し, and related to the すく in 少【すく】ない, as noted in the KDJ and GA entries.

The GA entry suggests that the ~ぶる on the end is the same ~ぶる in words like 大人【おとな】ぶる (verb, "to seem or behave like an adult"), もったいぶる (verb, "to seem or behave like a big deal").

The KDJ entry likens this ~ぶる to the ~ぶる in ひたぶる (also spelled in kanji at 頓 or 一向; -na adjective, "intent, single-minded, determined"). That entry also has a note wondering if this might have been older ひたふる -- more on that further below.

What is this ~ぶる?

In すこぶる, the resulting term is an adverb.

In 大人【おとな】ぶる and もったいぶる, we wind up with verbs.

But then in ひたぶる, we have an adjective.

??!??

I suspect some of this might be related to Old Japanese / Classical Japanese verb conjugations and how parts of speech were handled, and how conjugated forms shifted over time.

  • すこぶる is first attested in 984 (KDJ entry).
  • 大人【おとな】ぶる as a verb is attested to the early 1500s (KDJ entry).
  • もったいぶる as a verb is attested to the late 1700s (KDJ entry).
  • ひたぶる is first attested as ひたふる in The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter around 900 (KDJ entry), with the adverbial construction ひたふるに.
    • Notably, the 濁点【だくてん】 or 点々【てんてん】, the 〃 mark used to indicate voicing, is completely missing in many older editions, even from words known to have voicing like 浮【う】かぶ. Consequently, the kana spelling of ひたふる cannot be taken as evidence that this word was actually //hitafuru// instead of //hitaburu//.
    • The first clear adjectival use is in The Tale of Genji, dated around 1014.

Likely development of ~ぶる

I strongly suspect that the ~ぶる in all of these words arises from Old Japanese "seems like, behaves like" suffix ~ぶ. (Speculatively, I think this ~ぶ is cognate with suppositional / volitional suffix ~む (the modern volitional verb ending), and with 見【み】る ("to see"), all arising from the same "see, seem, look, look like" semantic root.)

Form Ending
語幹【ごかん】
Stem / Base
未然形【みぜんかい】
Irrealis (hasn't happened yet)
連用形【れんようけい】
Continuative (-masu stem)
終止形【しゅうしけい】
Terminal (standalone)
連体形【れたいけい】
Attributive (adjectival)
ぶる
已然形【いぜんけい】
Realis (as if it's happened)
ぶれ
命令形【めいれいけい】
Imperative (command)
びよ
  • We know that the 連体形【れんたいけい】 or "attributive form" of verbs in Classical and Old Japanese could be used its own as a nominal (noun), much like the modern construction [VERB] + こと or [VERB] + の [+は、が、を、に...].
  • Over time, the 上【かみ】二段【にだん】 or "bigrade" pattern underwent 一段【いちだん】化【か】 or "monograde-ization", producing the modern 上【かみ】一段【いちだん】 or "upper monograde" verbs we know today -- producing modern suffix ~びる, as we see in 大人【おとな】びる. ⇒ See also the KDJ entry for ~びる.

So my take on this is that:

  • Old Japanese suffix ~ぶ ("seems like, behaves like") was added to various stems: the すこ~ in すこし, the noun 大人【おとな】, the noun もったい, the prefix (likely ancient noun?) 直【ひた】 (see the KDJ entry, and scroll down to or search for the 〘語素〙 section).
  • In various constructions, this suffix ~ぶ was conjugated into its 連体形【れんたいけい】 or attributive form ~ぶる.
  • For some words, the resulting form was re-analyzed grammatically as a nominal and had the に added to it to function adverbially.
  • All the -na adjective uses appear later than the adverbial. We know that the ~な attributive used with modern -na adjectives comes from ~なる, itself from older ~にある, which is adverbial に + attributive form ある of classical copula ("to be" verb) あり, making this a regular and somewhat expected development.
  • Later on, this ~ぶる for some words was again re-analyzed as a 四段【よだん】活用【かつよう】 or "quadrigrade conjugation" ending (same as modern "regular" or "consonant-stem" verbs), producing a verb.
    • Modern suffix ~振【ぶ】る ("to seem like, to behave like") or ~振【ぶ】り ("seeming like, behaving like"), and non-voiced suffix ~ふり and standalone noun ふり of similar meanings, appear to be from this same ~ぶる -- the kanji 振 is ateji from homophonous verb 振【ふ】る ("to shake"), and doesn't seem to have anything to do with the actual derivation of the suffix.

These conjugations and grammatical shifts cover most of what we see so far.

すこぶる as an adverb is still an outlier

Even considering the above, すこぶる is a bit exceptional, in that we don't see any adverbial すこぶるに. The very first citation in the KDJ entry from 984 could arguably be interpreted as a regular adjectival use of an attributive form:

「抑説き給ふ経の文についてすこふるうたがひあり」

But the very first adverbial use from 1135 can't really be parsed that way -- it's just すこぶる stuck right onto a compound verb+adjective:

「此小身を観る者前想頗(スコフル)知り難し」

A quick-and-dirty survey of my local copy of Daijirin for all words ending in ~ぶる revealed many verbs, only one -na adjective (ひたぶる), and only one adverb (すこぶる).

Ultimately, language is nothing if not exceptional. すこぶる is described as used most in 漢文【かんぶん】訓読【くんどく】 contexts, which means it wasn't an everyday word. Rarely-used words are sometimes subject to strange shifts in meaning, as their rarity means that speakers (or readers) will not be as familiar with the word, and might re-interpret it depending on context. This might account for both the flip-flop in meaning from "a little" to "a lot", and the adverbial usage pattern.

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    I just wanna say that table looks really clean. – Shurim Dec 16 '20 at 22:00
  • The weird distribution of the word — the fact that it patterns differently to other adverbs — is what led me to ask this question. Thanks for the detailed research; it seems the answer really is that it's an outlier. – jogloran Dec 16 '20 at 22:22
  • @jogloran, ya, given the absence of any other apparent ~ぶる adverbs, I'd have to say that it's just one of those exceptions that happen. My suspicion is that the older attributive quote 「すこぶるうたがひあり」 may have suggested a pattern where すこぶる directly modifies a verb, since うたがひ is the 連用形【れんようけい】 of うたがふ, modern 疑【うたが】う ("to suspect"). Since it's got あり right after it, I think the うたがひ here is actually used as a noun ("suspicion"), making すこぶる a regular attributive or adjectival use. But that might be the nub of why this ultimately became an adverb. – Eiríkr Útlendi Dec 16 '20 at 22:26
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    I guess that theory can be thought of as a reanalysis via re-bracketing: "(much suspicion) exists" => "much (suspicion exists)" – jogloran Dec 16 '20 at 22:29
  • @jogloran: Rebracketing, with also a shift in part-of-speech: a shift from すこぶる as an attributive 連体形 modifying a noun, to viewing すこぶる as an adverb unto itself (i.e. no particle needed) that modifies a verb. – Eiríkr Útlendi Dec 22 '20 at 6:09
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Did a quick google search, and there is a section about it here. For accessibility, I will paste and translate the short passage here:

「すこぶる」は元々「少し、ちょっと、やや」という意味でした。

「すこし。すくなし」の語根「すこ」に、「大人ぶる」「ひたぶる」「もったいぶる」などで用いられている「それらしい様子をすること」を意味する「ぶる」がついたものが「すこぶる」です。

「ちょっと。ある程度」という意味が「相当。非常に」という意味に変化しました。意味が変化した理由については明らかになっていませんが、漢文訓読に用いられたことで混乱が生じたのではないかと考えられています。

「すこぶる」の意味は中世以降に変化しました。

このように、「すこぶる」は方言ではなく、昔から使われていた大和言葉です。

基本的に「すこぶる」は「おおいに」という意味で使うので、現在は「少し、わずか」という意味では使いません。

Translation:

「すこぶる」used to mean the same thing as 「少し、ちょっと、やや」(which all mean "a little").

It takes the word root すこ from words like「すこし」and「すくなし」and appends ぶる to the end. Like in the words 大人ぶる、ひたぶる、and もったいぶる, ぶる is used to mean "to behave like a certain way".

Although it used to mean "a little" or "small amounts", the word has evolved to mean "considerably" or "very". Although the reason for this change in meaning is not very clear, it is believed that this might be a result of confusion when interpreting from Chinese(漢文訓読: "Chinese writing Japanese reading", "a Japanese reading of a Chinese passage").

The word 「すこぶる」changed during the Japanese Middle Ages.

「すこぶる」 is not dialectical and has been used as a native word.

Fundamentally, 「すこぶる」 is used to mean 「おおいに」and is currently not used to mean 「少し」or「わずか」.

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日本国語大辞典 says:

【補注】「すこし」 「すくなし」などの語根に、「ひたぶる」などと同じ接尾語のついたものか。

The word seems to be quite old, with the first example in that entry being from 984, so the certain etymology is likely quite unclear, but 日本国語大辞典’s theory about an adverbial ぶる suffix seems quite plausible.

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