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The following is a sentence from the Japanese Wikipedia article about Berlin:

ベルリンという名称が歴史的文書で最も古く遡れるのが1244年である。

I understand the sentence, but I would have expected 遡れるのは here instead of 遡れるのが, just like a prototypical cleft-sentence. Would the variant with のは also work in this case? If so, how would the nuance be different?

Edit: I should mention that I ask because to my limited knowledge, this が doesn't really seem to be for exhaustive listing here so that's what has left me a bit puzzled.

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I would use は there.

The current sentence with が sounds as if it was meant to answer a question about what event characterized the year 1244, rather than stating a fact about when the name Berlin was first used in historical documents. Since the year 1244 is not mentioned earlier in the article, it sounds odd.

It’s like saying:

The earliest time the name Berlin can be traced back to in historical documents is (none other than that famous) 1244.

The English translation is admittedly awkward but I think you get the idea.

The sentence would have sounded more natural with は in place of が.


[EDIT]

Maybe I should have explained why the sentence with が sounds the way it does. I think it is because the listener (reader) interprets only ベルリンという名称が歴史的文書で最も古く遡れるの as new information and 1244年 as something they are supposed to already know. The sentence sounds odd because the year 1244 is new to the listener. The sentence with は, on the other hand, presents the whole statement as new information.

Let’s look at this with simpler examples.

  1. こちらが田中さんです。
  1. こちらは田中さんです。

When Mr. Tanaka is introduced with the first sentence, the speaker has most likely talked about him with the listener before. No such prior knowledge on the listener’s part is assumed in the second sentence.

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  • 「は」の方が普通だというのは全くその通りなのですが、この「が」が間違っているとも言えない気がします。大昔からこの記事のこの部分に存在し、誰も修正していないわけで。「こちらが田中さん」のような一般的なexhaustive-listing-gaの範疇で説明できず、何故そう感じるのかわからず、もどかしいのですが。何となくですが、「○○したのが○○年、○○したのが○○年、○○が起きたのが○○年である」と、リストになることでより「が」の許容度が上がる気がしているのですが、自信がないです…。
    – naruto
    May 25 at 6:44
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    @naruto: ベルリンの歴史についてこれからいくつかの観点で議論していこうという中で、書く側が既にいくつかの観点を想定していて、その中の1つである「最も古い名前の記録」について「まず『最も古い名前の記録』が〜」と言っている感じですかね。田中さんについて紹介するときに「生まれが東京で〜」と言うようなものでしょうか。
    – aguijonazo
    May 25 at 7:09
  • ああそうです、まさにそんな感じです。この用法に名前があるのか全く知りませんが…
    – naruto
    May 25 at 7:38
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Although I know my answer has been already accepted and I still find the sentence in question to be very odd in its own context, I have been reminded that が is not totally unacceptable.

As part of my attempt to understand what is going on, I have come up with a scenario where 〜が田中さんです doesn’t necessarily sound weird to people who have never heard of him.

Suppose someone is introducing a sports team or something, and that person says:

(このチームは)キャプテンが田中さんです。

This wouldn’t sound particularly odd to me even if I hadn’t heard of Tanaka-san before. I would only expect something like 副キャプテンが山下さんです to continue.

I think キャプテン here can be seen as one of a number of aspects of the topic, which in this case is the team Tanaka-san is the captain of, and therefore, the above sentence can be understood as describing something focusing on a particular aspect of it. The particle が may be used to exclude other aspects (e.g. 副キャプテン) for better focus. I cannot explain why, but I feel the aspect to be focused with が has to be picked from a well-delimited set, rather than an open-ended one.

So, if you can see ベルリンという名称が歴史的文書で最も古く遡れるの as the first of a number of aspects of Berlin’s history to be discussed in that context, the sentence in question might not sound too odd to you. This is difficult for me because I cannot find anything that would correspond to 副キャプテンが山下さんです in the subsequent part of the history section.

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