According to this answer https://japanese.stackexchange.com/a/60055/55243 both the passive and potential sense of ichidan verbs derive from the root sense of "without someone's will". It goes on to list two examples where the difference in the passive and potential sense manifest themselves depending on the context:

雨に降られた。 Rain fell (against my will, and I was bothered).

(archaic Japanese) 弓矢して射られじ。 It never happens that you shoot them with an arrow.→ You cannot shoot them with an arrow. ≒ (modern Japanese) 弓矢で射られない。

I was wondering if the same thing was true for the passive of godan verbs since their passive forms share a common origin with ichidan verbs. So for example can you construct a sentence that brings out the "potential sense" of a godan verb in its れる-form? Like for example

本が読まれない reading is not being done = it is impossible to read

or do the passive forms of godan verbs never carry this additional sense of potentiality?

  • 1
    Modern potential forms like 読める became common only after the 19th century. Before that, れる/られる (or its precursor る/らる) was used for the potential sense of godan/yodan verbs, too. Something like 行かれません (meaning 行けません) is still used in some dialects (see also this).
    – naruto
    Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 6:46

1 Answer 1


In modern language, so-called potential forms are used for godan verbs, so that passive forms are usually understood in the other senses (尊敬・受け身・自発) depending on contexts.

You can see examples of potential verbs below

Theoretically 本が読まれない can mean both passive and potential, but it mostly defaults to 'There are less people who read books'. It is possible to say '眼鏡がないと本が読まれない', which of course means potential ('Without glasses, I can't read'), but this sounds to say the least oldish. Normally people say '眼鏡がないと本が読めない'

So the answer to your question is yes and no. Passive forms of godan verbs (with れる・られる) carry both meanings, but usually defaults to passive.

  • I spent a while living in the Tōhoku in the 90s. I learned the ら抜き construction (at that time, missing from any textbook I had seen). This apparently developed in the northeast as a means of differentiating passive from potential for ichidan verbs. Example: 食べられる ("to be eaten"), 食べれる ("to be able to eat"). I am not sure how widespread ら抜き usage is, but it does seem to be part of a long-term trend in the language to distinguish between passive and potential. Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 17:36

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