Saturday, March 23, 2019

Light Nouns

WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In linguistics, a light noun refers to one extremely meaningless noun, which is so abstract it's not normally used by itself, only gaining meaning when it's qualified by an adjective or relative clause.

Such light nouns normally perform grammatical functions rather than referring to tangible things, which makes them different from other, more normal nouns. Another name for light noun is weak noun, because it's semantically weak: weak in meaning.

Note that a nominalizer is a word whose only function is nominalization: turning something into a noun, and has no tangible meaning itself besides the nuance in its usage. Some light nouns are also nominalizers.

In Japanese, light nouns include koto こと, tokoro ところ, toko とこ and mono もの. The biggest problem with these words is that, because they're more about grammar than vocabulary, you'll find dictionary definitions of them absolutely misleading.

This happens because they don't have concrete meaning by themselves. The word "car" refers to the thing which is a car, just like a kuruma 車 refers to a kuruma. But a koto, a toko, and a mono, are all too vague to define.

To have a better idea: the word tokoro ところ refers vaguely to the scene, place or spot where something happens or has happened, or a certain part of something. It's impossible to translated it as just one English word.
  • nusumu tokoro wo mita
    盗むところを見た
    [I] saw the stealing tokoro.
    • I saw it when the stealing was happening. I witnessed it.
    • I saw it when he stole the thing. Or when the thing was stolen.
  • oishii tokoro wo motte-iku
    美味しいところを持っていく
    To take-and-go the tasty tokoro.
    • To take the tasty part and go away.
    • To run away with the good part.
    • To steal the good part.

The word toko とこ is so abstract the best way you can translate it is as a "thing," and even then that's not right. That's because it can also refer to the event in which something takes place.
  • ore ga yatta koto
    俺がやったこと
    The thing [that] I did.
    Something [that] I did.
    What [I] did.
  • yatta koto nai
    やったことない
    The event [in which] [I] did [it] is nonexistent.
    There's no event [in which] [I] did [it].
    [I] have never done [it].
    [It] has never been done.

The word mono もの also means "thing." The difference between mono もの and toko とこ is that mono tends to refer to more tangible things, material, physical, touchable things, etc., while toko is more abstract and can refer to things that are done, actions instead. For example:
  • hoshii mono
    欲しいもの
    A wanted thing.
    A thing that [I] want.
    Something [I] want.
    What [I] want.
  • shite hoshii koto
    してほしいこと
    A thing [I] want [you] to do.
    Something [I] want [you] to do.
    What [I] want [you] to do.

Reminder: both mono and koto are light nouns. So they are never used to say "thing" by itself. The word nanika 何か means "something," and is a normal noun.
  • nanika wo mitsuketa
    何かを見つけた
    To have found something.
    • I found something.
    • I found a thing.
  • *mono wo mitsuketa (you don't say this.)
  • *koto wo mitsuketa (you don't say this.)

But when you have a qualifier for the "thing," then you don't use nanika, you use mono or koto.
  • ii mono wo mitsuketa
    いいものを見つけた
    To have found a good thing.
    • I found something good.
  • ii koto wo kiita
    いいことを聞いた
    To have heard a good thing.
    • I heard something good.
    • I heard something interesting.

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