Saturday, March 23, 2019


WIP: this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In linguistics, nominalization is the process of turning something that's not a noun into a noun. To make it nominal, instead of adjectival, adverbial, verbal, etc.

In Japanese, nominalization is done for two reasons: first: in order to make the grammatical syntax correct, and second: literally just because Japanese likes phrases that end as nouns.

The nominalization process is done through words called nominalizers, which would be the words no の, koto こと, mono もの, and the contractions n ん and mon もん.

They behave just like nouns, and nominalization is just like qualifying such nouns by an adjective or relative clause just like any other noun. The key difference is that nominalizers don't really mean anything, so they don't change the meaning of the phrase.

To have an idea: no の is a called the nominalizing particle, and literally means nothing, its function is purely grammatical. The other two, koto こと and mono もの, are also light nouns, which means they're so vaguely defined they can't even be used like normal nouns that refer to actual things.

Let's see an example of nominalization in practice.

In Japanese, case-marking particles such as the object marking particle wo を can only come after nouns. Ergo, if you have something that's not a noun, you can't make it the object of the sentence.

In such cases, you must first turn the non-noun into a noun by throwing a nominalizer at it. For example:

  • neru 寝る
    To sleep. (verb.)
  • *neru wo asureta
    (syntactically wrong.)
    • You can't put wo を right after a verb!
    • Let's add a no の nominalizer to it.
  • neru no
    The act [that is] to sleep. (noun.)
  • neru no wo wasureta
    To have forgotten to sleep.
    To have forgotten [to do] the sleeping.
    I forgot to sleep.
    • wasureru 忘れる
      To forget.
    • shukudai wo wasureta 宿題を忘れた
      To have forgotten the homework.

In cases such as the above, the nominalizer koto こと means pretty much the same thing:
  • neru koto wo wasureta
    To have forgotten to sleep.
    I forgot to sleep.

The word mono もの and its contraction mon もん, however, isn't used in such way. Instead, mono is generally used when you're remarking something.
  • otoko da 男だ
    It's a man.
    It's a guy.
    It's a boy.
    [He's] a man/guy/boy.
  • otoko da mono 男だもの
    otoko da mon 男だもん
    (literally the same thing as above.)

Now, you might be wondering what's even the point of mono and mon if it doesn't change the phrase at all. Well, it's because Japanese is a language that has a disturbing amount of focus on the ability of a person to express themselves differently by saying basically the same thing in a different way.

In the phrases above, for example, although I wrote those phrases myself, and I'm an adult man, I imagine otoko da mono to be a phrase used by a woman, probably saying something like "let him, my son, follow him dreams, because he's a boy, and boys are all about dreams and becoming pirate kings and stuff."

Why? Because women use mono that way. Why women use mono that way? Because women have used mono that way, and in order to identify as a woman you end up acting and speaking like other women.

This is a cultural thing that shows up in the language. Women sort of "naturally" use female language in Japanese. If a man spoke the same way, he'd be considered to be speaking femininely. (see: okama オカマ and onee-kotoba オネエ言葉.)

Furthermore, it's also possible it's a child saying it, because children say da mon a lot.

Now as for why it happens grammatically: there's really no reason.

Japanese just prefers phrases that end in nouns, and thus, nominalizers, instead of phrases that end in verbs. Turning a sentence into a noun softens it, which can make it more polite, or even add some other nuance to it. By contrast, not turning it into a noun makes it too aggressive and rash.

For example, kaeru? 帰る? can be used to ask "are you going home?" But the nominal variant kaeru no? 帰るの? sounds like a nicer way to confirm whether someone is going home.

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