Monday, May 13, 2019

の Subject Marker

WIP : this article is incomplete and might change in the unforeseeable future.
In Japanese, the no の particle can sometimes replace the ga が particle as subject marker in a relative clause. Since this is something that's a bit confusing, I thought I'd better make a separate article to talk about it.


For starters, let's see an example of how it works:
  • te-ashi ga ugoku
    The hands-and-feet move.
    The limbs move.
    • Here, te-ashi is the subject, ugoku is the verb.
  • te-ashi ga ugoku ningyou
    A doll [whose] hands-and-feet move.
    A doll [whose] limbs move.
    A doll with moving limbs.
    • Here, te-ashi ga ugoku is a relative clause qualifying ningyou.
  • te-ashi no ugoku ningyou
    (same meaning as above.)
    • Here, no is replacing ga as the subject marker in the relative clause.

The same thing works with other adjectives, which work pretty much like verbs as far as syntax is concerned:
  • mimi ga nagai
    The ears are long.
  • mimi ga nagai erufu
    Elves [whose] ears are long.
  • mimi no nagai erufu
    Elves [whose] ears are long.

As you can see, replacing ga が by no の is pretty straightforward. There are only two issues.

Tricky Parts

Subject in Japanese, Object in English

The first isn't exclusive of the no の particle, it has to do with how subjects work in Japanese in general.

The problem happens when you have certain words that take a subject in Japanese, but translate to English as an object. Notoriously, this happens with the verbs aru ある and iru いる.
  • okane ga aru
    Money exists.
    To have money.
    • In the phrase "money exists," money is the subject. This is the same thing grammatically as the Japanese phrase.
    • However, what okane ga aru normally means is "to have money," in which case "money" is the object, not the subject.

As one would expect, it doesn't really matter how it's translated to English. The fact is that, in Japanese, okane is marked with the subject marker ga が, so it can become no の in a relative clause.
  • okane ga aru hito
    A person [who] has money.
  • okane no aru hito
    (same meaning.)

  • kamisama ga inai
    God isn't [here].
  • Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi
    Sunday [in which] God isn't.
    Sunday Without God.

Ambiguity with の Adjectives

The second problem is that "X の verb Y" can be interpreted in two ways::
  1. {X の verb} Y.
    no の marks X as subject of verb, and together they qualify Y.
  2. X の {verb Y}
    no の creates a no adjective, such as a possessive, which qualifies "verb Y," which is Y qualified by a verb.

To have a better idea, a concrete example:
  • Hauru no Ugoku Shiro

This can be interpreted in two ways:
  1. ハウルの動く 城
    The Castle (Shiro) [where] Howl Moves (Hauru ga Ugoku).
  2. ハウルの 動く城
    Castle [that] Moves (Ugoku Shiro) of Howl (Hauru no).
    Howl's Moving Castle.

Usually it's pretty easy to tell which one is the correct interpretation, since the other one won't make sense.
  • atama ga ii 頭がいい
    Head is good. (literally.)
    Is smart.
  • atama no ii hito
    A person [whose] head is good.
    A person [that] is smart.
    • Not:
    • The good person of the head. The head's good person.
  • atama no shiroi ke
    The white hair of the head. The head's white hair.
    • Not:
    • The hair [whose] head is white (atama ga shiroi).

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