Thursday, June 6, 2019

Subject and Object

In grammar, the subject, the direct object, and the indirect object are types of arguments a verb can have. The concept applies to both English and Japanese, but there are differences between how the two languages express and interpret verb arguments in a sentence.

Identification

Verbs are classified according to their transitivity, which is how many arguments they can have.
  1. Intransitive.
  2. Transitive.
  3. Ditransitive.

An intransitive verb only takes a subject.
  • The cat¹ slept.

A transitive verb takes a subject and an object.
  • The cat¹ ate the rat².

A ditransitive verb takes a subject, a direct object, and an indirect object.
  • The cat¹ gave the rat² to the dog³.
  • The cat¹ gave the dog³ the rat².

The two phrases above mean the same thing. The direct and indirect objects didn't change just because we moved the words around.

In English, the subject always comes before the verb and the objects always come after. The pattern is called SVO, or Subject-Verb-Object.

The grammar syntax determines the roles of the words in a sentence in English. The verb "to give," for example, works this way:
  • Subj. gives dir.obj. to indir.obj.
  • Subj. gives indir.obj. dir.obj.

Simply adding or removing "to" changes the roles of the words around.

In Japanese

In Japanese, the particles ga, wo, を, and ni normally mark the word coming before it as subject, direct object, and indirect object respectively.
  • Subj.がverb.
  • Subj.がdir.obj.をverb.
  • Subj.がdir.obj.をindir.obj.にverb.

Japanese works just like English, except the words and the grammar is all different:
  • neko ga nemutta
    猫が眠った
    The cat slept.
  • neko ga nezumi wo tabeta
    猫がネズミを食べた
    The cat ate the rat.
  • neko ga nezumi wo inu ni yatta
    猫がネズミを犬にやった
    The cat gave the rat to the dog.

Order

Generally, the subject comes first and the verb comes last, so Japanese is SOV, or Subject-Object-Verb pattern.

However, Japanese doesn't have the same syntactical restrictions English has. You can shuffle the words around and they'll keep the same roles as before, so long as they're still marked by the same particles.
  • Dir.obj.をindir.obj.にsubj.がverb.
  • Indir.obj.にsubj.がdir.obj.をverb.
  • Dir.obj.をindir.obj.にverb, subj.が.
  • Subj.が.indir.obj.にverb, dir.obj.を.

Of course, since you're saying things in a non-normal order, it will sound odd, but it won't be grammatically wrong.

Other Roles

Although ni に is often the indirect object, it's not always. Technically, it marks to whom you give something, where something is, where you are going. For reference, some notes on similar particles.

The e へ particle marks toward what direction something is going.
  • mirai ni iku
    未来行く
    To go to the future.
  • mirai e iku
    未来行く
    To go toward the future.

The to と particle marks "with whom" you're doing an activity, while the de で particle marks "with what," "how," "under what circumstances," "where" you're doing it.
  • tomodachi to asobu
    友達遊ぶ
    To play together with a friend.
    To play with a friend.
  • geemu de asobu
    ゲーム遊ぶ
    To play with a game.

vs. Agent and Patient

The terms agent and patient refer to who is doing the action and who is receiving it.

In active voice, subject is the agent and the object is patient. In patient voice, the subject is the patient. So the word that would be marked by wo を becomes marked by ga が.

Furthermore, the agent of the passive is marked by the ni に particle.
  • neko ga nezumi wo tabeta
    猫がネズミを食べた
    The cat ate the rat.
  • nezumi ga neko ni taberareta
    ネズミが猫に食べられた
    The rat was eaten by the cat.

Subject and object relate to the verb. Someone has to be subject argument of the verb. If the verb is active, the subject is the agent, if the verb is passive, the subject is patient.

On the other hand, the notions of agent and patient are a matter of interpretation. The idea that they act and receive the action is consistent, but how they act and receive the action depends on context.

For example, it's possible to have a phrase with both patient subject and object in Japanese.
  • kare ga kazoku wo koroshita
    彼が家族を殺した
    He killed the family.
    He killed [his] family.
    • He is the subject, thus agent, so he is doing the killing.
  • kare ga kazoku wo korosareta
    彼が家族を殺される
    He (patient) killed the family.
    His family was killed.
    • He is the subject, thus patient, so he is receiving the killing.
    • But the object for the verb is still "family."
    • The "family killing" thing was done to him.
    • We can assume "his" family was killed, even though we do not have a particle that indicates possessiveness in the sentence.

Theta Criterion

In general, two arguments of a verb can't have the same role. Each argument must have a different role.

This means you can't have two subjects, direct objects, or indirect objects if you only have one verb.
  • *AをBをverb
    (no.)

But what if I want to say: "I ate a banana and an apple?" Don't I have two objects, then?

No. You have one object: "a banana and an apple." It's more than one thing, more than one word, it's a noun phrase, but as far as syntax is concerned, that still only counts as one.
  • *watashi ga ringo wo banana wo tabeta
    私がりんごをバナナを食べた
    (wrong.)
  • watashi ga ringo to banana wo tabeta
    私がりんごとバナナを食べた
    I ate a banana and an apple.

Particles tend to have more than one function. Sometimes you'll find the same particle multiple times in a s sentence but each instance is doing something different. For example:
  • sugu ni gakkou ni iku
    すぐに学校に行く
    To go to the school immediately.

Above, we have two ni に particles expressing different functions. The first creates an adverb, "immediate-ly," the second marks the indirect object, "to the school."

You can only have one type of argument per verb, but if you have two verbs, you can have two of the same argument so long as each one is associated with a different verb.

In this case, you wouldn't have a simple sentence with a single clause, but a multiple clauses instead, as each clause has only one verb.
  • watashi ga {neko ga nezumi wo taberareta} to omotta
    私が猫がネズミを食べられた思った
    I thought that {the cat ate the rat.}

Above, the main clause has the verb omotta, "thought," while the subordinate clause has the verb "ate," taberareta.

In relative clauses, the subject may be marked by the no の particle as well.
  • {neko ga tabeta} nezumi
    食べたネズミ
    The rat [that] {the cat ate}.
  • {neko no tabeta} nezumi
    食べたネズミ
    (same meaning.)

vs. Topic

In English, the subject of a sentence is often the topic. The subject is determined by syntax, and the topic by interpretation, making it a subject-prominent language.

In Japanese, the topic of a sentence is normally marked syntactically, with the wa particle, and it's then interpreted to be the subject, making it a topic-prominent language.
  • neko wa nezumi wo tabeta
    はネズミを食べた
    As for the cat, the rat ate. (literally.)
    The cat ate the rat. (interpretatively.)

Above, the subject isn't marked explicitly with the ga が particle. Instead, it's assumed that the topic is the subject.
  • nazumi wa neko ga tabeta
    ネズミは猫が食べた
    As for the rat, the cat ate.
    The cat ate the rat.

Observe above that this time the topic takes the role of the object.

The hint in the two phrases above is that there's also one direct object and then one subject in the sentence.

Since there can't be two direct objects in the first example, the topic must be either the indirect object or the subject. Likewise, in the second sentence there's already a subject, so the topic must an object of some sort.
  • nezumi wa tabeta
    ネズミは食べた
    As for the rat, ate.

Above, it's impossible to tell without further context what argument the rat fills for the verb. It could be that the rat ate the cheese. It could be that the cat ate the rat, but not the cheese. It would depend on what we were talking about so far.

Transitivity Disparity

Some verbs that would be transitive in English, taking a subject and object, are intransitive in Japanese, taking only the subject, and have the topic act as a scope for the statement.

For example, the verb kakaru かかる means something "costs." In English, we say the subject costs the object. In Japanese, we say: as for the topic, the subject costs.
  • shujutsu wa okane ga kakaru
    手術はお金がかかる
    As for the surgery, money costs.
    The surgery costs money.
  • jikan ga kakaru
    時間がかかる
    Time costs.
    It takes time.
    It will take a while.

Some verbs do not refer to an action but instead to a quality, to a state a thing finds itself in. They're stative verbs, like wakaru 分かる, "is understood," and mieru 見える, "is seen."
  • watashi wa sore ga wakaru
    私はそれが分かる
    As for me, that-thing is understood.
    I understand that.
  • yuurei ga mieru
    幽霊が見える
    Ghosts are seen.
    To be able to see ghosts.

Some verbs change transitivity when they're used with certain auxiliaries, like -tai ~たい.
  • watashi ga hon wo yomu
    私が本を読む
    I read books.
  • watashi wa hon ga yomitai
    私は本が読みたい
    As for me, books are want-to-read.
    I want to read books.

Or in certain forms, like potential.
  • hon ga yomeru
    本が読める
    Book is able-to-read.
    To be able to read letters.

Some forms change verbs from intransitive to transitive, like the causative form.
  • hito ga shinu
    人が死ぬ
    People die.
  • hito wo shinaseru
    人を死なせる
    To let people die.
    To make people die.

Pronoun Dropping

In English, to avoid repeating words we often use pronouns, like "he" and "she."
  • John saw Mary.
  • John thought Mary was cute.
  • He thought she was cute.

This happens because English has rather strict syntax requirements, so we don't normally leave a hole where an argument is supposed to go.
  • John saw Mary.
  • *Thought Mary was cute.
  • *John thought was cute.

In Japanese, however, it's normal to omit a pronoun where the thing it refers to can be inferred from context.
  • kawaii!
    かわいい!
    Is cute!
    [Something] is cute!
    [She] is cute!
    [He] is cute!
    [It] is cute!

In English, sometimes sentences feature a dummy "it" that refers to nothing and is used just to fill the syntactic hole opened by not having an actual subject. For example:
  • It's cold today.
  • It's raining.

Japanese doesn't have the pronoun "it."
  • samui
    寒い
    [It] is cold.

But, sometimes, Japanese uses a different verb with an actual subject.
  • ame ga futteiru
    雨が降っている
    Rain is falling from the sky.
    Rain is raining.
    [It] is raining.
  • yuki ga futteiru
    雪が降っている
    Snow is raining.
    [It] is snowing.

In Japanese, many kinds of phrases, like opinions, are assumed to be about the speaker himself, so you don't need to say "I." And questions are assumed to be about the listener, so you don't need to say "you" either.
  • kami wo kitta
    髪を切った
    Cut hair.
    [As for me,] cut hair.
    [I] cut [my] hair.
  • kami wo kita no?
    髪を切ったの?
    Cut hair?
    [As for you,] cut hair?
    Did [you] cut [your] hair?

Above, the topic of the sentence (I and you) is inferred from whether it's a question or not. As we've seen before, the topic can be further assumed to be the subject, so the subject is inferred from the context, and pronouns become unnecessary in many cases.

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