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An introduction to Japanese linguistics By

Natsuko Tsujimura

Article in Language · December 1997

DOI: 10.1353/lan.1997.0023


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Stanley Dubinsky
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An introduction to Japanese linguistics By Natsuko Tsujimura
Stanley Dubinsky

Language, Volume 73, Number 4, December 1997, pp. 872-873 (Review)

Published by Linguistic Society of America

DOI: 10.1353/lan.1997.0023

For additional information about this article


Access provided by South Carolina University (24 Sep 2015 04:08 GMT)

An introduction to Japanese linguistics. By Natsuko Tsujimura. Oxford: Blackwell,

1996. Pp. xiv, 401.
Reviewed by Stanley Dubinsky, University of South Carolina
The latest in Blackwell's series 'Textbooks in linguistics', this volume is primarily designed
for 'undergraduate students who are interested in Japanese linguistics' (xii). I found the book to
be very clearly written and well organized. However, it suffers from trying to cover too much
ground in its 401 pages and from trying to be of service to too wide an audience. The back-
cover blurb claims that the book can be used 'both as an introduction to Japanese linguistics for
those who have no prior knowledge of linguistics and as a reference book on Japanese for
linguists in general' (emphasis mine). It also claims to contain 'a comprehensive account of
Japanese linguistics covering phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, language
change, dialect variation, and gender differences' .
Taking these claims at face value, I found that the text fails to live up to its own stated goals.
Aimed at readers with widely differing abilities and interests, it fails to commend itself either
to those with little or no background in linguistics or to those who come to it with a knowledge
of linguistics wanting to be informed about issues particular to Japanese. Further, by including
everything from phonetics to formal syntax-semantics to sociolinguistics, the book provides only
nominal coverage on a number of issues (e.g. dialect variation), thereby sacrificing pages which
would have better been used to expand upon the chapters (e.g. phonology) that are the core of
the text.
In preparing my review of this book, I was fortunate to have a Japanese graduate student from
my university's psychology department who was interested in getting an introduction to the
discipline of linguistics.1 This student, a native speaker of Japanese with no prior knowledge of
linguistics, agreed to let me test the text's effectiveness by instructing her with it. It was not
easy. A summary of her reactions to the text, given to me at the end of the semester, contained
a variety of frustrations. In particular, she reported that the book lacked 'basic information
necessary to guide naive readers through fundamental topics and issues in linguistics', that 'key
terms are not always clearly defined', and that the chapters did not provide 'a general description
of [each] subfield [of] linguistics' . She felt that 'the book should [have] treat[ed] the material
at a more fundamental level', if it is intended for a beginning student. She also suggested that
Overview and summary sections [for] each chapter [would have been] helpful'. Having used
the text as a teaching tool, I find myself in agreement with her assessments.
The first numbered chapter in the book, 'Introduction' (1-4), contains a brief description of
the field of linguistics, with a standard homage to Chomsky's innateness theories drawn from
first language acquisition research. The chapter would have been more useful and pertinent had
it contained an overview of the goals of the book. The chapter on phonetics (5-22) contains
descriptions of the phonetic inventories of English and Japanese, illustrated with very useful
tables and diagrams. While phonetics need not be a major component of a survey course in
linguistics, this chapter is far too abbreviated to be adequate preparation for the subsequent
chapter on phonology (23-124). While quite interesting in many respects, this third chapter
displays the problems described above. As an introductory text, it provides insufficient explana-
tions of key concepts. For example, the relation of phonology to phonetics, the difference between
phonemic and phonetic transcription, and the definition of allophone are all dealt with in a single
page (24). The definition of assimilation is given in a single sentence in a section on 'nasal
assimilation' (29), and although a number of other assimilatory processes are discussed in the
chapter, no attempt is made to generalize across these particular cases. As an advanced text, the
chapter fares somewhat better, offering a clear and concise summary of a wide range of issues
including sequential voicing (rendaku), mora vs. syllable, loan-word phonology, mimetics, and

1 1 am sincerely grateful to Sachiko Matsumoto for her willingness to participate in this project and for
providing me with her very insightful reactions to the text.

pitch accent. For a fuller treatment of any of these, however, a reader will want to refer to Vance
Ch. 4, 'Morphology' (125-59), is much more 'introductory' in its coverage than the previous
one. It is also shorter than I would have preferred and suffers organizationally, delaying the
definition of morpheme and a discussion of morpheme types (e.g. bound vs. free) until the middle
of the chapter. The syntax chapter (160-304), the longest, is the centerpiece of the book. It is
here that T is most at home, allowing her own research interests (e.g. unaccusativity) to set some
of the agenda. The chapter covers scrambling, hierarchical vs. flat structure, reflexives, passives,
causatives, unaccusativity, and light verbs. The dual purpose of the text also plays a role in fixing
its length, as it ranges from explaining the meaning of syntactic constituent (161-2) to arguing
for a syntactic account of the unergative-unaccusative distinction (270-6). One unfortunate aspect
of this chapter is that it focuses far too much on observations and analyses by Shigeru Miyagawa.
While T's presentation of these is quite informative and well written, they occupy far too promi-
nent a place in an introductory text. A naive reader of this book will come away with no sense
of the enormous early contributions to Japanese syntax of Kuno, Kuroda, and Shibatani and will
also have little sense of syntactic issues dealt with in work by Miyagawa' s equally important
contemporaries (e.g. Naoki Fukui and Mamoru Saito).2
The chapter on semantics (305-5 1) contains a very lucid introduction to aspectual (i.e. aktions-
art) properties of verbs and their application to Japanese. It also has a very user-friendly discussion
of the deictic uses of Japanese verbs of giving and receiving. In trying to be an introductory
textbook, this chapter stumbles at the beginning by vainly attempting to explain the difference
between entailment and presupposition in a single page (quite a waste, since T never returns to
the issue). The last chapter, 'Language variation' (352-81), is far too short to do justice to the
issues that it attempts to cover (historical linguistics, eleven pages; dialectal variation, eight
pages; gender differences, seven pages). It manages to provide a sense of the sort of issues that
language variation is concerned with but does little more.
As stated above, this book might have been a very useful introduction to linguistics for students
of Japanese, but to accomplish this, it would have to have presented basic linguistic concepts in
much more detail, rid itself of some of the more advanced discussion in the syntax chapter, and
provided more substance to the chapters on phonetics and language variation. This volume could
also have been an excellent text for a course in Japanese linguistics, whose prerequisite would
be a survey course in general linguistics. This would have involved expanding the chapters on
phonology, morphology, and syntax at the expense of the rest. Unfortunately, what Blackwell
has given us is a hybrid that is well suited for neither purpose.


Dubinsky, Stanley. 1985. Japanese union constructions: A unified analysis of -sase and -rare. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University dissertation.
Miyagawa, Shigeru. 1989. Structure and case marking m Japanese. Syntax and Semantics 22. San Diego:
Academic Press.
Vance, Timothy. 1987. An introduction to Japanese phonology. Albany: State University of New York

Linguistics Program
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208
[dubinsky @ sc .edu]

2 T's overemphasis on Miyagawa' s work goes so far as to attribute to him observations originally made
by others. One clear (to this author) instance is on p. 279 where Miyagawa (1989) is wrongly credited with
discovering that unaccusative verbal nouns disallow accusative case marking (the observation was originally
made in Dubinsky 1985).

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