Bungo Nyūmon

A Brief Introduction to Classical Japanese

Expressing Concepts

Expressing the perfect aspect and past tense 

The two most common suffices to indicate past tense in CJ are –ki, –tari, and –keri. All are attached to the ren’yōkei (continuative form) of the verb or adjective.

The CJ construction “mishi hito” ("the person/people I saw”) would be the MJ “mita hito.” It is formed by adding the rentaikei of ki (because the verb is in apposition to the noun) to the ren’yōkei of miru, ("to see”).

Although –keri is past tense, it was often used to emphasise a certain poetic or emotional content that is often hard to translate into English. Several passages in the Ise monogatari begin in this fashion: “Mukashi, otoko arikeri” (= "Long ago, there was a man.”). In reading in the original, this emotive content must be kept in mind — in translating, it is usually nigh unto impossible to render, and thus that emotive content is ignored.

The suffix –tari is both a simple past perfect (e.g., “Hitachinosuke to tsuketari” = “we named her Hitachinosuke”) but also has the occasional sense of a continuative past (e.g., “tsutsu no naka hikaritari” = “the inside of the stalk was shining”).

The suffix –nu implies definite completion or a finished state for intransitive verbs, but can also imply the same finality of meaning as the English “ate up” versus just “ate."

The suffix –tsu functions as does –nu, but generally implies definiteness of the past (e.g., “yume ni nan mietamatsuru” = “you definitely appeared in a dream”).

Expressing concession 

Adding the non-inflecting suffices –do or –domo to the ren’yōkei of a verb creates the sense of “although —” much the same as in MJ. (e.g., “Soko ni ari to kikedo…” = “although he heard she was there…”).

In texts, sometimes the combination to iedomo appears, and this means, literally, “even given that —” or “even saying that —.” It is functionally the same as “although —” and is really very little different than –domo.

The particle combination mono wo, which follows the rentaikei, is also concessive, and functions like “but” or “although."

The particles –tomo or –to following shūshikei or rentaikei (depending on the time in which the text was written) give a concession like the English “even if” or “although — may —.”

Expressing conjecture 

The inflecting suffix –mu attaches to the mizenkei and has several uses. When in the first person, it implies volition or desire (“I will —”), but when referring to second or third person, rather than being volitional it has the meaning of conjecture about the action, like the MJ darō (“he/you probably will —”). It can also indicate something that is expected or natural ("[he] ought to —”). Context will be the best guide in reading, although lack of a written subject may make this difficult.

The inflecting suffix –kemu attaches to the ren’yōkei and has the function of past conjecture. For example, it may be something that has been heard about and may or may not be true, like the English “might have —.” It also carries the context for an expected past action that is uncertain to have taken place.

The particle rashi can attach to the ren’yōkei and means “must/seems to be.” It is similar, but slightly stronger, than the MJ “rashii.”

The inflecting suffix –meri attaches to the ren’yōkei, and is a contraction of mi ari implying something that has been observed to be the situation. In usage, however it is more tentative, indicating surmise, and is on the opposite side of certainty than is rashi above. In usage, it is on the level of “it seems as if perhaps —.”

The particle ramu is attached to the ren’yōkei and refers to something in the present or the past. It is more subjective than rashi, and is like “probably —” or “it may be that —.” Sometimes there is an implied question in its use, like the MJ “— dōshite darō” (= “I wonder why —”).

Expressing negation 

The inflecting suffices –zu and –zari (actually a contraction of zu ari) attach to the mizenkei. They’re both unqualified negatives.

The conjuctive partle de can be attached to the mizenkei and forms the same meaning of the MJ [verb]–nakute or [verb]–naide (= “without [verb]–ing”).

The uninflected suffix –ji can be added to the mizenkei as well, and it functions as a negative form of the suffix –mu. It is thus the negation of probability (e.g., “hana sakaji” = “the flowers will probably not bloom”).

Expressing volition 

When in the first person, the inflecting suffix –mu attached to the mizenkei implies volition or desire (“I will —”).

The suffices –muzu and –nzu (both contractions from –mu to su, therefore showing connection to the above-mentioned suffix) attached to the ren’yōkei also express volition, but they are stronger and more emphatic. (Perhaps, one may consider the difference between them as “I will go tomorrow” and “I will go tomorrow!’)

Expressing negative volition (e.g., “I don’t intend to go”), like the MJ “[verb]–nai tsumori da” is expressed with the suffix –maji attached to the shūshikei (e.g., “Kyō yomumaji” = “I shall not read the sutra”).

Expressing hypotheticals 

The inflecting suffix –mashi attaches to the mizenkei. It functions similarly to the MJ “moshi — dattara” (“if such and such happens/exists”). When combined with a negative, it means “had — not have —."

The addition of the particle –ba to the mizenkei also produces the meaning of “if —.” NB: Do not confuse it with the addition of –ba to the izenkei, which produces the meaning “since/when —.” 

Expressing desire 

The non-inflecting suffix –baya, when attached to the mizenkei, expresses one’s wishes for a condition (the verb) to occur. It is similar to the English “would that —” or “if only —.” In the case of first-person, it may also indicate intention to act to bring the desired effect.

The adjectival suffix –tashi can be added to a verb’s ren’yōkei to produce a meaning similar to the MJ –tai.


Expressing obligation/probability 

The suffix –beshi, attaching to the shūshikei, is extremely useful, but also confusing, as it has many functions. The most common function is the expression of obligation (e.g., “I must —” or “I have to —”). This function works for first-, second-, and third-person usage.

It also has the function of strong conjecture along the lines of the English, “undoubtedly, —” or “surely, —” and thus implies a high probability and expectation that the proposed concept is indeed the case.

Beshi can also indicate the belief of the speaker or writer that the situation is only natural or proper, like the English “ought to —” or “should —", and the MJ “hazu da."

It can also indicate volition, but this use seems limited to the shūshikei, and probably only when first-person usage is implied. Then again, this may be considered little differet from the “it is only natural that” usage implied in the paragraph above. “Kono ikusa nite, ware shinubeshi” can be taken, then, to mean “By rights I should die in this battle” and “I must die in this battle.” Other than nuance, how much different are the translations? Either one is a valid reading of the same CJ sentence, and absent any additional context to determine specific meaning or intent, either could stand.

The suffix –maji works the same way, but functions as the negative (the opposite) of beshi; that is, while “ikubeshi” is “you should/must go,” “ikumaji” is “you should/must not go.” Alternatively — and perhaps more commonly — the negative suffix –zu is attached to the mizenkei of beshi (e.g., “ikubekarazu” = “ikumaji” = “you should not go”).

Expressing likeness 

The inflecting adjectival suffix –gotoshi attaches to the rentaikei, and means “like.” Often, the particle “no” or “ga” is interposed between the rentaikei verb and –gotoshi (e.g., “yuki wo miru ga gotoshi” = “it’s like seeing snow”). This suffix, functioning as an adjective, can be attached to a noun (with the interposing “no” or “ga”) to mean “like —” (e.g., “yume ga gotoshi” = “like a dream”).


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