A social science that's big in Japan

The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics

September 1, 2000

This is one of a series of handbooks on the language sciences; other volumes cover such areas as child language, phonetics, phonology, morphology, semantics, sociolinguistics and historical linguistics. The ambitious publishing project is intended to provide a representative, in-depth account of the state of linguistics. The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics is an exception, referring as it does to one particular language. That the other handbooks do not, testifies to one of the most significant aspects of modern linguistics: its claim to universality.

The greatest accomplishment of modern linguistics is the development of theoretical concepts independent of any particular language and applicable to the description and analysis of all. No other science has come close to a comparable degree of generality that allows scientific investigation of faculties of human behaviour irrespective of their location in space and time or socioeconomic development. Due to this level of theoretical sophistication, linguistics can claim to advance our knowledge about humanity rather than individual communities. Languages change on general lines and are acquired by children according to the same general principles, no matter whether their parents speak Japanese, Arabic or Quechua.

Why then a handbook of Japanese linguistics? The answer is historical coincidence. Japanese has played an important role in the development of linguistic theory over the past 30 years. In its initial phase, the paradigm of generative grammar, initiated in the 1960s by Noam Chomsky, relied chiefly on uncovering the underlying structures of English. "Take any language, English, for example" used to be a standard joke, especially among non-English mother-tongue linguists. The presence of Japanese students in American linguistics classrooms came in handy to fend off such criticism. They were able to provide examples and counter-examples that were more valuable than those offered by their French, Italian or German fellows. This is because Japanese differed so radically from English and thus made universal hypotheses so much more plausible than evidence drawn from closely cognate languages. A few of these Japanese students became professional linguists. They turned the Japanese language into a major testing ground for theoretical linguistics, and as such Japanese deserves a single volume. While Japanese became a crucial non-European reference language for American linguists, English came to play a complementary role in Japan, as evidenced in the handbook. Other languages referred to include Dutch, German, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Thai and Korean, which is grammatically very similar to Japanese. However, the language of comparison is American English. Given that most of the 16 chapters' authors are American educated, this is perhaps not surprising.

A brief look at the bibliography confirms the volume's American orientation. American titles outnumber Japanese by a large margin. Journal articles in the bibliography indicate further what this handbook is about. Four of the 1,100 titles are from Gengo , Japan's leading linguistics journal. Twice as many are from Language , its American counterpart, and more than ten times as many from Linguistic Inquiry , the preferred journal of researchers working in the generative paradigm.

The chapters of the handbook exhibit a similar bias. Japanese is similar to English in that it does not have an overt marker on the verb that indicates future time. English, for example, allows for the conflation of manner of motion and direction while Japanese does not. There are multiple/double object structures in Japanese, that do not exist in English. Statements such as these form a leitmotif throughout the handbook.The yardstick of American English also extends to chapters dealing with sociolinguistic rather than grammatical issues. A study of the deletion of final t and d - firs chil rather than first child - in New York City, for example, has been the model of a similar sociolinguistic study in Tokyo.

The work under review, then, if a handbook at all, is a handbook of American Japanese linguistics. Within this context there is a certain rationale for having such a book. US universities have been the source of important theoretical developments in linguistics, as in other sciences. These have spread to many parts of the world, including Japan, leading to a degree of convergence of outlook and method. This has its positive sides,as it helps to focus researchers' energies on solving clearly defined problems. But there are also undeniable drawbacks. Problems falling outside the established research agenda tend to be ignored, deliberately or by default.

Take language history. The genesis of English is well known. Research on its evolution within the western Germanic languages is relatively unexciting and attracts little attention. The origin of Japanese, in contrast, is one of the most intriguing questions in which scholars have a keen interest. The Japanese writing system, too, poses intricate questions,both on theoretical and applied levels. The relationship between written and spoken Japanese and that between standard language and dialects form the subject of considerable elaborate research. This handbook has no room for any of these issues, which are hard to compare with English. The entire research tradition of what in Japanese is called "language life", that is, the manifold ways in which language bears on culture, society, and education, is likewise disregarded.

Thus, what American linguists and American-trained linguists in Japan find worth investigating does not necessarily correspond to their Japanese counterparts. The homogenisation of science has its limits. The Handbook offers a wealth of information on how grammatical structures of Japanese can be analysed according to the theoretical programmes of formal linguistics as defined in American academe. However, the reader must not expect to find a representative account of linguistic research in Japan.

Florian Coulmas is professor of Japanese studies, Gerhard Mercator University, Duisburg, Germany.

The Handbook of Japanese Linguistics

Editor - Natsuko Tsujimura
ISBN - 0 631 20504 7
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £85.00
Pages - 543

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