逆 gyaku—backwards

Jay Rubin (the translator of many of the novels of Haruki Murakami into English) wrote an entertaining little book called Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You.

It’s a book I’ve come back to again and again over the years, as it has something to offer for learners at different stages. And it’s amusingly written; Dr Rubin has a comic gift.

One of his memorable chapter titles was “Warning: this language works backwards.” His point being that many Japanese sentences can most easily be understood by starting at the end and working backwards to the start.

This is especially true for sentences that are moderately complex. For example, sentences that contain a relative clause.

To test the theory, here’s an example of a moderately complex sentence from this week’s homework (an article about robots):

Original sentence: これは手足の不自由な人が家庭内で自立するのを助けるために開発された。

Breaking this down, we have:

  • これは these
  • 手足の of limbs (arms and legs)
  • 不自由な without full use (disabled)
  • 人が people
  • 家庭内で within the home
  • 自立 independent
  • する be
  • のを助ける help to
  • ために in order to
  • 開発された were developed

Reading from top to bottom (left to right, in the original sentence), we have the following incomprehensible gibberish:

these of arms and legs without full use people within the home independent be help to in order to were developed“.

However, starting at the end of the sentence and working backwards, things start to make a lot more sense:

were developed in order to help to be independent within the home people without full use of arms and legs these“.

If we take the word “these” (the topic of the sentence) and move it back to its rightful place at the start, we now have an English sentence that is both grammatical and meaningful:

these were developed in order to help to be independent within the home people without full use of arms and legs“.

Basically, the more complex the sentence, the better the “read backwards” trick works (I use it all the time when I am trying to puzzle out the meaning of long sentences). If a sentence ends からだ ”it’s because”, that’s a good starting point for me to understand the sentence.

There are two main points where the trick breaks down:

  1. In Japanese, subjects and topics are normally found at the head of the sentence, just as they are in English. English is a Subject Verb Object (SVO) language: “Brian picked berries”; whereas Japanese is a Subject Object Verb (SOV) language: “Brian berries picked”. So in both languages, the subject, “Brian”, comes first, but the order of verb and object is reversed.
  2. In both English and Japanese (unlike, say, French or Spanish), the adjective precedes the noun: “red berries” rather than “berries red”.

And so, for simple sentences like “Brian picks red berries”, the trick doesn’t work.

All this raises the question: do Japanese people have to wait until the end of the sentence before they can begin to understand it by working their way through it backwards? I presume not. They must be able to understand their own language in a forward direction.

For me, however, as a learner, the sentence doesn’t really start to take shape until I’ve heard the verb (at the end of the sentence), and a noun phrase remains adrift until I hear the noun (at the end of the noun phrase).

I encounter many “garden path” sentences in Japanese, where what I take to be the subject and verb of a sentence turn out, as the sentence continues, to be part of a relative clause modifying the real subject of the sentence. Such sentences “lead you up the garden path” and either leave you confused or force you to change gear halfway (like the English sentence “The complex houses married soldiers” or “Fat people eat accumulates”).

Will I ever be able to understand Japanese “forwards”? I guess I will have to wait and see.

Just for fun, here’s another sentence from the article:

また、人間や小型の動物の形にしていて、簡単な会話ができるロボットもある。

  • また furthermore
  • 人間 human
  • や and (and so on)
  • 小型の of small-size
  • 動物の of animals
  • 形 the form
  • にしていて made in
  • 簡単な会話 simple conversations
  • ができる can understand
  • ロボット robots
  • も also
  • ある there are

Translation “Furthermore, there are also robots that can understand simple conversations, in the form of humans and small animals and so on.

(Google Translate: “In addition, there is also a robot you are in the form of small animal and human, can be a simple conversation.“)

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2 thoughts on “逆 gyaku—backwards

  1. I haven’t come across the division of languages into SOV and SVO before but that’s probably because I’ve never studied linguistics. Clearly, then, German is an SOV language while French, like English, is SVO. So naturally I’m led on to classifying Irish. Thug an múinteoir buille don dalta. (The teacher gave the pupil a punch.) This has to be a case of VSO. (Very Seriously Overstepping! ) Veni, Vidi, Vici. This must surely be V V V.

    1. You are correct about Irish. It is a VSO language, one of a small minority among the world’s languages. German is SVO like English, although unlike English, Dutch and other Germanic languages, in German the past participle is deferred to the end of the sentence.

      Latin word order is very variable but I think the “natural” word order is SVO (versipellis amat ancillam).

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