Particle amnesia

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[This is a guest post by Nathan Hopson]

I know you've written a lot about character amnesia in the greater Sinosphere. But I think I witnessed the related, but significantly different, phenomenon of (grammatical) particle amnesia (or perhaps, "drift") during a recent trip to Hawaii.

As you know, Hawaii has a large nikkei* population. This is especially true in and around Honolulu, where I was for the Japanese Studies Association conference last week. In addition to an extraordinary number of Japanese tourists, Oahu is home to nisei,** sansei,*** and many people of mixed heritage. Japanese signs abound, and Japanese is spoken in many hotels, restaurants, and stores.

[*an American of Japanese descent.]
[**second generation; ***third generation]

I wasn't really paying too much attention to this until my final day, when I noticed several signs in which the grammatical particles were incorrect. One was at the airport in an area where the TSA frowns upon photography, but someone else got a shot and posted it here:

The caption, "Strange Japanese (lol)" sums it up.

The other was in a bathroom at Pearl Harbor — yes, I know that in general photography in public bathrooms is also frowned upon — and I was able to snap this photo:

Turns out — no surprise — that I'm not the first to notice this, too.  The linked blogs, etc., from this Google Image search also have a few laughs/grimaces at the sign's grammar.

Anyway, the TSA sign reads:

Inu o furenaide kudasai

The Pearl Harbor sign is:

Nureta yuka ga suberimasu

[VHM: note the use of furigana / ruby phonetic annotation for all three kanji, which would seem to indicate an expected low level of kanji recognition on the part of patrons using this bathroom]

In both cases, the particles are wrong.

The Pearl Harbor bathroom sign is more egregious, so let's start there.

In Japan, the sign would usually be:
Yuka ga suberiyasuku natte imasu


Ashimoto ni gochūi kudasai

or some variation. Sometimes it's a combination of the two.

A few examples can be found here.

Pearl Harbor gets the subject/topic particle wrong.
Oh, the は and が problem. Here, it's the difference between:
"Wet floor slips" and "Wet floor is slippery"

The TSA sign gets the object particle wrong.
触れる (fureru, touch) is unusual in that it takes に rather than を as its object. Its synonym 触る (sawaru) can take either — with a minor change in nuance.

The meaning is perfectly clear, even with the incorrect particle. I asked a group of Japanese tourists in line with me for Security, and they agreed.

I know from experience in Hawaii and elsewhere that the so-called "politeness" language (it's a misnomer) in Japanese has a very hard time surviving contact with the outside world intact, and an equally difficult time being passed down generationally without the social enforcement apparatuses of school, television, work, etc.

I can't be certain, of course, but it seems likely that these signs were translated by second- and third-generation nikkei residents. If so, I wonder what that means about the possibility of particle amnesia or particle drift. Kanji are not so much a problem in an age of digital conversion, but particles are a very subtle, yet integral part of the grammar of Japanese. For the particles to drift would signal a really fundamental change beyond the level of orthography.

I wonder whether anyone else has encountered this in Japanese, and what the analogues would be in other languages, if any.

Additionally, I was thinking that it's possible that the "slippery" sign is not a particle problem but a verb problem:

Yuka ga suberi yasuku natte imasu 床が滑りやすくなっています = the floor is easily slip-able (as in, human beings ought to be careful)
Yuka ga suberimasu 床が滑ります = the floor slips (as in, the floor itself falls over and, one assumes, says ouch)

So this is all really nothing more than a very long question….

Notes on the Chinese and Korean of the TSA sign (by VHM)

The Chinese is curtly formal:

wù chùmō gǒu 勿触摸狗 ("do not touch the dog")

I cannot readily think of an idiomatic way to say "Please do not pet dogs" in Chinese.

Here are some suggestions from others; I don't think that any of these conveys the precise nuances of the wording in English, though the last one is very close:

wù fǔnòng gǒu 勿抚弄狗 ("do not fondle the dog")

qǐng bié chùmō gǒu 请别触摸狗 ("please don't touch the dog")

bié pèng gǒu 别碰狗 ("don't touch / come in contact with the dog")
bié mō gǒu 别摸狗 ("don't touch the dog")
bié dòu gǒu 别逗狗 ("don't tease the dog")

N.B.:  bùyào 不要 ("do not") can replace all the bié 别 ("don't") in the preceding four sentences.

qǐng wù dòunòng jǐngquǎn 请勿逗弄警犬 ("please do not tease / fool around with the police dog")

rènwù jǐngquǎn qǐng wù pāidòu 任务警犬请勿拍逗 ("please do not pat / tease the police dog on duty")

wéiān jǐngquǎn qǐng wù pāidòu 维安警犬请勿拍逗 ("please do not pat / tease the police dog that is maintaining order / security") (this is a Taiwan usage)

qǐng wù chùmō jǐngquǎn 请勿触摸警犬 ("please do not touch the police dog")

bié qīnnì gǒu 别亲昵狗 ("don't be affectionate / intimate to the dog") or bié gēn gǒu qīnnì 别跟狗亲昵 ("don't be affectionate / intimate with the dog").  Qīnnì 亲昵 is marked as an adjective in dictionaries and means "very intimate", but I think it can function as a verb meaning to pet".

qǐng wù fǔmō gǒu 请勿抚摸狗 ("please do not caress / gently stroke the dog")

One correspondent sent in this lengthier reply:

I'd translate the verb "pet" as fǔnòng 撫弄 ("fondle; handle"), yet in the case of TSA, fǔmō 撫摸 ("touch; caress; gently stroke; pet") might be better. The entire sentence can be rendered qǐng wù fǔmō jǐngquǎn as 請勿撫摸警犬 ("please do not pet the police dog") — gǒu 狗 for "dog" would mess up the rhythm, and it doesn't hurt to have jǐngquǎn 警犬 ("police dog") as your dog in this case.

After compiling all of the above translations, I received the following suggestion, which closely reflects my own view of the matter:

Although the verb "pet" may be translated as chǒng'ài 宠爱 ("pet; dote on; make a pet of") or àifǔ 爱抚 ("caress; show tender care for") in Chinese, the English sentence ("Please do not pet dogs") on the sign should be translated as qǐng wù chùmō gǒu 请勿触摸狗 ("please do not touch the dog") or qǐng wù chùmō gōngzuò quǎn 请勿触摸工作犬 ("please don't touch the working dog") in this situation. The Chinese word àifǔ 爱抚 ("caress; show tender care for") can also be applied to people. I don't think there is a proper Chinese equivalent of "pet" in the sense of "stroke affectionately".

As for the Korean, Haewon Cho says:

I would go for 개를 만지지 마세요 (gaeleul manjiji maseyo ["do not touch a dog"]), as on the sign.

You can say 개를 건드리지 마세요 (gaeleul geondeuliji maseyo; ["do not touch — and cause trouble to / irritate — a dog"]) or 개를 쓰다듬지 마세요 (gaeleul sseudadeumji maseyo ["do not pet a dog"]).

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Mien-hwa Chiang, Liwei Jiao, Grace Wu, Melvin Lee, Jing Wen, Xiuyuan Mi, Yixue Yang, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. okioboel said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 6:54 am

    I think that, cross-linguistically, "grammar-y" things like particles, prepositions, function words, agreement and inflection systems are the first to go, right?

    I'll add my own observation that in Brazil keigo respect language doesn't transplant well; even in my tea ceremony group, most speakers only seem to go as far as desu/masu level (with the exception of the ritualized dialogue in the ceremony itself, of course, which uses de gozaimasu and formulaic honorific/humble patterns, memorized opaquely).

    (Incidentally, I think the spam filter has silently eaten my past few comments. I usually comment as 'leoboiko' from IP

  2. jo lumley said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 7:24 am

    Regarding the dog sign, although it might be hard to say for certain that it's a result of transfer from English, it certainly looks that way. This type of error wouldn't surprise me from any Japanese user whose primary language is English (which is what I perhaps ignorantly imagine to be the case for most nikkei persons in Hawaii).

    Below a certain level of proficiency, English-speaking learners of Japanese make this type of error often with verbs like 会う au 'meet', 乗る noru "ride/get on', etc. as well, where, like 触れる fureru 'touch', the English verbs take a direct object but the Japanese take an indirect one (i.e. に-marked NP rather than を-marked).

    So at least in that case (no pun intended), it's unclear to me that there is anything specific to the acquisition and usage situation of heritage (?) / nikkei users of Japanese; it could be simply a case of very common cross-linguistic influence on someone's non-native / non-primary language.

  3. Wentao said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 7:51 am

    IMO 别逗狗 would be the most natural way in speech, but too casual for a sign like this, which almost always uses 请勿 instead of 别 for "Don't". Although 请勿触摸狗 is perfectly correct grammatically, I really like 请勿触摸工作犬, since (as Prof. Duanmu pointed out once, I think) Chinese favors the rhythm of 2-2-3 that resembles classical poetry. 亲昵 may be possible as a verb, but as a native of Beijing I have never heard or seen it used in this context with a dog.

  4. Alyssa said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 11:38 am

    Is there any reason to assume that the writer of those signs is a heritage speaker at all? Japanese is widely taught in schools in Hawaii.

  5. W Skander said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 2:26 pm


    Are subject/topic particles ever dropped by native speakers in Japanese?

    I know from my limited Korean learning experience that there are subject and object particles in that language that aren't always used. That situation might increase the likelihood that people at a distance from the native language culture might just start to universally drop them. Don't know if there is an analogy to be made with Japanese here; in many areas the languages seem to be similar.

  6. David Morris said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

    I would add to Haewon Cho's explanation that 를 is the object marking particle in Korean. This is (?sometimes/often) dropped in casual speech.

  7. krogerfoot said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

    The "Wet Floor" cone seems to be made by the Cortina Lamba company, based in Franklin Park, Illinois, although the first place I found where I can get one (not sure yet how many I'll need around the house) doesn't include the rubi over the kanji. It would be interesting to find out where the translation came from.

  8. VV said,

    January 18, 2017 @ 10:15 pm

    The errors in the two signs seem qualitatively different to me. The particle error in the first (dog) sign, I think could be plausibly made by a heritage speaker. The second (wet floor) sign is, as you say, "more egregious", and I don't think a heritage speaker would produce it; it could have been an adult-acquired L2 writer's error, or even plausibly a machine translation.

  9. Eric Sadoyama said,

    January 19, 2017 @ 3:24 am

    I doubt that either of these signs were composed in Hawaii at all. The TSA is a U.S. federal agency, and the "slippery floor" sign was probably manufactured somewhere in North America. Don't go blaming this on us nikkei.

  10. leoboiko said,

    January 19, 2017 @ 6:52 am

    @W Skander

    > Are subject/topic particles ever dropped by native speakers in Japanese?

    All the time.

  11. Aidan Aannestad said,

    January 19, 2017 @ 9:08 am

    I would agree with Jo Lumley – this seems like transfer from English in both cases. 'Touch' in English is a perfectly normal transitive verb, so it seems natural to carry that over to 触れる. In the case of 床が滑る, it seems like a case of misinterpreting 滑る as English 'slippery' instead of 'slip', and going from there.

  12. Filter Fodder said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 3:05 am

    But… 床が滑る DOES mean "the floor is slippery" in correct and idiomatic Japanese.

  13. Chris Button said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 9:07 am

    Does anyone know of any studies comparing Japanese "wa" and "ga" with intonation in languages like English? I'm thinking of comparisons like:

    kore-wa oishii
    – "this is deLIcious" (a general statement with standard intonational fall on last stressed syllable "li")

    kore-ga oishii
    – "THIS is delicious" (shifting intonational focus to the demonstrative pronoun "this" for emphasis)

  14. SB said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 2:39 am

    As a BrEng speaker, I think that prior to my several years of exposure to AmEng, I would have had difficulty with the English on the first sign. For me, "pet dogs" are dogs which are pets, so I think I would have been wondering what the missing verb was.

  15. SB said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 2:53 am

    I might also have been briefly confused by "K9". Is that not nerdview? OK, there is a pretty unambiguous picture too.

  16. krogerfoot said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 3:49 am

    Filter Fodder's point is pretty important: 床が滑ります doesn't seem to be wrong. The Obunsha J-E dictionary gives the example sentence 雨が降って道が滑る and translates it as "The road is slippery with the rain," and the first online dictionary at hand has the second definition as 表面がなめらかで地面に接するものが安定を失って自然に動いてしまう。スリップする。「凍結して路面が―・る」"Things in contact with a smooth surface of the ground lose control and spontaneously move. To 'slip.' 'Road surface is slippery when frozen.'" I would also have translated the sign the way Nathan Hopson suggested, but 滑る apparently has an intransitive usage as well.

  17. Colin Fine said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 3:27 am

    I echo SB's comment about K9. I went through US airports last week, and when I saw such a sign it took me a moment to realise that K9 was textual rather than a code of some sort .

  18. amy said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    I also wondered where the missing verb was and unconsciously filled it in with "use", then puzzled over the phrase "Please do not use pet dogs" for a moment.

  19. Filter Fodder said,

    January 23, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

    @krogerfoot, thanks for following up on my comment.

    I have a gut feeling that simply "滑る can mean 'be slippery'" isn't the whole story. One strange phrase that I hear once in a while is 仕事が疲れる with the meaning "work is tiring", although it literally means "work gets tired". Google lists lots of examples (from what I believe are native speakers), although I also see a couple of prescriptions saying that it's wrong.

    I don't claim to be able to offer any full analysis of this, but it seems to me that in general, the "ga is a subject marker" rule often breaks down when the verb (predicative adjectives) is stative. There's the obvious cases of wakaru (understand), suki (like), tabetai (want to eat) etc, which take their object with "ga". 滑る here is not an action, it's a stative use, "be slippery", so it might somehow be related.

    From a slightly different angle: I have no idea whether there's any basis for it, but it's hard for me not to draw mental parallels to middle voice constructions as in e.g. Spanish "se entiende", is understandable, "is such that you understand it". Compare to 滑る "is such that you slip (on it)". In both cases, a non-agent is in a (arguably) syntactical subject position.

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