Za stall in Newtown

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Together with his "greetings from small-town Japan", Chris Pickel sent in this photograph of a sign, which was put up in his neighborhood for the aki-matsuri 秋祭り ("autumn festival").

The first thing one observes, even if one doesn't read Japanese, is that the sign is composed of four different types of graphemes: katakana, kanji, rōmaji, hiragana. These are the four constituent components of the Japanese writing system. So, in a sense, the sign constitutes a clever, virtuoso display of Nipponesque orthography.

Note that the first and fourth words are written in red, which stands out from the overall green of the lettering; this serves to highlight or accentuate the fact that these words are gairai-go 外来語 ("loan words").

Moving on to the content of the words on the sign, I will start simple with a transcription and translation, then turn to a detailed discussion of its various elements.

za yatai in shinmachi ザ屋台 inしんまち ("the food stall[s] in Shinmachi")

A yatai is a small, mobile food stall / stand / booth or food cart. Shinmachi しんまち (in kanji that would be 新町/街) literally means "New Town / Street"; it is the name of many a town, street, district in Japan.

To me, initially the most conspicuous and jarring part of the sign was the za ザ ("the") at the beginning. One would think that the English definite article is not something that would be likely to be borrowed as an integral part of Japanese vocabulary. However, we shall find that it has actually become rather ubiquitous in certain contexts.

It seems that the English digraph "th", whether as voiced dental fricative /ð/ or voiceless dental fricative /θ/, is a particularly difficult for speakers of many foreign languages to pronounce. Witness French "ze". In any event, "the" becomes za ザ in Japanese.

I was astonished to discover that za ザ is all over the place in Japan. For instance, there's a popular television series entitled "Za! Sekai gyōten nyūsu" ザ!世界仰天ニュース ("The! World's Astonishing News"). Yes, the exclamation point does come right after the "The", and I don't know quite what to make of it. I suppose that it is meant to emphasize "The", as we might say "THE Mark Liberman" or "THE Geoff Pullum". On the intertubes some are calling this program "The World Astonishing News." I suppose that "THE Astonishing World News" would be more idiomatic in English.

An even more productive collocation involving za ザ ("the") in current Japanese is sutoppu za X ストップ・ザ・X ("stop the X"). This usage is certainly one of the ways that za ザ entered common parlance/usage in Japan (I wonder how the Japanese translated the title of the musical, "Stop the World I Want to Get Off" [1961]). Here are some examples of how it is used:

[chikyū] ondan-ka [地球]温暖化 ("[global] warming")

rejibukuro レジ袋 ("plastic shopping bags")

monju もんじゅ (name of a nuclear power plant)

sekuhara セクハラ ("sexual harassment")

ijime いじめ ("bullying")

The use of sutoppu za X ストップ・ザ・X ("stop the X") in slogans is not the only way za ザ ("the") has entered the modern Japanese vocabulary. Here's an advertisement for Prince Park Tower in Tokyo. And here's an interesting inversion.

In this case "THE" is kept in English and paired with the Japanese word "MANZAI," which is "traditional" Japanese stand-up comedy (more or less). Here "manzai" gets a boost in coolness (sophistication and internationalism?) from "The", but when written out in Japanese, it's ザ・マンザイ (one way to write "manzai" in kanji is 漫才).

That should be plenty enough evidence to show that za ザ ("the") has become part of contemporary Japanese vocabulary. But we cannot ignore the "in" that sits prominently at the center of the sign. "In" gets used a lot too in contemporary Japanese. Here are two examples.

According to Nathan Hopson:

The real question is why there's no symmetry between katakana for za ザ ("the") and Roman letters for "in". At one simple level, it's actually an admission that Japanese can't pronounce "the" the way English speakers do, but would still like to — it's an in-joke play of anxiety-producing sophistication and internationalism (English) + being able to admit this anxiety and inability to speak English (participate in sophisticated international society) to other Japanese. This is all very subtle psychological stuff.

"In", to my mind, is still more difficult to pin down than za ザ ("the"), where the anxiety is forefronted. It's never been clear to me whether "in" has that same dynamic. My gut (again) tells me no; "in" has a more positive, unambiguous nuance. But that's nothing more than my instinct.

Analyzed thus, that short sign from a rural Japanese town with which we began possesses a wealth of significance for understanding modern Japanese language, culture, and society.

[Thanks to Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Sherry, and Miki Morita]


  1. Nathaniel E. said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 11:57 am

    To unnecessarily resolve the "Stop the World I Want to Get Off" joke, it appears from the below link that the musical's name is translated into fully-native Japanese, with no "sutoppu za": 地球を止めろ、俺は降りたい

  2. julie lee said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    Thank you Victor Mair for the informative post on sophistication and internationalism in Japanese speech.
    My father, who learned English in central China in the 1930s, always said "ze" instead of "the" because he was taught English by French missionaries in China.

  3. jonathan said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

    I was expecting the shop to sell pizza.

  4. Dan T. said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

    @jonathan Same with me… while "Za" for pizza isn't part of my normal vocabulary, it's a very useful word in Scrabble or Words With Friends.

  5. Adrian said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    "It seems that the English digraph "th", whether as voiced dental fricative /ð/ or voiceless dental fricative /θ/, is a particularly difficult for speakers of many foreign languages to pronounce." In England it seems it's also difficult for speakers of English to pronounce. I think the combination of foreigners unable to say it and locals unwilling to say it should see its extinction within my lifetime.

  6. julie lee said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    Growing up in Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s, my kid brother (Chinese) said "de" , "dat", and "dose" for "the", "that", and "those", which he copied affectionately from his favorite American comics, "The Katzenjammer Kids".

  7. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

    ザ isn't a big deal. It's when people spell it テハ that I roll my eyes. (Although I kind of wonder whether the distribution of uses of the definite article from the wrong language isn't similar to the distribution of uses of the definite article intentionally mistyped.)

  8. Noel Hunt said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    ザ (za, "the") in Japanese has a rather long history, dating back to at least 1985 with the manga ザシェフ, za shefu, "the Chef", a manga devoted to cooking, a genre which began around the late 1970s.

  9. Levantine said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 5:24 pm

    Adrian, where in the UK are you, and what sound(s) are you hearing instead of 'th'? I'm aware of the use of F in place of /θ/, though that's nothing new (you find it in old-fashioned Cockney speech), and I know that certain accents use D for /ð/, but I don't get the impression that the standard pronunciations are being seriously threatened. I grew up and lived most of my life in North London.

  10. Matt said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 6:53 pm

    In my experience, "ザ" when spoken and written definitely has a different feel to "the", it's taken on a bit of a life of its own. As suggested by the examples, it is more like THE. This sign tells me that it's not just any food stalls you'll find in shinmachi, but THE food stalls. They are so good that they define the genre!

    "In" is picking up in popularity, or so my recency bias tells me. The kana/roman selection seems more random for it. Often it's used with foods: eg, "チーズインハンバーグ" (chiizu in hanbaagu) – a hamburger patty with cheese in it. The subject is optional too – last night I ate an orthographically delicious biscuit which claimed to have "たっぷり生チョコin" (lots of raw chocolate in[side]).

  11. Jason said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

    The fact that this is the Japanese equivalent of "Ye Olde Coffee Shop" or "Un Nom Francais Pretentieux pour le Magasin" means I'm hesitant to draw any grand linguistic conclusions from it.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 7:43 pm


    Not the same for several reasons:

    1. half of the words on this sign are borrowed from English

    2. they are written in different scripts

    3. their use, as demonstrated in the post, has spread very widely beyond a single quaint application

    4. the very unusual use of the exclamation mark

  13. Lazar said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

    It puzzles me that non-native speakers often pronounce the English interdentals as [s], [z], but that in native English accents they only ever seem to become [f], [v] or [t], [d]. Does anybody know why this is?

  14. Matt said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 8:38 pm

    I must disagree with one hypothesis in this excellent post: I do not think that adding an exclamation point after an initial za is equivalent to emphasizing a the in English.

    A title like "ザ!世界仰天ニュース" seems to me more in the "Pretitle! Title" tradition, which allows the pretitle and title to relate to each other in a range of ways. Some examples, with literal translations:

    関根&ルーの!クイズサクセス (Sekine ando Ru no! Kuizu sakusesu, "Sekine & Lou's! Quiz success")
    それいけ!アンパンマン (Soreike! Anpanman, "Go! Anpanman")
    なるほど!ザ・ワールド (Naru hodo! Za waarudo, "I see! The world")
    クイズ!歌うぞ音楽王 (Kuizu! Utau zo ongakuo, "Quiz! Time to sing, music king")

    The first title, for example, isn't intended to reassure potential viewers that the show stars Sekine and Lou rather than some substitute — it is just puffery with no specific counterfactual: "Quiz success — featuring Sekine and Lou!" The exclamation point is really more of a pronunciation guide than anything: "Sekine and Lou no… (beat) QUIZ SUCCESS!" And I think that this is the case for "ザ!世界仰天ニュース", too, i.e. the function of the exclamation point is more aesthetic than semantic.

    One other thing that makes za different from "ye olde coffee shoppe" is that in English, something is required to take the place of "the" if you are going to use that phrase. That is not the case in Japanese, where definiteness is not marked (at least not by articles). Za is not borrowed simply to mark definiteness: it is borrowed to mimic the well-known English NP structure "the X", but this mimicry is purely aesthetic, not functional. I would argue that in this sense the za has no semantic content to emphasize.

  15. Levantine said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    Lazar, I don't know the reason, but a similar phenomenon exists in the case of Arabic: θ becomes S in Arabic words borrowed into Turkish and Persian (which both lack the sound), but it is often pronounced T in colloquial dialects of Arabic itself.

  16. Chris Kern said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 9:42 pm

    The use of "in", written in romaji, seems to be semi-common in titles. If you search google for phrases like "in六本木", "in大阪", "in目白" and such, a fair number of hits come up. It's usually of the type act/musical group/club + IN + place name.

  17. Jeff said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    Agree with Matt that it is not really the definite article being borrowed here, which would imply the adoption of actual new definiteness-specifying habits/ rules.

    Indeed, maybe it would make more sense to turn it around–(some) Japanese speakers are experimenting with a range of highlighting techniques either learned from or recognized in the ever-more-familiar "the." To the language-tribe of compulsory article-users these techniques seem to be self-evident idiomatic extensions of the definiteness regime, but my hunch is that to the Japanese they come across as cousin to other specifying strategies already lying around (いつもの、例の、お約束の etc.). I guess the question is, since at least the patterns of ザ usage seem to preserve collocations deriving from true definiteness-marking (ストップ・ザ), whether and to what extent such a sensitivity can sneak in through this back door?

  18. John Chew said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 12:45 am

    Writing as an English-Japanese bilingual with many Japanese friends who have agonized over the foreign concept of a definite article, when I see ザ used in Japanese it just gives me the impression that the writer is trying to show off his mastery of the definite article, justified or not. The katakana keep it safely distinct from the Japanese grammar though, and clearly mark it as un-Japanese, so I wouldn't worry about definite articles infiltrating the language further, anymore than brand names like Le Car make anglophones aware of grammatical gender.

    It makes me wonder though whether the fact that ザ (the) has stayed relatively close to its English meaning in Japanese compared to マイ (my, but used to mean personally/privately owned) means that the idea of a definite article is easier for the Japanese to understand than the English obsession with possessive pronouns.

  19. Matt said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 3:53 am

    "My car" (and similar phrases like "my home" etc.) are interesting because as far as I have been able to ascertain they were coined with the non-deictic meaning "one's own car (home, etc.)". They were not the result of common folk like you and I using English possessive pronouns to refer to possessions out of sheer cosmopolitanism, but rather consciously crafted by advertisers and the like to sell the idea that people could and should have a car, home, etc. of their own — to help the postwar boom along, in other words. (They all date from the sixties, right when things really got rolling.)

    Which means that the マイ in those phrases is probably best analyzed as a calque of Japanese 我が, which has the exact same sort of flexibility of meaning — it can mean "my", or "one's own". Actually this tends to be characteristic of Japanese pronouns in general, which is partly why some people argue that they aren't pronouns at all, but that's another story…

  20. Rodger C said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    @Noel Hunt: I don't actually know Japanese, but ong before Za Shefu I remember references to Za Biitoruzu. I wonder, did this whole phenomenon start with transcriptions of band names?

  21. Rodger C said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 7:06 am

    There are Appalachian dialects where initial /ð/ in pronouns and demonstratives is is realized as an emphatic glottal stop.

  22. Joyce Melton said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 8:10 am

    @Rodger C – Ozark and Western dialects also sometimes collapse such initial consonants to glottal stops. Perhaps it is a wider phenomenon in Midlands and Midlands-derived dialects?

  23. flow said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 9:12 am

    just a thought on why [θ] should turn to all of [s, t, f]: it's the features! [θ] is a bit unusual in the world's languages because it collects a number of features into one phonotype—wikipedia: a "Voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative"—that puts it perceptually quite close to a number of other consonantal sounds. speakers of other languages imitating [θ] show a tendency to drop one or more features and only to keep those (combinations) which are familiar to them: if they opt for a (dental/alveolar) *sibilant* fricative they'll say [s], if it be a voiceless (d/a) non-fricative obstruent that becomes [t], and if they opt to switch from apico-dental to labio-dental (perceptually maybe the smallest step), they'll end up with [f].

    [ð] is a voiced [θ], but there is no [z] in japanese, only a [dz], so that's what they come up with—[fa] is not in the pre-20th-c inventory, and [da] for [za] i've never heard there. in fact, [dz] is in some respects closer to [ð] than [da], because it keeps the fricative aspect (although it also adds sibilance to the equation).

    [dza] may also be understood as the features of [ð] spread out / smeared over more than one 'sound' (whatever that is). another example of this would be 'ヨロッパ'. i guess this is a loan from dutch Europa [ø'ro:pa]. according to dependency phonology, [ø] is {o,i}={a,u,i}={a,ɯ,ɷ,i}, that is, a compound made up of 'deep tongue gesture', 'retracted tongue / velar gesture', 'lip rounding' and 'lamino(?)-palatal gesture'. japanese does not have [ø], but it does have [i̯o], which, according to this analysis, is just {i}{a,ɯ,ɷ}, the features again spread out over two segments.

  24. Jake Nelson said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 9:50 am

    1. I had trouble pronouncing "the" when I was a kid (my front teeth were a little… prominent, to put it mildly, and it was a while before I got braces), and initially went with "da", but got some mockery for it, leading me to go with "za", which worked fine until I was able to do "the" properly.

    2. I'm wondering if the "in" isn't as much about word order as anything. It'd normally be "shinmachi [(something… uchi ni, I think?)] yatai"… using "in" may allow reversing the order for effect while keeping the line short.

    3. Following from 2, I've noticed more Japanese slogans/product names/etc. using a format where it's obviously English-patterned (more or less successfully… and there's a certain obvious awkwardness in this from the speaker), but still almost entirely Japanese words. (I'm at a loss for good examples at the moment.) I wonder if there's a trend in default word order- I've been told that with the correct particles, Japanese sentences can use literally any possible word order, but anything but the default order sounds really strange to most people.

  25. Matt said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    Flow, I'm not sure quite what you mean there — Japanese does have [z], in native words like /aza/, Sino-Japanese words like /zaibatu/, etc. (Some speakers do pronounce it [dz] word-initially but this isn't universal.)

    Also, small correction — /yo:roQpa/ is actually from Portuguese! When it was first borrowed, it started with /eu/, but this was so long ago that it underwent the same sound change as, say, /yo:/ 要, which was also once /eu/.

  26. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 2:11 pm

    I had forgotten about なるほど!ザ・ワールド (Naruhodo! Za Waarudo) (thanks, Matt). So that antedates both za and exclamation points to 1981, when that show went on the air (I know, still long after Za Biitoruzu, but that was just straight transliteration, whereas the TV producers could have gone with "Naruhodo sekai da" or something if they'd chosen to).

  27. flow said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 3:44 pm

    @Matt i'm only familiar with a variety of japanese that has [dz] in both aiza and zaibatsu etc. i believe it is regarded the standard inventory of that language.

    as for yoroppa, i didn't know it came from portugese, not dutch. but that does not invalidate the analysis—the japanese got their [yo-] from some very similar sound combination in portuguese. but why do germans have (roughly) [oi-], the portugese (back then) [io-], and the dutch, [ø-]? it is always the same elements (acc. to dependency phonology), just distributed in different ways. i find that analysis very satisfying.

  28. Dave Cragin said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

    Matt & John Chew: Chinese uses de (的) as a possessive similar to that in English (我的 I + de = my, 我们的 we + de = our, 你的 you + de = your, etc).

    I thought Japanese の was the equivalent of 的 – but this was just based on a casual conversation with a Japanese friend. She explained 料理の鉄人 was "iron chef" in Japanese and when doing this, she equated の to 的(but she doesn't speak Chinese and I don't speak Japanese). From your comments, I'm guessing there is more to it than simple の = 的. Can you offer any thoughts on this?

  29. Dave Cragin said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 5:47 pm

    I should have noted, de 的 also has other meanings in Chinese (i.e., its not just for possessives).

  30. Matt said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    flow, my apologies, I am gonna backtrack: [dz] is indeed the standard way of realizing an initial /z/, and even intervocalically the [dz] is considered basic and/or correct by many (e.g. speaking of ザ in non-initial position the most the NHK will grant is that "むぞうさな発音では[za]で発音されることもある", "in casual speech it is sometimes pronounced [za]" ). More descriptive treatments (Labrune, for example) tend to give [z] as the standard intervocalic pronunciation, but that isn't relevant to the ザ here, obviously. Lazy of me to rely on personal experience when a simple Google search would have revealed the accepted facts — sorry.

    Dave: I don't know enough about 的 in Chinese to be much help, sorry. I have seen the analogy made before, though. It may interest you to learn that 之 in premodern Chinese texts is often glossed の in Japanese (and vice versa, in premodern Japanese texts the character 之 was used to write the particle の so often that in fact the hiragana の and the katakana ノ are both derived from it). Probably the most interesting thing about の in contemporary Japanese is that although it is basically genitive it can mark the subject of embedded clauses meeting certain conditions (e.g. no direct object marked with を), with no apparent difference in meaning from the expected version where the subject is marked with が.

  31. Adrian said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

    Lazar, I think flow has probably answered your question.

    Levantine: the textbooks say it's only Cockneys who use /f/ and /v/ but I would say this is now standard in uneducated speech throughout the country. There are plenty of teachers and TV bods who speak this way, so I can't see a future for /th/ and /dh/.

  32. Levantine said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 5:22 pm

    Adrian, I think you're exaggerating. North London is hardly a bastion of posh speech, and I still hear plenty of /th/s and /dh/s when I'm back home for the holidays. Neither sound is endangered.

  33. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 7:14 pm

    The conventional way to put it would be ① [[新町の][名物屋台]], where the counterparts of "の" and "名物" are respectively "in" and (roughly speaking) "popular."
    ① could be 'transformed'
    first to ② 名物屋台 in 新町,
    then to ③ the 屋台 in 新町,
    still further to ④ ザ 屋台 in 新町,
    and ultimately to ⑤ ザ 屋台 in しんまち (but not シンマチ).

    I think the seemingly unparalleled treatment of "ザ" and "in" reflects the speaker's assessment of the general acceptance of "the" and "in" into the Japanese language (and culture). "ザ" is understood here to show that it has already gained an established status in the language. On the other hand, (out of context) people are far more likely to associate "イン" (represented in romaji as 'in') with "inn" as in 東急イン for Tokyu Hotel(s) than with the preposition "in." And since "in" is a function word (whose correspondent is a 'POST'position), it takes them less time to recognize "X in Y" as a pattern than "X イン Y."

    In my opinion, part of the reason that Japanese people favor "ザ" has to do with a case-marker "ga (が)."
    (1) これ が 欲しい (THISが[I] want)。 This is [what/the very thing] I want.
    At a sentence-level, you can assign a feature of uniqueness to an argument through the が marker, but you can't do the same thing with an NP (or DP). That's where "ザ" comes in(, though only in informal style). (Strictly speaking, you could put "随一の for the best (possible)" before 名物屋台, as in "新町(で)随一の名物屋台," but unfortunately, it sounds less colloquial.)

    It may also help to pay attention to the speaker's choice of "しんまち" over "新町" or "シンマチ." Katakana (like "しんまち") is something children first learn at school. In that sense, it feels more familiar to native speakers than kanji does (although the latter helps better identify the meaning of a word: You may find it difficult to understand what I mean by "ひょうが," but once you understand it is 氷(ひょう) for ice and 河(が) for river, you realize that I mean "glacier.") And people tend to use katakana (such as "シンマチ") to refer to something they believe is cool or fashionable. Thus, the speaker has decided on "しんまち" in the hope that you feel a sense closeness.
    Seiichi MYOGA

  34. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    I forgot to say something.
    If you were to see "名物屋台" on the sign, you would be most likely to take it that it is just a 'popular' 屋台 or a 'most popular' 屋台 (at best), and you would probably leave it open as to whether it is 'the only popular' or 'the most popular' 屋台 in the area at issue.
    Seiichi MYOGA

    I'm not sure how to correct typographical errors.

  35. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

    The author says: An even more productive collocation involving za ザ ("the") in current Japanese is sutoppu za X ストップ・ザ・X ("stop the X").

    It might be more appropriate to say that what is borrowed here is a construction "Stop the X (with the X-part being a variable)" rather than just a word "the."

    If I remember correctly, this expression dates back to at least 1980s when it was first used as a traffic slogan (something like "Stop the 飲酒運転(drunk driving)").

    This is just my hunch, but the main reason that this expression is widely prevalent as a slogan is that the Japanese language lacks the means of expressing the idea of pre-existence. If you want to stop something, that something must exist first. But to my knowledge, there seems to be no way to explicitly state the presupposition that "that something" does exist.

    In fact, native speakers of Japanese seem to notice no differences between appearance and disappearance, or at least treat the two as symmetrical.

    Japanese learners of English will generally have trouble judging which of the two sentences below prefers the definite article "the."

    (1) ( ) houses are being built in the area.
    (2) ( ) elderly people are dying out in the area.
    cf. People are dying out in the area.

    You have probably recognized this if you have experience teaching English.

    Another example is "off the record." Unlike "on record," it needs "the" in English. But the Japanese peer is just オフレコ (represented literally as "off reco"), where レコ is a shortened form of "record").

    I don't know exactly when オフレコ entered the Japanese language, but it surely came far before "ストップ ザ X" expression.

    Seiichi MYOGA

  36. Michael Watts said,

    November 2, 2013 @ 7:23 am

    Japanese learners of English will generally have trouble judging which of the two sentences below prefers the definite article "the."

    (1) ( ) houses are being built in the area.
    (2) ( ) elderly people are dying out in the area.
    cf. People are dying out in the area.

    You have probably recognized this if you have experience teaching English.

    As a native speaker of american English, I'm quite confident that neither of those sentences prefers the definite article. Both sound strange if it's included (at the point where you've indicated a () ), unless there's context that explains why it would appear. What are you thinking of?

    ("The elderly are dying out in the area" is normal if stilted, but "the elderly people are dying out in the area" is not normal. The first isn't necessarily a definiteness issue; *"Some elderly are dying out in the area" is not even grammatical.)

  37. David J. Littleboy said,

    November 2, 2013 @ 8:14 am

    "neither of those sentences prefers the definite article."

    The example doesn't quite, but the point that Japanese doesn't syntactically require you to fess up as to whether the thing talked about is new/old or singular/plural is well taken. It's really quite amazing how completely unnecessary this cruft that English forces on us is.

    You can do the new/old distinction in Japanese with, for example, "sono".

    John bought a kite. The kite was red.

    But since Japanese doesn't require the a/the, and it gets written around when the context requires it, it's not surprising that native J speakers have trouble doing it every single time a noun group appears. I was trying to learn German in high school, and a (real, live, German) friend of the family was making fun of an aunt who got her der/die/das all messed up when she got confused. Sheesh, if the native speakers can't do it, how do you expect me to do it.

  38. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 2, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

    Dear Michael, (if I may)
    Thank you for correcting me.
    Then, what example would you offer instead to demonstrate our point?

    There is an asymmetry in English between appearance and disappearance.

    (3) There {appeared /*disappeared} X. (For the ease of discussion, let's ignore what can appear in the X-part position.)

    This time I think you have no hesitation to agree with our judgment of (4).

    (4) Ken is forgetting *(his) English since he returned to Japan.

    The presence of "his" presupposes that Ken has acquired the knowledge of English.
    And now we're looking for something that could well be paired with (1) [=Houses are being built in the area.]. That is, something that denotes that something else is in process of disappearance, with the definite article in subject position that carries an existential presupposition.

    What I had in mind was something like "The animals are dying of natural diseases." I made a quick research before submitting a previous post, and came across many examples without the definite article. I did the search again and (wrongly) predicted that for something like "the elderly people were dying off …" (L. Millman, Last Places), people were more likely to prefer the presence of the definite article.

    I had chosen "prefer(s)" because, for example, of this:

    (5) a. The house is being built.
    b. The house is building. (<The house is a-building. <The house is on building.)

    Apart from the textbooks on the history of the English language, I think we could hardly see or hear something like (5b). But what about (5a)? It seems that the choice of "the" depends on the speaker's cognition of the stage of construction at which they can call it "the" house.

    And the reason for my adherence to subject has to do with a conflict between case markers は and が.

    I think what you mean by (6) may be (either) (7a) or (7b).

    (6) The Thames flows through London.
    (7) a. The Thames is a river that flows through London.
    (Speaking of the Thames, it is a river that flows through London.)
    b. The Thames is the river that flows through London.
    (What is the river that flows through London? It is the Thames.)
    (It seems (7b) allows for yet another interpretation, but we tentatively put it out of consideration.)

    It is possible to translate (7a) and (7b) into (8a) and (8b) in this order.

    (8) a. テムズ川は,ロンドンを流れる(川だ) / テムズ川と言えば(speaking of),ロンドンを流れる川だ。
    b. テムズ川が,ロンドンを流れている(川だ) / ロンドンを流れる川と言えば,テムズ川だ。

    As for (8b), you could also use something that corresponds in function to it-cleft construction "It is X [focus] that Y. (YなのはXだ)."

    But curiously, as for (9), the usual conflict seems to have disappeared. が works just as well as は, as shown in (9).

    (9) ロンドンを流れているの{は/が}テムズ川だ。(It is the Thames that flows through London.)

    Indeed, は and が can be replaced with each other in certain embedded sentences, but I don't know for sure why が sounds good in (9).
    I'm wondering if the possible pair(s) of (1) might be of help.

    Seiichi MYOGA

  39. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 3:21 am

    Hi, David,

    Your example (quoted as (10)) is interesting in many ways(, though a minor modification is made to (10b)).

    (10) a. John bought a kite. The kite was red.
    b. ジョンは、凧を買いました。その凧は赤かった。

    "その" might be "that," but I think your choice is good in that the definite "the" comes from the demonstrative "that."

    Actually, you could say it without "その."

    (11) ジョンが買ったのは凧だ。{色は赤だった / 色が赤いやつだった} ((It was) red in color.)。

    If you interpret the first sentence in (10a) as meaning "What happened was that John bought a kite, then its counterpart will be "ジョンは凧を買った." But if your interpretation is that "What John bought was a kite," the corresponding Japanese will be "ジョンが買ったのは凧だ."

    "What John did was buy a kite" is also possible, but in this case there seems to be no natural Japanese counterpart(s). For example, you could translate it as " ジョンは何をしたかというと,凧を買った。(The answer to the question 'What did John do?' is that 'He bought a kite.')", but you may not hear such a thing in everyday conversation.

    What I want to say is that even a seemingly innocent sentence "John bought a kite." is not so easy for learners of English. The focus in a sentence can require you to put it differently in another language.

    And if you look at (10a) first, you may feel obliged to 'map' the idea of "the" to your language. But when you think first in your language, you will find that it is not always necessary. Now "凧" is introduced in the discourse, what you are expected to describe in Japanese is its features. In other words, at an informational level, you only have to mention something that characterizes the "凧." So you could only refer to its color and do nothing more.

    Seiichi MYOGA

  40. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 4:02 am


    I don't quite understand everything you're trying to say (and unfortunately I have no knowledge of Japanese). But I'm happy to talk:

    There is an asymmetry in English between appearance and disappearance:

    (3) There {appeared / *disappeared} X.

    I agree with this, but I think it's unrelated to any use of "the".

    (4) Ken is forgetting (his) English since he returned to Japan.

    I prefer the "his" to be present there; consider this sentence spoken to me by a native of England:

    (4a) After I left school, I swore, "I'm not going to lose my Hebrew".

    or compare

    (4b) My Latin has gotten quite rusty.

    That is (in my mind) the syntax you use for someone's skills, as in

    (4c) His singing is incredible. (= He sings very well.)

    I agree that in (4), the presence of "his" presupposes that Ken has learned English, but (a) I expect that of somebody named "Ken" and (b) the word "forgetting" makes the same presupposition. You can't forget what you never knew.

    You say: "And now we're looking for something that could well be paired with (1) [=Houses are being built in the area.]. That is, something that denotes that something else is in process of disappearance, with the definite article in subject position that carries an existential presupposition."

    I think you're making a mistake here; I don't think the definite article is ever used to carry an existential presupposition. I also do not think that a sentence's verb ever affects whether the subject is marked for definiteness or not.

    Here are some sentences:

    (10a) Houses are being built in the area.
    (10b) Houses are being torn down in the area.
    (10c) ?The houses are being built in the area.
    (10d) *The houses are being torn down in the area.
    (10e) The houses in the area are being torn down.

    The difference between (10b) and (10e) is that in (10e), ALL of the houses in the area are being torn down; in (10b), it doesn't have to be all of them. In (10e), the subject of the sentence is the phrase "the houses in the area", which is why (10d) doesn't work. (10c) could work, but it requires some fairly odd context (Q: What's happening to those prefab houses I donated to charity? A: The houses are being put up in Los Angeles.)

    I looked up the passage you cited from Millman; for the benefit of anyone else reading, it is this:

    "During my first visit to Faeroe I'd stayed on Mykines for two days and decided that life on the island could not possibly continue. It was the same old story: the elderly people were dying off and the young people were moving to Torshavn and not coming back except on holidays."

    That "the" in "the elderly people" has nothing to do with the verb; it's contrasting "the elderly people" with "the young people". Much as in (10e), the meaning is that the description ("dying off") applies to the entire class described ("the elderly people"). I could use the same syntax here:

    (11) There are two broad classes of students at my school. The good students are here because either they really want to study abroad or they don't have the legal right to attend a local public school. The bad students are here because they've already been expelled from all the local public schools.

    And in (11), nobody is appearing or disappearing at all. I'm just dividing one group ("students at my school") into two better-defined groups ("the good students" and "the bad students").

    (5a) The house is being built.

    It's appropriate to say (5a) long before there's any physical artifact that it would be appropriate to call a "house". I'd be happy with this as long as work is happening on the construction site, even if the work is something like laying sewage pipes. The use of "the" just means that the house already has a place in the conversational context.

    I agree that the meaning of (6) may be either (7a), a fact about the Thames, or (7b), a fact about London. I'm not really able to say anything about (8) or (9).

  41. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 4:12 am

    I spent so long on that post I missed Seiichi's reply to David 40 minutes earlier. :/

    But, as to the discussion of "John bought a kite. The kite was red.":

    It's not necessary to use "the" in English there either. In fact, "John bought a kite. The kite was red." is not natural conversational english; you'd be much more likely to hear something like "John bought a kite. It's red." You can't just omit the "it's" as you apparently can in Japanese, but you certainly don't need to mark it with "the".

    I changed "it was" to "it's" because while "John bought a kite. The kite was red" is in the normal style of teach-your-child-to-read-through-painfully-dull-storybooks, in conversation "John bought a kite. It was red." will immediately make the other person wonder "what happened to it?"

  42. David J. Littleboy said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 6:34 am

    Michael, I think you are trying too hard. In English, a new item introduced into discourse is marked with "a", and an existing item in discourse is marked with "the". It's the way things are normally done in English. And you have to get it right.

    John bought the kite.

    Here, the kite that John bought has to be the one that's under discussion. That's all. And you can't not say "a" or "the".

    "John bought kite." gets a big fat star, unless kite is slang for something we weren't talking about.

    Japanese doesn't have this requirement. It's real hard to leave out the "a" and "the" in English and still have English, but there's nothing equivalent in (garden variety) Japanese. Za in Japanese is way more emphatic than "the" is in English, of course. Japanese doesn't have any particular need for "a" and "the", but everyone needs new emphaticizers.

  43. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    Trying too hard to do what? I just pointed out that it's not necessary to mark definiteness in the _second_ sentence of your example, "John bought the kite. The kite was red." It's so unnecessary that not marking definiteness is the way things are normally done. Pronouns can't be marked with "the", or any other determiner.

    That caveat seemed especially relevant given Seiichi's comment on the danger of a non-native speaker looking at "John bought the kite. The kite was red." and attempting to translate the "the" into his own language.

    > In English, a new item introduced into discourse is marked with "a", and an existing item in discourse is marked with "the". It's the way things are normally done in English.

    True, those are extremely common. But there are many, many other options:

    John just proposed to his latest girlfriend.
    John bought kites.
    John bought gravel.
    John bought four kites.
    John bought every kite he could find.

    None of those require the kites (or gravel, or girlfriend) to be preexisting in the discourse, and none of them are introduced with "a". Attacking from the other direction, in

    John took me to Vasili's. I hate that restaurant.

    the restaurant is preexisting in the discourse, but is not marked by "the", and in fact, using "the" would be incorrect.

    If you reversed your statements, you'd be on much more defensible ground: in english, an item marked with "a" is being introduced into the discourse, and an item marked with "the" was already present (assuming proper nouns are a background element of all discourses, etc.). It doesn't work in the direction you state.

  44. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    > Pronouns can't be marked with "the", or any other determiner.

    I guess there's a fairly strong argument that, like proper nouns, pronouns are definite by their nature.

  45. Michael Watts said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    I should also point out that if I want to identify a group, I can mark it with "the" regardless of whether it's been introduced into the discourse or not:

    Youth is wasted on the young.
    The British are coming!
    Donations go to the victims of Bernie Madoff.

  46. David J. Littleboy said,

    November 4, 2013 @ 8:13 pm

    "If you reversed your statements, you'd be on much more defensible ground: in english, an item marked with "a" is being introduced into the discourse, and an item marked with "the" was already present "

    Hmm. I thought that that was what I was trying to say. Go figure.

  47. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 5, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

    Dear Michael,

    Quote: "John bought a kite. The kite was red" is in the normal style of teach-your-child-to-read-through-painfully-dull-storybooks

    Dull or otherwise, it is a storytelling style (Needless to say, the same thing applies to its intended Japanese version). And I think that's what David meant. So there seems to be no disagreement on the style, at the least.

    The narrative style helps us see the fundamental nature of the English definite "the."

    (12) For example, take this little story-opening: (16) A man had a dog. The dog barked all night. (R.A. Hudson, Language Networks)

    (12) is another good example to understand that "a(n)" could be used to refer to something both hearer-new and discourse-new while "the" might be chosen to do the opposite thing (refer to something hearer-old and(/or) discourse-old).

    As I previously said, David's example is interesting in many points.

    (13) a. ジョンは、凧を買いました。その凧は赤かった。 [=(10b)]
    b. ジョンは、凧を買った。凧は赤かった/(凧は)色が赤い{の/やつ/凧}だった。
       c. ジョンは、凧を買った。この凧は赤かった。

    At least in Japanese narrative, (13b) works as well as (13a) does. In fact, you could also replace "その" in (13b) with "この" as shown in (13c).

    As for (13a), (as David suggests) we could hardly imagine any native speaker would use "ザ" instead of "その."

    (14) a. ?ジョンは、凧を買った。ザ凧は赤かった。
    b. ジョンは、凧を買った。それも(literally, "and that") ザ凧(な凧)を(だ)。

    The Japanese casual "ザ" is rather preferred when you want to make something prominent so as to be easily "visible" to your mind's eye.

    Seiichi MYOGA

    Incidentally, "凧を揚げる" means "fly a kite," but "たこを揚げる" may be ambiguous; it can also mean "to (deep-)fry some octopus." Both "fly" and "fry" are represented as "furai" as romaji. Your "lemon" is our "remon." The other day, I happened to see "grass wine (represented in English for glass wine)" on the menu at a restaurant in Ginza, Tokyo. Do you want to drink "gRass wine"?

  48. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 5, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

    Dear Michael,

    Quote: I think you're making a mistake here; I don't think the definite article is ever used to carry an existential presupposition.

    So it all boils down to whether or not the definite article triggers an existential presupposition.

    This is something from a book for beginners:

    (15) To get the ball rolling in a conversation, you need to figure out what you have in common with the person you're talking with. When you do this, you're finding what pragmaticists call a common ground (=shared knowledge). If you know the other person well – for example, a friend, relative, or colleague you interact with regularly – you take the existence of a common ground for granted and jump right in. For example, suppose you walk into a room and say: The dog ran away. The English definite article the marks that something is in the common ground. The introduces the presupposition that there exists a dog that's known to you and the listener. (S. Burton et al, Linguistics for Dummies)

    My argument (including the asymmetry between appearance and disappearance in English) is based on (the implicit acceptance of) this kind of presupposition.

    Seiichi MYOGA

  49. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 5, 2013 @ 11:23 pm


    This part "(=shared knowledge)" in (15) in my previous post was something I added for your reference.

    Seiichi MYOGA

  50. Seiichi MYOGA said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    Dear Michael,

    I do appreciate your help and comments.

    (Contrary to your assertion,) it seems that the first "the" in "The houses in the area" contributes to triggering a presupposition that houses exist in the area (or a particular place salient in the context of utterance).

    (16) The houses in the area are being torn down. [=your (10e)]

    As for (17), there seems to be a way to fix it.

    (17) *The houses are being torn down in the area. [=your (10d)]
    cf. The houses in the area are being torn down. [=your (10e)]

    How about (18)?

    (18) The houses are being torn down in {the/that/an} area that is being redeveloped.

    If "the" or "that" works, it may mean that you can extract the PP out of the subject position and put it in sentence-final position. In contrast, if "an" cuts it, then the PP may modify VP rather than the subject NP (or DP).

    Your interpretation of (19) is quite interesting.

    (19) Houses are being torn down in the area. [=your (10b)]

    "Boys" in (20a) may mean "all boys" or "some boys" but (20b) only allows the latter interpretation.

    (20) a. Boys are fond of fighting.
    b. There are boys fond of fighting.

    So if your gut feeling about (19) is right, the very reason why "houses" in (19) means only "some houses (but not all)" must be that the interpretation of (19) is actually affected by the progressive aspect with (or without) the meaning of the verb.

    Your distinction made between (21a) and (21b) is another thing that interests us.

    (21) a. Houses are being torn down in the area. [=your (10b)]
    b. The houses in the area are being torn down. [=your (10e)]

    As far as species are concerned, the presence (or absence) of the definite article may not affect the judgment of native speakers.

    (20) a. Polar bears are dying ({off/out}).
    b. The polar bears are dying ({off/out}).

    In my observation, at least some seem to use (20b) to mean (20a).

    Seiichi MYOGA

  51. J Lee said,

    November 7, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    are you guys ESL teachers? given the importance of passing english proficiency exams, why confuse things further?

    "None of those require the kites (or gravel, or girlfriend) to be preexisting in the discourse, and none of them are introduced with "a"."

    singular count nouns require a determiner (his, four, every) in english, period. the rules are arbitrary (i.e. language-specific) and non-indo-european speakers just need to practice them.

    "(20) a. Polar bears are dying ({off/out}).
    b. The polar bears are dying ({off/out}).

    In my observation, at least some seem to use (20b) to mean (20a)."

    i find them totally interchangeable and of course we could even throw in 'the polar bear is dying off' proving that at such a level of shared context like a species of animal the determiner is inconsequential.

    did you know that in 2010 Donald Trump was actually called racist for saying "the blacks"?

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