3 facts make “Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs” easy

Japanese transitive and intransitive verbs can seem like a massive learning job.

“Transitivity pairs” seem to have no rhyme or reason to their apparently random forms.

Fortunately, if we take them as they really are and understand the simple facts behind them, both the concepts and the words themselves become amazingly easy.

Let the android guide you once again.


Self-move verbs vs the passive voice: Why there is no confusion

1) It is well known that students can get confused between some self-move verbs and the Japanese receptive.

This is now completely avoidable because it hinges on the belief that the Japanese receptive is a “passive voice” and I think we have clearly established, that it isn’t. It is further complicated by the idea that self-move verbs are exactly the same thing as English intransitive verbs, which again I think we have disposed of in the video on this page.

2) However, the point that Electric Dragonfly-sama raised is that there is still an area of apparent near-identity between some self-move verbs and the actual passive voice (as found in English but not Japanese). Is this really the case? And if not, what is going on?

3) The answer here lies in the fact that Japanese self-move verbs run a gamut between those that are very “active” and those that are completely “static” (I am using “static” bearing in mind its etymological sense – i.e. expressing a state or condition rather than an action).

The self-move verbs on the active end of the scale closely resemble regular English intransitive verbs and denote actions like running, walking, entering, leaving, sleeping, crying etc.

The verbs on the static end of the scale do not represent actions in the sense that English understands actions at all. They represent states or conditions, but express them as ongoing actions performed by whatever exists in the given state.

These words (I haven’t done an exhaustive survey here, but from experience and a cursory survey) have a strong tendency to actually end in “aru” (あ-stem +る) and thus, perhaps historically but certainly “feelingly” to contain the idea of “existing” – which, of course is also a verb in English.

Examples of such words are:

包まる (くるまる) exist in state of being-wrapped)

重なる (かさなる) exist in state of being-piled-up)

English has no direct way of expressing these verbs and has to use phrasal workaround definitions that include the word “be”, such as “be wrapped” or “be piled up”. This is natural since, I would argue, the Japanese words contain an implied existence-verb-element because of the ある-like nature of self-move words that I explained in the video).

However, because English does not possess this kind of exist-in-a-state verb, the definitions are somewhat ambiguous and sound like instances of the English passive – because the same expressions could be used to make a passive construction, even though that is not the present intention of the definer.

So we might say (using the past tense of “be” = “was”):

“The present was wrapped (e.g. by Sakura)” – a passive construction indicating an action with a stated or implied actor.

But we also say:

“The present was wrapped (e.g. in tissue paper)” – not implying any actor or even action, but simply indicating the state in which the present existed (was).

English has very limited means for distinguishing between these two with economical grammar (and speakers do not necessarily draw a clear distinction in their minds), but Japanese has a whole class of verbs – which we can call “static self-move verbs”, or we could even cheekily coin the term “self-stand verbs” as a sub-class of self-move verbs.

These are not in any sense (grammatically) passive. It is the ways we are forced to translate them into English (which does not possess such verbs) that makes them appear so.

We may also note that the English workaround definitions have to put the verb into the past tense (even if the verb of existence is in the present, e.g. “be wrapped“), implying that an action happened and its result is now governing the subject.

Japanese actually does this quite often:

疲れた (つかれた)
Loose translation “I’m tired”
Literally “(I) became (and therefore am) tired”

お腹が空いた (おなかがすいた)
Loose translation “I’m hungry”
Literally: “(my) tummy became (and therefore is) empty”

These are temporary states that must have come about by the process indicated. However, this is not what our “self-stand verbs” are doing. They express states with no necessary implications as to how they arose.

Interestingly, I would see this as being of a piece with Japanese not allowing us to speak directly of another person’s subjective states. While some people complain that Japanese is vague, I would say that it is very precise in saying only what it actually knows to be true.

English, on the other hand, is often grammatically over-specific, which is not the opposite of “vague” or the same thing as being precise. I would say that English often has jumping to conclusions built into the grammar. We are encouraged and often near-forced to specify things that we do not know to be true.

One of the differences between Japanese and English is that Japanese tries to keep specificity (the feelings of another, the gender of an unknown person, the way in which a state arose etc.) out of statements where we are not in a position – or don’t particularly want – to specify.

So, static self-move verbs have no exact equivalent in English. The distinction is a subtle one but is worth taking note of because not realizing this can lead to a confusion between static self-move verbs and the English passive.

(This note first appeared on my Patreon feed)

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