People and people; things and things

A cook is 料理人。
An artist is 芸術家。

A plant is 植物。
Something that moves by itself is 自動的。

In this context, 人 and 家; 物 and 的 feel almost like particles: marker words that assign function to what precedes them.

Which seems like a useful pattern I can use to discover/create words that I don’t already know.

But which “particle” is used when? Is there a general rule of thumb?

的 is different from the others as it turns a noun into an adjective (a bit like ~tic or ~lish in English).
E.g. 楽観 (optimism) becomes 楽観的 (optimistic). This is a very useful pattern to create adjectives.

The other ones turn nouns into nouns by adding the information of „the person who ~“.

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Sort of like する to make verbs?

Yes, I think that might be a good analogy.
Just be aware that you cannot do this with all nouns - just like you cannot apply する to all nouns.
But it gives you some sort of guidance (also for understanding when you encounter it).

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Honestly, if you want the closest term in English, it would probably be ‘suffixes’. Particles in Japanese tend to indicate specific grammatical roles within the context of a sentence, whereas the things you’ve just identified indicate particular meanings, even if some of them also happen to be associated with grammatical roles.

Nonetheless, congratulations on noticing that there might be a pattern, because there is, at least to an extent.

The reason I suggested using the word ‘suffix’ as opposed to ‘particle’ is that these things are a lot more like suffixes in English: they carry a certain chunk of meaning that can be combined with other chunks of meaning to create a more precise nuance or complete idea. Particles, on the other hand – at least in Japanese – tend to be something that’s attached to a word that’s already complete.

Now, it’s true that the kanji you’ve just identified often appear at the ends of words, but unlike in English, where suffixes are (by definition) elements that only appear at the ends of words, these kanji can appear elsewhere in a word. I’ll treat them as suffixes and answer your original question, but honestly, what you’re seeing is just part of a broader trend in Japanese:

  • 人 – literally ‘person’, this is probably the most general word one can use for identifying a particular type of person. You’ll see it used for nationalities, social groups, and certain professions. I’d say that by nature, these categories tend to be fairly broad.
  • 家 – literally ‘house’, this tends to be used for professions that have some relation to the arts. Other examples include 音楽家 (musician) and 作家 (author). My monolingual dictionary says this is used for a person who ‘is specialised in one field, or exceptional in that field’. I guess you could say that it carries a certain sense of prestige or erudition, rather like how the phrase ‘great houses’ in English brings to mind noble lineages and grand accomplishments. Someone being a 〜家 of some sort doesn’t necessarily mean they’re exceptional, but it’s rather like they… maintain a ‘house’ of knowledge of some sort? They need to develop and maintain that body of knowledge in order to be competent.
  • 物 – very literally ‘thing’, this is something you can use for categorising all sorts of objects. It’s typically used for physical things.
  • 的 – this kanji is an actual grammatical particle in Mandarin, very similar to の in Japanese. As a result, it’s frequently used for characterising things, which is why that meaning carried over into Japanese, though it tends to be confined to being used for adjectives (when it’s at the end of a word). You’ll often find it attached to words of Sino-Japanese origin (generally written entirely in kanji), but more generally (in informal contexts, for instance), it can be used to characterise things relative to a noun, meaning something like ‘~ish’.

Returning to the general pattern I mentioned earlier, however, these things are all examples of how what comes before in Japanese tends to modify what comes after. A ‘cooking-person’ is a cook. An ‘art-house’ is an artist. A ‘grow/plant-in-the-ground-thing’ is a plant. A ‘self-move-[possessive/characteristic]’ thing is a self-moving or automatic thing. It’s true that this isn’t always clearly the case, but in most cases in Japanese, it is the preceding thing that modifies what succeeds it. This is true at the word level, at the clause level (in English, we say ‘the thing that does ~’; in Japanese, people say ‘do-~-thing’), and sometimes even at the paragraph level (e.g. writing a list of categories and then adding という分類がある to express – roughly – that ‘the above-mentioned classification exists’). You can certainly see these things as ‘function kanji’ or ‘suffixes’ if that helps you, but given that they can pop up elsewhere and modify other things in their turn, I’d encourage you to consider this broader pattern instead.

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I’d noticed that pattern in Japanese before. As a native English speaker, it’s part of what makes the grammar difficult: you have these enormous modifier-things stacked up in front of both the subject and the verb. Thank you for the detailed explanation.

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Yup, it takes some getting used to, and I say this as someone who spoke both English and Chinese (which also has modifiers placed before nouns and verbs) before starting Japanese. Japanese does it a lot, and it can be confusing because the modifier forms and the end-of-sentence forms are often the same in modern Japanese. However, once you’re used to it, things get a lot easier. We just have to give ourselves time to think things through. :slight_smile:

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