Just wanted to share two really amazing resources I got recently:
(please respond if you have some serious grammar resources you’d like to share…)
“The Structure of the Japanese Language” Current Studies in Linguistics vol. 3,
Kuno, 1973, MIT Press
This is the bible of Japanese linguistics in English. So much so that every current paper, PhD dissertation, etc i have seen still has this in the bibliography. Linguists are still discussing the theories and examples in this text. Written by Prof. Kuno who (i think) was at MIT with Chomsky.
The stated goal of this book is a deep discussion of the syntax and semantics of Japanese with a focus on elements that contrast with English (so doesn’t spend time talking about stuff that works the way you would expect as an English speaker). And also, as stated by the author (and i’m paraphrasing), “Many textbooks tell you when you can use a certain grammar construction. I want to tell you when you can’t, and why.”
Pros: Generally really next level shit. A much deeper and nuanced discussion of many of the grammar points covered by most textbooks. For example, the chapter in this book on は vs が is the clearest I have encountered. Also many things are discussed that aren’t even touched on in most texts, i.e. what clauses can be relativized out of, trans-clausal reordering, scope of anaphora, particle drop, dual が vs に constructions etc. All with very clear explanations and tons of examples. This book really is the source text for almost all current Japanese textbooks, so if there has ever been anything in a textbook that you felt wasn’t explained well or was being glossed over, the “real” discussion of it is in here.
Cons: This book is written at a maybe upper-undergraduate level so some (younger…teenage, etc) learners of Japanese might find the presentation style intimidating.
So first, I don’t really know if this book will help you speak better Japanese. Learning about a language is different that knowing how to speak a language or understand a language of course. It’s more for if there has been something that has always driven you crazy about how Japanese works, this can help you understand it in a clearer way. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, this book was written for an audience of English speaking learners and teachers of Japanese and English speaking linguists so it DOESN"T present Japanese grammar as it is naturally taught and understood in Japan.
But that’s where the second book comes in:
“The History of the Japanese Language”, Frellesvig, 2011, Cambridge Univ Press
This book begins with a complete description of Old Japanese (Nara period) from the oldest extent written sources. Full phonology, morphology, grammar, etc. It then traces all of the changes that took place through Early Middle Japanese to Late Middle Japanese to Modern Japanese.
Pros: If you wanna really be able to answer the question “Is the で particle a form of です?” this book will tell you. (pro tip: yes, all the particles were either originally derived from nouns, i.e. から, or are inflected forms of the copula, with the exceptions of を and は being of unknown origin). It will also give you a lot of insight into a more “native” Japanese understanding of the language which differs substantially from the version of Japanese grammar that has been filtered through a western, latinate, lens. Plus there is just tons of cool stuff in this book. It tells you how kanji developed and the sound changes that have taken place… just lots of fun facts and information about a language that we have all devoted a ton of time to learning.
Cons: If the last book didn’t help your Japanese comprehension than this one will even less. This is a much more “academic” text. Still very readable, but written for students of historical linguistics. I think of this book as a good jumping off point for people who “really” want to understand Japanese. Not a grammar resource so much as a book that will allow you to frame your thoughts in a productive way that when you read a Japanese language book on historical Japanese grammar. (aside: Japanese school kids read a lot of historic texts in their school life: genjimonogatari, 100 poems, etc. There are textbooks for Japanese middle school kids that teach them the grammar used in these texts since it differs so much from contemporary grammar. And eventually if our Japanese gets good enough, and we want to play Karuta, we might want to read one of these Japanese language grammar books of Old/Middle Japanese grammar…).
And even if you don’t get much out of it you can at least express that as: