As a linguist, meeting a native speaker of a language you’re studying is a pretty exciting event. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that I often have to do a delicate balancing act between “I’m a freakish nerd of your language, which probably implies I want to be one of you, since I’m clearly not from your ethno-cultural group” and “I know nothing and have a general interest in your language.” If I don’t start with a “power introduction” (wherein I detail my research interests and years of experience with their language), I get the slow-and-loud reception. “how. are. YOU. doing?” Thanks, mate. I’m gonna go over here now.


On the other hand, if I start off too strong, my interlocutor won’t be able to relate. After all, what’re the odds that a language learner is also a linguist? So I have to carefully reign it in, to something that the general language learner/speaker can relate to, while still covertly inducting them into certain linguistic aspects.


「A, B や C, D の形は「美しく」「訪ねて」と肯定の判断を一度は確定的に下しています」

One day, I encountered a sentence in a novel that I had trouble parsing, so I tried to work it out in a (PSR/X-bar blend) syntax tree. Note the daughter node to the VP labelled “??”. That constituent was where I was having trouble. Why? Because unlike most other Japanese particles, は has a funny habit of not bearing case, which means it either carries some other function, or semantic content.


So keeping this nifty little reference paper with me, I brought it to my local Japanese-English language exchange university club, which I thence presented to my native Japanese speaker. He was floored. Of course, he could follow the basic structure of what I was doing, even without formal training in syntax, but it still took him a while to work out what was going on (since, apparently even for native speakers, this particular sentence is pretty complex).


Quite a first impression, wouldn’t you say? Even without the vaguely cthulic doodles in the upper-left corner, such a stratified syntactic parsing is not exactly how most people untangle meanings from complex sentences. …And that was actually the beginning of a very dear friendship. A friendship that, unfortunately, had to be cut short, because my friend had to return to his homeland a few months earlier than expected. But we’ll still be in touch, and we’ll always have this hilarious memory.

何たる第一印象でしょう!? 左上の落書を無視しても、こういう統語論的分析は普通の人間が難しい文の意味を把握する仕業ではないでしょう。…それは実に親しい友情の始まりだった。あの方はもう帰国しましたが、この大笑い記憶は残している。

Now, for those who are either (1) professional linguists, or (2) friends I’ve made from my linguistics courses, it should be noted that the above syntax tree was drafted well before I had any formal training in PSRs or X-bar, or other funky stuff. I had learned some generative grammar, and had attended a guest lecture by a certain syntax celebrity (where, incidentally, he offensively imitated a “Beijing” accent for their merging of /l/ and /ɹ/ in “fried rice” — which, btw, is actually more of a Cantonese thing, but nevermind), and was therefore more comfortable with the idea of binary branching nodes than the backwards PSRs that I later learned when school started.

で、(1) 言語学者や(2) 言語学の授業でできた友達の読者へ、上記の樹形図は結構、句構造規則やX-bar論を私が学んだ前に書いたから、ご理解していただいてありがたい。その時、基本の生成文法がちょっと学んだし、ある有名な統語論師が教えた特別講義に聴講したし(ちなみに、あの方は「北京語」話者の”fried rice”の「L」 と「R」の違いが区別できないことをまねしてみたが、本当は広東語のアクセントだが、いいや)。幸い、残忍な句構造規則と違って、その時、二進分岐ぐらいがもう解った。

Having said that, I still have no idea how to begin making a syntactic representation for something simple, like a Japanese noun phrase containing both an adjectival phrase, and a relative clause.