China and Inner Asia
Aarhus University, Denmark
What makes a sentence ‘a sentence’? In the Western linguistic tradition, a sentence has conventionally been defined as the nexus between a subject and a predicate: The subject tells us what the sentence is ‘about’ and the predicate tells us what is ‘being said’ about the subject. This simple truism originates in Aristotelian logic, but although it may appear to be universally applicable, it does not always translate easily into non-European contexts. In Japan, the concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘predicate’ did not exist until they were translated from Dutch at the turn of the 19th century, and it would take Japanese grammarians another 100 years before they even reached a consensus on how these terms should be applied to Japanese grammar.
This paper explores how the Western notion of‘sentence’was received in Japan by highlighting the work of the Japanese linguist Yamada Yoshio 山田孝雄 (1873-1958) and his psycho-grammatical definition of‘the Japanese sentence’. Unlike many of his peers, Yamada rejected the premise that the Western definition of ‘sentence’ was even applicable to Japanese; instead, he sought to formulate a definition tailor-made for ‘the Japanese sentence’, something that would prove easier said than done. Tracing the eclectic origins of Yamada’s theory, I argue that although the concept was born from a rejection of ‘the Western sentence’, Yamada’s theory of ‘the Japanese sentence’ leads us – perhaps inadvertently – to reflect on the common grammatical foundations shared by all languages.