Words showing their history

Some Japanese words are compounds of a verb and a noun. The noun is typically one that undergoes the action denoted by verb—the object of a transitive verb or the ‘patient’ of an intransitive verb.

Japanese components

Some of these compounds have native Japanese components elements. In these cases the compound contains the noun followed by the verb (N-V). That order is consistent with the word order within Japanese sentences, in which the verb comes at or near the end of the sentence.

Sino-Japanese components

Japanese borrowed the components of some other compounds of this kind from Chinese, often many centuries ago. Perhaps surprisingly, these Sino-Japanese components are assembled in the order verb then noun (V-N). That order is consistent with the basic word order in Chinese sentences, but not with the normal Japanese word order.

Here are two examples:

  • hito-gorosh [person kill] (native Japanese components ) vs satu-jin [kill-person] (Sino-Japanese)
  • iro-zuku [colour-apply] (native Japanese) vs chaku-shoku [apply-colour] (Sino-Japanese)

I do find it surprising that for Sino-Japanese compounds the Chinese word order carries over intact in this way.

Chinese components in Vietnamese

A similar phenomenon occurs in Vietnamese. The normal order in that language is noun-modifier. But the order modifier-noun appears in Sino-Vietnamese compounds, such as quớc-ca (national anthem) and đại-học (great-learning = university).


The Languages of East and Southeast Asia, Cliff Goddard (2005)

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