Book Review: An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics

A common prorblem for linguists is that there are many more languages we are interested in than can be reasonably mastered. When I retire and/or win the Megabucks lottery, I will spend my summers taking intensive language courses in exotic locations…but until then, I sometimes have to rely on a linguistic description so I can begin to understand how different languages work, even if I can’t speak a darned word.

One book I have in my collection to do that is Natsuko Tsujimura’s An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics. It fulfills all the requirements I have for this genre.

Reasonable Linguistic Descriptions

The goal of this book is to introduce English-only linguists and linguistic buffs to Japanese data. I will state up front that this book is best appreciated if you have learned the equivalent of LING 101, particularly generative syntax. Having a common framework is important for understanding how the data compares to other languages

Having said that, you don’t need much beyond an introductory level of linguistics. And the coverage of different linguistic field is good. It covers theoretical linguistics (morpho-syntax, semantis and phonology), but also language acquisition and sociolinguistics in terms of dialectal issues, language differences by gender and honorifics. One section I would have liked to see is the history of Japanese, especially since the origin of Japanese is an ongoing debate, but maybe in the third edition.

No Japanese Needed

Tsujimura does an excellent job of introducing Japanese morpho-syntax to people who have had minimal exposure to Japanese. All concepts are explained, and all Japanese examples are translated into English. It was enough for me to explain some Japanese data to my linguistics students, and that’s a good thing. Having sat through some linguistic discussions of languages I don’t know, I know making data comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the language is not easy, so that’s one reason I like this book a lot.

One aspect that a purist might object to is that only Romaji (English transliteration) is used. On the other hand, not knowing Japanese means it’s likely we don’t know the script (unless we happen to know Chinese, which is more commonly taught these days).


Since this is an introductory book, no topic can be fully covered. Fortunately, there is a bibliography and plenty of references that will help get you started learning more.

I still haven’t taken a Japanese class, but I will say that books like these help me learn more about Japanese…which intrigues me to learn more.

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