Grammar in use across time and space

Grammar in use across time and space: Deconstructing the Japanese ‘dative subject’ construction. By Misumi Sadler. (Studies in discourse and grammar 20.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2007. Pp. xiv, 212. ISBN 9789027226303. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by Linda A. Lanz, College of William and Mary

Misumi Sadler’s book presents an extensive corpus study of the Japanese dative subject construction in which a core argument receives non-canonical case marking. The first Japanese dative subject study to use natural spoken discourse data in addition to written data, it aims to fill gaps in our understanding left by previous studies, which relied solely on constructed examples. First and foremost is the goal to explicate the discourse properties of the so-called dative subject and determine to what extent it is influenced by genre. This goal stems from S’s observation that the dative subject construction so hotly debated by syntacticians is rare in actual speech. Ultimately, S seeks to provide a usage-based account of dative NPs in Modern Japanese discourse, drawing from both discourse-pragmatic and syntactic data.

Ch. 1 introduces the dative subject construction, presents shortfalls of previous approaches in an extensive literature review, and defines the author’s theoretical approach. The dative subject construction is one in which a core argument takes dative case. S questions assumptions about the transitivity of the dative subject construction and the subjecthood of the dative-marked NP, rejecting, for example, the subject honorification test for subjecthood. S notes that based on natural discourse data, subject honorification fails as a reliable test. Finally, because linguists often claim that speech is primary while at the same time largely relying on written or constructed data, S uses a corpus of speech and natural written narrative rather than constructed data.

Ch. 2 describes the types of spoken and written data used as well as the methodology S adopts. Her Modern Japanese data are a corpus of twenty-six natural conversations and twelve contemporary Japanese novels, and her methodology is rigorous in both selection of data and coding of tokens. Both sets of data are coded for features such as register, person, sex (of speaker/author), and age (of speaker/intended reader). In Chs. 3 and 4, S examines the dative subject in Modern Japanese spoken and written discourse, respectively. S separates her written data into two groups: written narrative and written conversation.

In Ch. 5, S presents diachronic data on the origin and development of the dative subject construction, using Old Japanese and Classical Japanese texts from the seventh to the twentieth centuries. She begins with the assumption that dative subjects arose when the dative marker ni broadened its semantic scope from stative locative NPs to include human referents via metonymy. S is as rigorous with her pre-modern texts as she is with her modern data, with one small exception: S counts all tokens of ni in pre-modern Japanese as a case marker, ignoring the multiple diachronic sources of Modern Japanese ni (such as the Old Japanese defective verb n-i ‘to be-INF’).

Ch. 6 reiterates the results of the previous chapters and works them into a coherent data-oriented theory of the dative subject construction. In this, S succeeds admirably, demonstrating that the dative subject construction is highly pragmatically oriented in Japanese discourse. Not only is it exceedingly rare in spoken Japanese, but previous researchers made many faulty assumptions about its usage, for which S presents data to address in detail.

This book is an excellent example of adopting a usage-based approach in syntax. S has demonstrated the necessity of natural data in syntactic description and, in doing so, has contributed greatly to corpus linguistics, Japanese syntax and semantics, and diachronic linguistics.