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Pragmatic factors and morphological markedness in Japanese transitive/intransitive pairs

Date: 6 June 2023 (Tue) Time: 10:00am-11:30am Venue: CPD-3.28, Jockey Club Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU Medium: Japanese Speaker: Professor Wesley M. Jacobsen, Harvard University Professor Wesley M. Jacobsen did graduate work in linguistics at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1981. During his graduate years, his academic interests turned to Japan and the study of Japanese linguistics. Following graduate school, he taught Japanese language and linguistics for 12 years at the University of Minnesota before joining the faculty at Harvard, where he serves as Director of the Japanese Language Program. He has spent research leaves in Japan researching concepts of time, reality, and event structure (especially transitivity) and their interaction in Japanese grammar and on the development of effective teaching strategies for such concepts.


The role of semantic markedness in determining morphological simplicity or complexity in Japanese transitive and intransitive verb pairs is well recognized, something that can be accounted for fundamentally in terms of frequency of use—situations which are more “normal” in human experience tend to be those which are expressed more frequently, and considerations of economy dictate that the linguistic forms used in such cases be simpler and requiring less effort to produce (Jacobsen 1992; Matsumoto 2000; Pardeshi 2018). Frequency of use cannot, however, be simply correlated with more “normal” occurrence in the ontological sense but is complicated by other factors not purely semantic. This presentation will explore the role of pragmatic factors of two kinds that may also play a role in determining relative frequency of use between transitive and intransitive morpho-logical forms: (a) epistemological factors—the speaker may not be in a situation to know the cause of an event observed, and may therefore use an intransitive form to express its occurrence, even though the event is one “normally” seen to be one brought about by a human or other external force, where a transitive mode of expression would otherwise be expected (e.g., intransitive A! Denki ga tomatta ‘Oh, the electricity stopped’ in response to an electrical outage) and (b) pragmatic considerations of politeness—even though the speaker knows that an event was brought about by the force of a human agent, social and cultural considerations may dictate that an intransitive mode of expression be used to avoid assignment of responsibility to the agent and potential loss of face that could there-by occur (e.g., intransitive A! Koborete-simatta ‘Oh, it spilled’ at a party when someone spills their wine). This presentation will consider the possible effects of such factors on the relative morphological markedness of transitive vs. intransitive forms.

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