Couple weeks ago I stumbled, purely by chance, on Wixted’s 2006’s A Handbook to Classical Japanese (Wixted has been featured earlier in this blog). It’s quite rad! There seems to be a dearth of reviews (here’s one; also a sample section) so I wrote this post about it.
The book would be better entitled A Handbook to Classical Japanese Verbs; it’s almost entirely about verbs, verbs and their daunting cortège of “verb endings” (those long strings of joshi and jodôshi forms that oftentimes remind us of the agglutinative roots of Japanese). And that’s great! It keeps the work short and focused; one dives into it, spends some time and effort, and emerges with a better understanding of Classical Japanese. There would be no point, after all, in following Shirane’s extensive reference-grammar-and-reader (2005) with another one quite so soon (the two works complement each other very well, by the way). Wixted’s handbook is quite colourful—literally: sentences are presented in Japanese, romanization, and translations in all kinds of red text, bold, italics, small-caps, outline fonts… I have to remain skeptical of the claim that this unusual typography can “communicate material at a subconscious level”, though after reading some of the book I have to admit that it does work as a punctuation of sorts, compensating in part for the lack of spaces in Japanese text. It certainly helps in identifying at a glance the morpheme under discussion from its neighbors in the verbal cortège. And, after all, if the students of old had their katakana glosses, senmyôgaki, okototen markings et cetera, it’s only fair that we moderns experiment with our own annotations.
Wixted’s approach, based on his classroom experience, is that one learns grammar best by examples—many examples; it’s similar to Krashen’s “comprehensive input” hypothesis. Wixted has a somewhat obsessive preoccupation with data management and proper citing. What he calls the “Body of the Handbook” is really just 122 pages (about 33%) sandwiched between the “Introduction” (some 100pp) and the “Appendices” (ditto). The latter are all about references. The author informs us that he collected precisely 670 example sentences (which are often repeated through the book); we are also told that that 38% were taken from other Western works on Classical Japanese—each, of course, with detailed references down to precise edition and page—and that the remaining 62% were found in UVA’s Japanese Text Initiative, and that more than 90% of the latter had to be adjusted to match the Iwanami Shoten editions that he uses as standard references. The whole book is quantitative and analytical like this. The author takes care to mark all verbs as intransitive or transitive; explanations use the word “here” as a tag for potentially confusing surface forms (“ire here is the mizenkei of iru, here a transitive shimo nidan […]”). All sentences are quoted exactly as-is from their source editions, down to each unexpected tôten and unusual furigana, and followed by complex indices pointing to their exact provenance. I think every one of us have, at some point, tried to locate a quotation from “the” Makura no Sôshi (or whatever) from an approximate translation only to find out, after much wasted time, that the edition we have at hand is from a different manuscript tradition; so Wixted’s scholarly prowess is much appreciated (if unpoetical). It sets the bar higher for academic textbooks in the field. We have appendices with reverse indices of the sample sentences ordered by source work, a comparative table of each grammar point and where to find it in no less than 11 other Western-language grammars, bibliographies of alternative translations, indices for everything and everyone. Sometimes, when navigating the sea of abbreviations and pointers, I feel that this book really wanted to be a multimedia hypertext-software beast, filled as it is with tables and links and cross-refs.
Present-day language teaching is often focused on live communication, presupposing that the main goal of the student is to be able to hold conversation with natives. The study of classical languages highlights instead a skill that’s usually in the background in language classrooms: reading books. When reading books, we don’t have to worry with language output nor with processing time; so that the fundamental way to tackle the problem is to grab a dictionary (or several) and look up every word, repeatedly, until the reader has built a passive vocabulary large enough to make the process less cumbersome. However, languages aren’t such simple systems as to be understandable only by word-level lookup. There are a number of obstacles that can only be surpassed by developing certain sub-skills, such as lemmatization—converting an inflected form back to its “citation” or “dictionary” form, without which one naturally can’t even look things up—and text segmentation (or tokenization), finding morpheme- and word-boundaries, which is particularly problematic for unspaced scripts like Japanese. Too often there’s more than one way to lemmatize or tokenize, and the beginner wastes much effort in dead-ends. And then there are all the kinds of ambiguity, syntactical, lexical, semantic, creating a tricky gamut of possibilities. The Handbook to Classical Japanese is specifically designed to improve such sub-skills; it could be called, more accurately, A Handbook to Classical Japanese Features You Won’t Be Able to Understand Simply by Looking Up in the Dictionary, if this title wasn’t obnoxious. Consider the headings for the “Introduction” (which, as we have seen, is about the same size as the “Body”):
- An Overview of Verbs
- Verb Conjugations: Basics
- Which Verbs Belong to Which Conjugations?
- Principal Uses of the Six Verb-Forms
- Verbal Adjectives
- Linking via Kakari-musubi
- How to ‘Unpack’ Bungo Verbs
- Items Easily Confused: Apparent Ambiguity
- Nari なり Headaches
- Namu/Nan なむ／なん Trouble
- Additional Items:
- Topic ≠ Subject
- Ga が as an Attributive [genitive] Marker
- The Auxiliary Veb 得
- Respect Language
Sections 1 to 6 review school-style grammar, as applied for Classical Japanese. This isn’t an empty exercise: the verb-forms, for example, will be used to disambiguate troublesome cases of segmentation (“unpacking”), lemmatization and so on; if you know that the “if” ba follows the mizenkei form, and the “when” ba follows the izenkei, then kikamaseba must be “if I hear” and not “when I hear”—but to see this one must first be able to identify -mase- as mizenkei. The traditional grammar with its “forms” certainly isn’t the most rational way of explaining Japanese, and a number of modern alternatives have been proposed, but since almost every text (other than technical linguistics studies) makes reference to this framework, it’s, again, necessary knowledge. Sections 7 and on are all about thorny issues; they’re short and to the point and prevent a lot of headaches. I wish I had read something like this earlier.
As for the “body”, it lists 32 “verb endings” (things like -namu, -nu, -beshi &c.), grouped and ordered by which inflection they follow (an interesting choice), and copiously illustrated with the above-mentioned 670 quotations from classical works—at least 2 for each inflected form of each morpheme. As the author says, it works as a mini-reader of sorts. My approach was to read the Introduction quickly and casually, and then delve into the Body while referring back to the Introduction to clarify difficult areas. The 32 endings are:
- -ba (‘if’)
- -nikeri, -niki, -nitari
- -nari (hearsay/supposition)
- nari (explanation/affirmation)
- -ba (“when/because”)
If one gets nothing else than a feel for those 32 morphemes (and their inflected forms), one’s already progressed a lot in the path to Classical Japanese.
I couldn’t help being disappointed that Wixted sidesteps altogether the issue of historical phonology, choosing to transliterate everything in the Hepburn spelling of the conventional Modern Japanese rendering. At any rate the skill of reading Classical as if it were Modern is something we all have to learn, and for the book’s intended audience it probably makes sense to focus on training this skill. After all, some of the “historical kana usage” can be deceptively removed from the modern reading, and the romanization here works as a kind of furigana-for-the-furigana until the student grows used to it.
The main problem with the book is unfortunately all too common in academic publishing: it’s too expensive, and too hard to find. We impoverished scholars have, as usual, to resort to library copies, which gives incentive for libraries to swallow the price tag, which reinforces the whole system. I am once again grateful to the Japan Foundation; they’ve been enabling me to read books I can’t afford for more than a decade now.