An informal review of Wixted’s A Handbook to Classical Japanese

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 just with 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”):

  1. An Overview of Verbs
  2. Verb Conjugations: Basics
  3. Which Verbs Belong to Which Conjugations?
  4. Principal Uses of the Six Verb-Forms
  5. Verbal Adjectives
  6. Pseudo-Adjectives
  7. Linking via Kakari-musubi
  8. How to ‘Unpack’ Bungo Verbs
  9. Items Easily Confused: Apparent Ambiguity
  10. Nari なり Headaches
  11. Namu/Nan なむ/なん Trouble
  12. Additional Items:
    • Topic ≠ Subject
    • Ga が as an Attributive [genitive] Marker
    • The Auxiliary Veb 得
  13. 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:

  • Post-mizenkei:
    1. -zu
    2. -zari
    3. -mu/-n
    4. -muzu/-nzu
    5. -ji
    6. -mashi
    7. -mahoshi
    1. -(ra)ru
    2. -(sa)su
    3. -shimu
    1. -ba (‘if’)
    2. -baya
    3. -namu/-nan
  • Post-ren’yôkei:
    1. -tari
    2. -keri
    3. -nu
    4. -nikeri, -niki, -nitari
    5. -tsu
    6. -ki/-shi
    7. -kemu/-ken
    8. -tashi
  • Post-shûshikei:
    1. -beshi
    2. -rashi
    3. -maji
    4. -meri
    5. -ramu/-ran
    6. -nari (hearsay/supposition)
  • Post-rentaikei:
    1. -gotoshi
    2. nari (explanation/affirmation)
  • Post-izenkei:
    1. -ba (“when/because”)
    2. -do/-domo
  • Post-meireikei:
    1. -ri

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.

5 thoughts on “An informal review of Wixted’s A Handbook to Classical Japanese

  1. 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 treatises) makes reference to this framework, it’s, again, necessary knowledge.

    I agree that you have to know the traditional analysis to get serious about the field, and that this will be the case for at least a few generations to come, but on the other hand I don’t see how we’re ever going to get past this stage unless people like Wixted take some kind of stand.

    It’s okay for people like you and me, who are interested in linguistics in general, because we’re going to seek out the historical information and read Frellesvig and Vovin and so on and learn about the (competing!) better ways of explaining the system. But there are lots of people who are interested in classical Japanese literature but don’t give a hoot about historical linguistics. I don’t think it’s a good idea to just present 橋本文法 as if it were true, saying things like “ri attaches to the meireikei”. It’s not fair for pedagogical reasons — it makes no sense for ri to attach to the meireikei, whereas the real explanation (you know, kaki+ari = kakeri etc.) DOES make sense, gives better insight into what -ri actually is, and really only requires that one extra rule (ia -> e) be remembered — and it’s philosophically dubious to present an explanation known to be wrong. You could maybe argue that it’s like teaching “straight” Newtonian mechanics first and only then going on to relativity and so on, but it strikes me as more like teaching Aristotlean physics and then… leaving it at that.

  2. Have you ever considered getting Japanese-language textbooks? There are a lot on the market in Japan at much lower prices. On my bookshelf I have two ancient volumes, one is 口語つき文語文法 by 日栄社 (edited by a 日栄社 committee), published in 1974 and priced at 220 yen. The other is マイティ古典文 by 佐伯梅友, published by 学研 in 1968 and priced at 800 yen. These are both very old books, but similar books should still be available.

    Of course, I would be dishonest if I pretended that I mastered Classical Japanese thanks to them — in fact, I never mastered Classical Japanese because I always had this block against ‘dead’ languages, but I fondly imagine that if I really seriously wanted to learn it, I could just as easily do so through modern Japanese as through English.

  3. Speaking as a self-learner, I find Wixted and Shirane work very well as compliments. I came to Wixted first, so in some sense wish all other books also organized by what form thingies (to coin a technical term) attach to, and I still break verbs down using Wixted’s methods. (And since I’m in it for the literature rather than the linguistics, it’s a schema that works well for me.)

    I also appreciate his extensive bibliographic appendices of other translations.


  4. Sorry, I forgot to reply this—

    Matt: Ah but the (all too typical) tragedy is, it’s precisely because Wixted is a Literature Person that he won’t be interested in finding out what better kinds of grammatical description there is, even though he’s the kind of person who would most benefit from it—and I don’t blame him; the labyrinthine forests of modern linguistics have grown quite thick! (It’s just like he sidesteps phonetic reconstruction because he doesn’t want to deal with historical linguistics, even though a poetry lover would get a lot from it). It’s in a time like this that a hero should be born; someone who, like Tolkien, has real passion for both literature and linguistics, and is willing to write and research on how one can illuminate the other, to close the gap…

    Bathrobe: Heh, I’m the exact opposite—I’m basically a language necrophile, to the point where I’m studying Classical Japanese even though I can’t read a Modern Japanese newspaper… The problem with Japanese books for me is distance—shipping to the other side of the world doubles or triples the price, and takes a lot of time. But this is an excuse, and you’re right; even considering this, it would still be profitable to acquire more Japanese-language books. I really need to get out of my English academic comfort zone.


    This is one reason I’m eagerly waiting for the Japanese Kindle, to see if we’ll be able to buy Japanese ebooks living abroad; being a typography lover, I have a lot of reservations about the Kindle, but the possibility of buying books from Japan without shipping would be a dealbreaker.


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