desu note

Desu is weird. In textbook introductions to Japanese, it is often described as the polite (teinei) equivalent to da, and this description works fine for “nouny” words:

1a. Otoko desu. “[It’s a] man.” [+pol]
1b. Otoko da. “[It’s a] man.”
2a. Hansamu desu. “[He’s] handsome.” [+pol]
2b. Hansamu da. “[He’s] handsome.”

However, we soon learn that the supposed equivalency breaks for “verby” words, such as “i-adjectives” (keiyôshi):

3a. kawaii desu. “[He’s] cute.” [+pol]
3b. kawaii. “[He’s] cute.”
3c. *kawaii da. ungrammatical (but see below)

Of course, this doesn’t apply to verbs themselves, since verbal politeness is marked by the bound morpheme -masu, never by desu. …Or is it? (dun dun duuun):

4a. mi ni iku yo. “[I’m] going to see!”
4b. mi ni iku desu yo. “[I’m] going to see!” [+col, +pol]
4c. mi ni iku da yo. “[I’m] going to see!” [+col]

Let’s forget this anomaly for a moment. At any rate, any grammar of Japanese has to account for asymmetries like 2a/2b vs. 3a/3b/*3c, and this often introduces unseemly kludges. In traditional school grammar (Hashimoto-style), it’s said that complete utterances need to mark “assertion” (dantei) somewhere. The copula da is an assertion particle, dantei no joshi, and nouny words have no assertion, so they need it; while verby words (including i-adjectives) have assertion built-in and can stand alone. Then desu is explained awkwardly as being a dantei-teinei no joshi “politeness-assertion particle” when following nounies (“Ringo desu”), and as a non-assertive teinei no joshi “politeness particle” when following verbies (“oishii desu”). In other words, “there are two desu”. (Morikawa, in a more sophisticated argument, proposes two da too.)

However, this analysis is mixing description with prescription, as shown by examples 4b, 4c above (which might be considered “incorrect Japanese” but occur often enough, even by native speakers). What’s more, even the “needs assertion” rule is prescritive; utterances like hontō yo are common. Considering similar cases, Daniels has no choice but to conclude that “the function of da, desu, de aru, etc., in many of their uses, is not copulative” (in school-grammar terms, they’re often not dantei, and this happens in contexts that school grammar doesn’t predict). This is particularly the case for deshō/darō, and Daniels argues that darō shouldn’t even be considered an inflection of da at all—unlike da, it’s not hard to find examples of it following a verby like in 3c (oishii darō?, kawaii darō?).

Rather than being a sign of the decay of the Japanese language, I think these complications are rather a consequence of the muddy origins of desu. It’s much like keigo, a modern, artificial category which the Japanese have been perpetually complaining of “being in a state of disarray” and that “young people can’t speak it properly anymore” literally since its inception (see Wetzel, Keigo in modern Japan; Miller, Levels in Speech (Keigo) and the Japanese Linguistic Response to Modernization). Just like keigo, the “rules” about da/desu usage were somewhat impositive, an attempt to unify what previously depended on varied norms of specific social groups and contexts (not to open the can of worms of dialects…). So we find the following in the prescriptive “Keigo from Now On” (Kore kara no Keigo), published by the government agency Kokugo Shingikai in 1952:

From now on we would like for desu/masu to set the tone of conversation.

Note: This has been decided as setting the tone for general conversation among members of society and does not limit forms such as the de arimasu of lectures, the de gozaimasu of formal occasions, or the familiar da.

And again:

We now recognize the acceptable ending for [verby] adjectives [keiyôshi], which until now had been a longstanding problem [Kore made hisashiku Mondai to natteita Keiyōshi no Musubi-kata]—for example, simple, clear forms like ōkii desu, chiisai desu.

I wonder what was the longstanding problem. Are these forms “clear and simple” in comparison to the euphonic (onbin) honorifics, e.g. oishū gozaimasu, now in disuse?

Wieger cites Twine, Language and the Modern State, who says that, before the twentieth-century deliberate standardization, there were no less than six copulas in common use:

  • de gozaru
  • de gozarimasu
  • de arimasu
  • desu
  • de aru
  • da

De aru and da were felt as nonpolite by the reformers. De gozaimasu was associated with the elites, and de gozaru with the fashionable women of the pleasure quarters, from which it spread to popular writers. De arimasu was also common in fiction, and in general society. When the movement for vernacular literature (Genbun-Itchi) started getting traction, there was explicit competition between forms. In a period of four years we find (from Sanada, Hyôjungo wa ika ni Seiritsu shita ka) :

  • Da, in Futabatei’s Ukigumo (1887);
  • De arimasu, in the same Futabatei’s Nozue no kiku (1889);
  • Desu, in Yamada Kochô (1889);
  • De aru, in Ozaki’s Ninin Nyôbô (1891).

Da likely arised as a contraction of de aru, and desu of de arimasu or de sô or the like; but even if this is true historically, it might not be “subjacently” (see Morikawa, above). Meanwhile goza(ru) was a spelling-pronunciation of 御座, which in turn was originally a kun spelling of (now extinct) owasu. Some even say that desu was originally a feature of the speech of Yoshiwara sex workers. To this day de aru remains typical of literature.

This principle of linguistic variants as a mark of social position survives in Yakuwari-go “role speech”, the trope in contemporary Japanese fiction where certain stereotypical characters speak with certain marks, which don’t really correspond to real-world usage. So, for example, a grandpa- or grandma character is likely to use ja, a comic-relief “weird” character might use the Kansai-ben ya, an evil overlord would prefer da, and of course samurai and ninja choose de gozaru.

The contextual implications of these marks can be counter-intuitive. Once I noticed that some bloggers write in da-level and others in desu/masu. According to standard accounts, politeness imply distance, and so I thought I should write in “plain” da to make it more intimate and casual. Then I’ve been told the opposite would happen: because written da is used in newspapers and formal texts, it would feel heavier and colder, while desu would make it conversational and therefore friendlier.

It’s this kind of stuff that makes me want to learn corpus linguistics. I’d like to see some large-scale statistics on desu patterns…

12 thoughts on “Desu

  1. The desu in this kawaii desu ne has no other function than to add politeness. My understanding is that there was resistance to kawaii desu, at least earlier on. The desu was felt to be unnatural. Even now I don’t think it is felt to be a totally ‘natural’ form by all speakers. Kawaii desu yo sounds ok, but a bald kawaii desu sounds robotic, the kind of Japanese used by foreign learners. Notice, also, how many native speakers will say kawaii’su ne rather than kawaii desu ne.

    As for mi ni iku desu yo and mi ni iku da yo, they sound wrong to me, more like something that you’d find in manga, although I’ve no doubt been conditioned by school grammar. (I’m having trouble accessing your Google links because the Chinese government is still interfering with access to Google, even though the big meeting to elect the new leaders is over.)

  2. Actually, the older polite form of adjectives didn’t involve です, it involved a form of the ある/ござる verb, as in 高うございます (not 高いです). But this sounds like a kamigata form and doesn’t seem to be very popular in the modern language — too high falutin’.

    Note that the うございます usage is parallel to other forms of the adjective:

    高く + ない
    高く + は + ある (more normally 高いことは高い).

    The です form stands out like a sore thumb.

    (Incidentally I have no idea of the correct form for かわいい if you use ございます!)

  3. Yeah, the “longstanding problem” with /oisii desu/ was basically that, as you observe at the beginning of the essay, it isn’t in correspondence with a nonpolite /oisii da/.

    I am actually among those people who finds the /-i desu/ construction uneuphonic, and I try to avoid it in e-mails and so on — although I usually use /-i no desu/ or just rephrase, since even I recognize that 難しゅうございます would be far, far weirder.

    I read an argument somewhere, can’t remember where, that whatever です may have been, in casual speech it is devolving into a non-conjugating “politeness particle” (simultaneously with its erosion into /ssu/ and even /su/), as seen in constructions like:

    /ikanai ssu/ (rather than /ikimasen/)
    /ikanakatta ssu/ (rather than /ikimasen desita/)
    /iku ssu/ (rather than /ikimasu/)
    /iku ssu ka/ (rather than /ikimasu ka/)

    Those last two are in variation with /iku n ssu […]/ and may historically derive from the /* no desu/ construction, BUT the argument is that they are no longer perceived that way by a large subset of younger Japanese speakers.

    Of course, this sort of language is strongly discouraged by prescriptivist accounts of Japanese, which means that it is most common in social groups least touched by prescriptivism, which usually means the least educated — and so it is hard to discuss this argument with non-linguists, because OF COURSE /desu/ conjugates, all those examples are just errors, not language change, etc. etc… But I find the idea quite persuasive.

    > (Incidentally I have no idea of the correct form for かわいい if you use ございます!)

    On first principles, I’d say “kawayū gozaimasu”…

  4. When I wanted to add a [Keiyôshi]-u gozaimasu example in this post, I had to search for a while—I felt unsure of the form, and the Internet had no samples of the first few adjectives that popped to mind! At least kawayû gozaimasu gets 252 verbatim hits (many appear to be tongue-in-cheek or fancy yakuwarigo).

    I’ve heard that de gozaimasu is also disappearing as a marker of higher politeness (adresse-axis, like desu). Apparently, it now it tends to be used instead as a humble copula (Kenjôgo). I know we still use it for politeness in the tea ceremony, but of course tea-speech is very formal and old-fashioned.

  5. > non-standard (?) form ‘kawayui’

    Oh, I didn’t notice this! This is actually the direct ancestor form to “kawaii”. The oldest attested ancestor is かははゆし in the Konjaku Monogatari, not written in kanji IIRC but traditionally analyzed as 顔 + 映ゆし (partly by analogy with おもはゆし, みみはゆし etc. which also exist). kawawayui -> kawayui -> kawaii.

    I would agree with that analysis of “de gozaimasu”, btw, although I would interpret it more as an example of the line between “polite” and “humble” blurring rather than a word moving from one (fixed) category to another.

  6. This is actually the direct ancestor form to “kawaii”.

    Yes, I found that out after I added the comment. It’s strange how kawayui has somehow degenerated into a ‘cute’ variation on kawaii in the modern language.

  7. Something has nudged itself up from my deep subconscious, and I’m not sure if it’s true or just some misremembered tidbit.

    The form with desu was originally a dialect form, possibly from yamanote, possibly from one of the satchō clans, that happened to be imposed on the new standard, even though it wasn’t felt to be natural by most people from other parts of Japan. That’s why there was resistance.

    I have no idea how you could confirm this. Does anyone have sources on genbun itchi and the creation of hyōjungo?

  8. Couldn’t say without looking it up, but the aforementioned Nihonjin no shiranai Nihongo claims that de arimasu was originally from the Ch­ôshû (Yamaguchi) dialect, and it became guntaiyougo because many military leaders were from this region. Also Kagoshima-ben became associated with Satsuma policemen in Meiji, and so its neutral oi, kora came to be considered demeaning, while its binta, which meant “head”, entered Hyôjungo as “faceslap”.

    As I mentioned above, the author says desu came from Mizushôbai no Josei no Kotoba-dzukai (also -zamasu from Oiran). But of course, it isn’t a scholarly resource.

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