Terry Joyce, in an paper about something else, mentions this neat datum that I had never noticed.
Japanese is a head-last language, meaning that the arguments of a verb precede it:
|“Climb the mountain”|
In English, some compound words are built like shortened phrases: “spoil a sport” → “spoilsport”. The same happens in Japanese:
However, Japanese also has a large number of Chinese loans, and in Chinese, the verb comes first (as in English). This results in a number of Japanese words with “reversed” order, i.e. compounds in which the argument comes after the verb:
Yamanobori and Tozan are synonymous; but the first follow Japanese syntax (verb last), and the second, Chinese syntax (verb first).
The bit I’d never noticed is that the “Chinese” syntax in Japanese words almost always uses direct objects (the ones that would be marked with を wo). By contrast, the “Japanese” order allows all sorts of arguments and modifiers, including adverbs:
- 外食 Gai-shoku “outside-eat” = to eat outside, eating out
- 毒殺 Doku-satsu “poison-kill” = to kill by poison
- 女装 Jo-sō “woman-dress” = to crossdress, to dress as a woman, female-attired
- 長引く Naga-biku “long-draw” = to drag on
Notice that this doesn’t depend on whether the components themselves are on’yomi (of Chinese origin) or kun’yomi (native Japanese); only on the morphosyntax.
Source: Terry Joyce, Modeling the Japanese mental lexicon: Morphological, orthographic and phonological considerations, who credits:
- Kageyama, T. (1982) Word formation in Japanese. Lingua, 57, 215–258.
- Ozaki et al. (1992) Daijigen [Great Etymological Dictionary]. Kadokawa Shoten.