I’m basically going to repost here an entry from No-sword, because it’s an interesting question that I’m completely incompetent to answer, and I thought perhaps some of my more theoretically inclined readers might have some interesting comments:

Japanese is considered to have SOV word order and topic-comment sentence structure. So one uncontroversial way for a man to casually say, for example, “I don’t understand English” is

ore wa eigo ga wakaranai
I (topic) English (subject) be-understood-NOT
“As for me, English is not understood”
= “I don’t understand English”

But in spoken Japanese, it’s very common to hear something like this (note that the particles (wa and ga) have been dropped and wakaranai slurs into wakannai; these are uncontroversial changes):

eigo wakannai, ore
English be-understood-NOT, I

The interesting thing about this sentence is the pronoun tacked on the end. This is unique to spoken Japanese (although of course you see it in some written Japanese that closely mimics spoken Japanese). The opinion in most official grammars is that nothing is supposed to come after a sentence’s main verb except for particles, like yo for emphasis or ka for interrogation.
So my first question is, do we interpret this as an 俺、英語分かんない in which the comment (英語分かんない) has been emphasised by moving it up to before the topic (俺)? “Comment-fronting”?
Or is it considered a pro-dropped 英語分かんない (a well-formed sentence if you overlook the missing が) to which a specification of the topic (俺) has been attached as an afterthought?
Or does it depend on context? Or is it something entirely different? Or impossible to determine?

Like Diane in Matt’s comment thread, I immediately thought of the colloquial French construction “J’sais pas, moi,” but in that case the pronoun is left in its normal position but repeated for emphasis at the end, an easier deviation to explain.


  1. The emphasis is on the verb part of the sentence–the subject is an afterthought, because in Japanese, you often don’t need to use the subject in the sentence once it’s been established.

  2. I think the difficulty is in the term “fronting”. The usual order of English requires the subject to go first, so any departure from that is a strong emphasis. In Japanese, on the contrary, the only strong habitual constraint is that the verb goes at the end. In other words, to achieve a similarly strong emphasis, you have to “back” in Japanese. The best you could do at the other end is rearrange the other constituents, which might serve well enough in some cases, but not all.
    One could counter that there exists a grammatical way to emphasize “ore”, by changing “wa” to “ga”, but that would be an emphasis on the identity of the one who couldn’t speak English(1), not on the fact of not speaking English being a salient property of the topic(2).
    (1) *I* don’t speak English. (…but *he* does)
    (2) Me, I don’t speak English. (…but I can DANCE!!)

  3. Michael Farris says

    I immediately thought of Turkish, which is typologically SOV, but in the colloquial language it’s not uncommon to postpose one nominal constituent which may be longer than one word) after the verb.
    I’ve seen a lot more put after the verb, but I think this isn’t considered good style unless some kind of adverbial like ‘diye’ (saying) is involved.
    One article I read said that children stick most closely to SOV order and only later (after 10?) begin to postpose.

  4. There seem to be two schools of thought in my comment thread:
    1) it’s clefting (not scrambling)
    2) they’re extra sentence fragments, appended as afterthoughts
    I guess what interests me is the question of whether, in a sentence like 分からない、俺、英語, the speaker has (a) moved the verb to the front to emphasise it, or (b) stripped the sentence of everything but the verb (to emphasise it), then added on extra fragments as an afterthought..

  5. I am just a young academic cat, who knows more about 19th Century British literature than I know about linguistics, but I do know some reasons for this phenomenon in Japanese.
    Of course, the Japanese culture and language evolved together, through one another, as languages always do, and so if you have any familiarity with Japanese culture you may be note that this “clefting” structure is common mostly due to cultural factors. The Japanese are a very polite society, so polite that they in fact refain from utilizing personal proforms – like “I” – “watashi” in a sentence unless it is absolutely necessary, and then only at the end of the respective phrase. Japanese tend to take this polite trend to new heights in their speech, refraining from referring to themselves in any possible nuance – which makes some of the simplest conversations almost impossible for a non-native speaker to understand.
    My fiance is a Japanese translator for a Toyata supplier and he says that it is actually more polite to point to yourself or to mention your own name in declarative or informative statement, rather than use any form of “watashi-wa”.

  6. But the sentences under discussion include the personal pronoun; the question is why the pronoun ends up at the end rather than the beginning (where it’s grammatically supposed to go).

  7. “the question is why the pronoun ends up at the end rather than the beginning”
    Actually, from my perspective as someone who knows a little Japanese, the real question is why one would think to use the pronoun at all, despite its superfluity, but given that it *is* used, putting it in front just comes across as unnaturally formal, the sort of stiff language only a foreigner speaking like a textbook would resort to.

  8. In my comment on the entry on No-sword I referred to the “backing” of the pronoun as “petulant emphasis” (arguably not one of my best). I’ve actually had a (less than motivated) student reply “Eigo wakannai, ore” to a question in English. Given that I was standing directly in front of his desk, no *factual* information was added by the addition of the pronoun, but it very clearly expressed his displeasure at having been called on. (“Eigo wakannai” alone would have been a simple statement of fact and implied refusal to attempt an English response.)

  9. Actually, I like “petulant emphasis” — it conveys the meaning and hss pizzazz.

  10. “My fiance is a Japanese translator for a Toyata supplier and he says that it is actually more polite to point to yourself or to mention your own name in declarative or informative statement, rather than use any form of “watashi-wa”.”
    I agree that people tend to use “watashi-wa” a lot less than English speakers would expect, but this “mentioning your own name” is new to me. I’ve only ever seen this used by little kids or (female) idols trying to act cute. I can’t even imagine a 40-year-old Japanese guy referring to himself by his own name, except when making a reservation or something. Can you tell us more about that?
    Also, I don’t mean to be confrontational, but I think “which makes some of the simplest conversations almost impossible for a non-native speaker to understand” is a bit hyperbolic.

  11. Somehow, in some fuzzy way, this example is similar to the well-known Beijing-ism exemplified by:
    Chi fan ma, ni?
    Want to eat, you?
    where the ‘ni’ is placed at the end of the sentence, rather than at the beginning where it belongs.

  12. Jimmy Ho says

    Or the common shuo shenme ni 说什么你?, which you can hear in a handful of “angry ‘superior’ (teacher, officer) to daring ‘inferior’ (student, soldier)” xiangsheng (comical dialogues?) sketches.

  13. Jennifer Greene says

    American Sign Language (which is actually based on French sign language) has a very similar syntax.

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