This question comes from questions in japanese SE. Keiyōshi 形容詞 are translated as adjectives. Meishi 名詞 are translated as nouns. But are they really the same kind of words that we mean with nouns, adjectives, etc. in English?

I've already found 3 examples that arises a lot of doubts in me if they are the same thing. The first is a japanese word that I can't remember right now but that I've seen used as a noun, adjective or verb. May be there are words like these in English or Spanish, but I'm not sure if they are the same. For example the word paddle can be a verb, a noun or an adjective in English.

The second is japanese words that they see as a noun and that we see as adjectives. The word "next" for japaneses is a clear noun. They know that it can be used as an adjective, but when giving an example of when it is used as a noun (what it really is according to japanese), I got this "when is the next?" that is a sentence that could come in a conversation between 2 persons about events , and one of them ask the other "when is the next (event)?" . wouldnt it be for english speakers, still an adjective because it modifies an implicit noun (event)?

And the third is the word "suki" and similar words, that they see as a verb and it's translated as "to like" but it is used next to the verb desu (to be)

So my question is, are what we translate as adjectives, verbs, etc, from other non indoeuropean languages, really what we understand as verbs, adjectives, etc?

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    I think the short answer is that what you call an 'adjective' and what you call a 'noun' are not even the same between Indo-European languages. However, prototypes do exist for each of the major categories that allow us to say a noun in language A roughly corresponds to a noun in language B, etc. I'll write a more detailed answer if I get to later... Commented Apr 13, 2017 at 19:51
  • There are two questions here: (i) do all languages have the same classes and (ii) do all languages use the same class of words to convey a certain meaning? (i) In Japanese one may argue there are two or three classes of adjectives, or none -- but not one. (ii) In Japanese a lot of grammar is based on nouns: 'when' is a noun (toki) which can take a relative clause or an adjective (wakai toki, lit. 'young time') or be qualified by a noun (kodomo no toki, lit. 'time of child'). Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 7:32
  • adding to @WavesWashSands' comment, Romance languages are much freer with their use of substantive adjectives than English is e.g. the sentence "la alta habló conmigo" literally "the tall spoke with me" is entirely grammatical in Spanish, but in English you need a dummy noun or pronoun in there i.e. "the tall woman spoke with me" or "the tall one spoke with me". This is a powerful enough effect that in Spanish (and similarly in other Romance languages), the best equivalent of English "noun" is sustantivo literally substantive, with nombres (cognate with noun) only being used for proper nouns
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 9:38

1 Answer 1


It is the most natural case that languages have word categories that do not behave precisely the way that they do in the classical understanding of the terms motivated by IE. Given the huge variety of languages across the world, it would be extremely surprising if every language had their nouns, adjectives, etc. behave precisely the same way as English does.

However, within an individual language there will be several clearly distinguishable categories, where ascribing properties such as "adjectival" and "nominal" is indeed not too unjustified, because such a categorization accounts for how different jobs are distributed across categories in a language. Every natural language will have some way of expressing events, entities, properties, etc., and every language will use a minimum of different categories for these functions. Whether this distribution is precisely the same as in a prototypical IE language (if there is such a thing as a "prototypical IE language") is questionable, but most primitive notions like "verb-like" or "noun-like" are something that every language exhibits.

So, even though the resulting pattern might be in some way "shifted" with regard to the precise nature of the individual components as compared to how we understand them in English (because linguistic terminology is hardly ever language-independent), in a more liberal understanding of these classification devices, Japanese "adjective" and "nouns" do fulfill the roles as we understand them in an abstract sense, i.e. w.r.t. how grammatical functions are realized by different word categories within a language.

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