The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language and WALS, as well as Wikipedia, treat both English prepositions and Japanese postpositions (particles) as belonging to 'adpositions' (although CGEL prefers to avoid the word 'adposition'). This seems curious because

  1. the functions of Japanese postpositions resemble those of cases rather than prepositions,
  2. European languages that have prepositions often use them in conjunction with cases (e.g. German zu + dative),
  3. prepositions in English are not used solely as 'adpositions'; they can also function as adverbs and particles ('up the river', 'go up', 'it was up', 'drink up'), which are unthinkable for Japanese postpositions.
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    Strictly speaking, no. The usage of Japanese postpositions is different from English prepositions in more than placement. Just as the French phoneme /e/ and the English phoneme /e/ are not the same -- cannot be the same -- no Japanese syntactic category is the same as any English syntactic category. That said, one needs something more than position to categorize adpositions; do they form constituents? Can they appear intransitively? Are they governed by lexical or syntactic considerations? Etc. – jlawler Oct 22 '18 at 15:39
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    Yes, adpositions? – Adam Bittlingmayer Oct 22 '18 at 22:13
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    "the functions of Japanese postpositions resemble those of cases rather than prepositions" There's a lot of overlap between adpositions and case. Some languages have over a dozen cases, but some have only a handful, and use adpositions to be more specific about the kind of relationship than their cases can communicate. – curiousdannii Oct 23 '18 at 0:52
  • One difference between English prepositions and Japanese postpositions is the 'semantic content' of prepositions. Japanese に ni indicates motion towards or location at. It needs words like ue 'top of', naka 'inside', shita 'under' etc. to specify location. Prepositions ('on', 'onto', 'in', 'into', 'at', 'under', etc.) incorporate this semantic content, one reason why they are so versatile. Japanese postpositions aren't remotely comparable. I would suggest removing 'prepositions' from any list of prospective universal categories. They are just too unique to be used as a benchmark. – Bathrobe Oct 23 '18 at 13:34

I don't see how the question can be answered, without some additional theoretical context. The main problem is that "the same category" sort of suggests a theory of unique categorization of morphemes. If you had asked "is there some conceivable category of linguistic units that includes English prepositions and Japanese postpositions", the answer would be an easy "yes". Instead, it sounds like you have in mind a specific theory of categories, without saying what the defining factor is (for example, various syntactic relation versus certain kinds of functions). Defined in terms of word order, the two sets are clearly different categories (though this consideration is irrelevant for a theory that speaks of "adpositions", a deliberately order-independent term). However, they might be "the same" in some syntactic theory, as a non-head (modifier, complement or some such term). They might be "the same" in one sense, and "different" in another (for example, the syntactic structure might be the same, by some metric, but the semantic function might be different, by some other metric).

A narrower question would be "is the English word just the same category as Japanese X?" (whatever word you want to put in there)". Even narrowing the scope of the English word to pre-NP uses, is "just" a different POS from "with"? That is, how do you justify unifying two morphemes under a single type, in one language? Then, are types the same across all languages?

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  • Well, in terms of 'theoretical context' there is no real answer. One person's theory is another person's anathema. I am questioning this treatment in pragmatic terms as an explanation of the facts on the ground (the phenomena that I sketchily listed). Hattori Shiro came up with criteria for defining postpositions as 'clitics' because of 'freedom of attachment' (vs case endings in 'Altaic' languages). The difference is very narrow. See also this old question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/39/… – Bathrobe Oct 23 '18 at 13:11

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