Japanese is often included in lists of agglutinating languages.

Many (most?) agglutinating languages are analysed as having case systems.

Of course cases and prepositions/postpositions fill the same role, identifying the job of nominals.

I have also read that Japanese particles are pronounced as part of the noun they follow.

Given this, has anyone ever published an analysis of Japanese as an agglutinating language?

(To keep the question simple when I refer to Japanese particles I am referring only to those acting as postpositions.)

  • I'm pretty sure I've heard that there are linguistics of either Finnish or Hungarian with an alternative analysis of their language as not having cases too, which would be the complement of this question. – hippietrail Sep 13 '11 at 23:08
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    I looked at a really old Japanese grammar (Diego Collado's Ars Grammatica Linguae Iaponicae, 1632) because I remembered him talking about the inflections as if they were Latin cases, but even he starts out "In lingua Iaponica non sunt declinationes per casus sicut in Latina, sed sunt quaedam particulae, quae postpositae nominibus, casuum" (In the Japanese language, there are no declensions according to case as in Latin, but there are certain particles for cases which are placed after nouns.) – Muke Tever Jan 30 '12 at 14:35
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    A random fact to throw out there for you: many (perhaps all - we can't be sure that far prior to written history) Japanese case particles were originally nouns or verbs/verb phrases. E.g. yori, kara, and others were nouns, while ni, de, and others were verbs (specifically the conjunctive conjugation of verbs). It's less clear for the verbs, but for the particles of noun origin it's quite plausible that at one point they were agglutinated onto whatever they attached to. They may have actually detached when they went from noun to particle. – Justin Olbrantz Mar 18 '12 at 6:08
  • Lack of research. Close. – Lance Pollard Jan 15 at 12:00

This question is pretty old now, and the answers have demonstrated that the consensus (in the English- and Japanese-speaking world at least) is strongly in favor of the particle explanation, but here is something that might interest you from Alexander Vovin's Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese (volume I, pp 109-102):

Case markers are traditionally defined in both Japanese and Western traditions as particles (Jp. kakujoshi 格助詞) [long list of references]. However, in another major school of Japanese studies, the Russian school, three conflicting points of view have been debated over a long period of time. According to one, Japanese case markers are agglutinative suffixes (Konrad 1937: 81-83), (Fel'dman 1979: 60-61), (Syromiatnikov 1972: 96); the supporters of the second point of view consider them to be postpositions (Vardul' 1964: 33-36), (Golovnin 1970: 18; 1986: 227); while according to the third point of view, they are classified neither as suffixes, nor as postpositions, but as agglutinative case markers (Pashkovskii 1957: 117), (Alpatov 1981; 34-41). The last point of view is exactly the one I adhere to [...]

(Bold emphasis mine.) The reasons Vovin gives for adhering to the "agglutinative case marker" theory are, in summary:

A) Old Japanese case markers are not "flective": there is "one and only one" grammatical meaning per case markers, and no fusion with the stem. This is unlike the situation in, say, Indo-European, where a noun ending might contain the meanings "plural" and "dative" without being (synchronically) divisible into a "plural" morpheme and a "dative" morpheme.

B) On the other hand, "it is impossible to insert anything between the stem and the case marker except plural markers, restrictive particles Npakari, sapey, and dani, or, in some cases, another case marker. These limitations would be unlikely if these were pure particles or postpositions, because the latter are less bound with the stem."

He doesn't specify whether he believes that "agglutinative case marker" remains the best explanation through to Modern Japanese, incidentally, but it seems fair to at least tentatively assume that he does.

I checked the bibliography of the book for the references above, and here's what I found:

  • Konrad 1937: Not listed
  • Fel'dman 1979: Not listed, but there is this: "Fel'dman, Nataliia I. 1960. Iaponskii iazyk [The Japanese Language], Moskva: Nauka"
  • Syromiatnikov, Nikolai A. 1972. Drevneiaponskii iazyk [The Old Japanese language]. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Vardul' 1964: Not listed, but there is this: "Vardul', Igor' F. 1965. 'O prirode iaponskikh ganio [On the nature of Japanese ganio],' Morfologicheskaia tipologiia i problema klassifikatsii iazykov. [The morphological typology and the problem of language classification], Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, pp. 35-61" (I assume that "ganio" means "が、に、を")
  • Golovnin, Ivan V. 1970. "K voprosu o klassifikatsii leksiki iaponskogo iazyka [To the problem of the classification of parts of speech in the Japanese language]', Voprosy iaponskoi filologii 1:14-29.
  • Pashkovskii, A.A. 1957. 'K kharakteristike iaponskikh sintaksem [On the characteristic of one of the Japanese syntagmatic units]', Sovetskoe Vostokovedenie 2:89-123.
  • Alpatov, Vladimir M. 1981. 'Eshche raz o kharaktere ganio v sovremennom iaponskom iazyke [Once again on the nature of ganio in the modern Japanese language],' Voprosy iaponskoi filologii 5.34-41.


You can see the same argument, slightly expanded and put into a post-OJ context, in Vovin's A Reference Grammar of Classical Japanese Prose, here. Points of interest:

  • Vovin explicitly says that "the character of these case markers joining to the stem is not different from that of, let us say, Turkish". (He does this in the first book I cited, too, but I left it out for brevity; this was probably unwise.)


However, contrary to Modern Japanese and Turkish, in the Heian period most case markers had their own accent, independent of a preceding noun (Wenck 1959: 403; Martin 1987: 169-170); they therefore cannot be defined as agglutinative suffixes. I prefer to use the term 'agglutinative case marker', which is meant to show that these elements occupy an intermediate position between agglutinative suffixes and particles.

Also note that Vovin is talking about what he calls "case markers", and his list of same is: ga, no, ni, o, to, yori, kara, e, made. "Wa" is not on the list, and in fact on the next page he calls this "the topic particle" and uses it as an example of what "pure particles" are like.

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    'Agglutinative case marker' is not a very useful term. It sounds like he's describing clitics (see Zhen Li comment on the answer by Tangurena). – Gaston Ümlaut Mar 18 '12 at 23:13
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    Good point. I found more detail in another book of his, on Classical Japanese, and added it. Vovin does mean something specific (or, at the very least, bounded) by the term. Anyway, the point of my answer isn't so much to promote the pro-agglutinative view as to answer the question: Yes, it seems that many people have published such articles (in Russian), and here is a handy English-language nutshell overview of that school of thought. – Matt Mar 19 '12 at 0:03

To my knowledge, such a study wouldn't be especially useful. There are more than a 100 particles (all of which are placed after the word they operate on). A simple example would be a comparison of ya and to. Both mean and (in the context of a list, such as "apples and bananas"), but the context is that ya gives an open ended list ("apples and bananas [and other fruits]"), while to signifies that the list given is complete ("apples and bananas [and nothing else]").

I have also read that Japanese particles are pronounced as part of the noun they follow.

I never came across this in my studies of Japanese.

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  • Yes I didn't come across it in Japanese language studies but in online discussions of linguistics. Often the two come from quite different angles as I suggested also in my question about determiners in Japanese. I never heard of determiners when studying Japanese either yet when talking to linguists it seems some thing Japanese does have them and others think it does not... – hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 17:23
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    Most particles are phonological enclitics. The evidence for this is particularly strong, at least historically, for は and へ, which have undergone sound changes which affect word-internal intervocalic /h/. – Zhen Lin Sep 25 '11 at 1:03
  • Another point is that rules dictate the change (or lack thereof) in pitch accent between the noun and particle, whereas inter-noun-particle-pair pitch change is more often prosodic, i.e. determined by emphasis etc. – dainichi Feb 14 '12 at 15:10

I'm no linguistics expert, but I would say that the fact that Japanese particles combine: では、にも、への etc. points towards particles being an analytic construct rather than a morphological construct.


Another point is that the grammatical role particles come after the whole noun phrase, not (necessarily) the noun. Usually the noun phrase ends with the main noun, but there are exceptions, e.g. 彼だけが知っている秘密, a secret that only he knows.

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  • Well there are a bunch of different kinds of particles and some can combine in some ways. It's nothing like free combination of particles but it's an interesting point. There's a good question on the topic on japanese.SE : Are there cases when two or more particles will occur next to each other without intervening lexical words? – hippietrail Jan 29 '12 at 10:12
  • @hippietrail, thanks for the link. Interesting thread. So I'm guessing you were mostly thinking of the grammatical role particle as being part of the case-declined noun. The problem is that even the grammatical role particles sometimes (albeit rarely) combine, as in 将来への夢, dreams for the future. – dainichi Jan 29 '12 at 14:25
  • @hippietrail Another point is that the grammatical role particles come after the whole noun phrase, not (necessarily) the noun. Usually the noun phrase ends with the main noun, but there are exceptions, e.g. 彼だけが知っている秘密, a secret that only he knows. – dainichi Jan 29 '12 at 14:40
  • In fact my Japanese knowledge is too rudimentary to know any deeper but I read with interest the developments in both threads. – hippietrail Jan 29 '12 at 15:36

I have also read that Japanese particles are pronounced as part of the noun they follow.

I've never heard about particles being pronounced with the nouns they follow, but for what it's worth, when one is space-delimiting Japanese sentences, it is often suggested that one should group particles that way. For example 私は りんごが 好き です。 instead of 私 は りんご が 好き です。

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