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Perception by Body versus Mind: An Alternative Analysis of 'Things' (Mono and Koto) in Japanese Discourse

Posted: 21 Nov 2008  

Nina Yoshida

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Date Written: November 20, 2008


In Japanese, there exist two distinct formal nouns roughly equivalent to the meaning 'thing' of English--namely, MONO and KOTO. Reference grammars commonly explain the choice between them as governed by the opposing semantic notions of "concrete" versus "abstract" (Martin 1975, McGloin 1989) or "tangible" versus "intangible" (Makino and Tsutsui 1989):

(1a) Iroiro-na KOTO (*MONO) o naratta.
various KOTO (*MONO) ACC learn:PST
'(I) learned various things.'
ACC =accusative; PST =past
(1b) Iroiro-na MONO (*KOTO) o katta.
various MONO (*KOTO) ACC buy:PST
'(I) bought various things.'

Such traditional analyses, however, would fall short in explaining the acceptability of sentences such as (2), where the logical referent of MONO does not appear to possess any obvious features of "concreteness" or "tangibility":

(2) Wakare wa kanashii MONODA.
separation TOP sad thing COP
'Parting is a sad thing / affair.'
TOP =topic; COP =copula

Both MONO and KOTO occur as elements in the MONODA and KOTODA constructions, compositionally consisting of a clause in the noun-modification or attributive form MONO/KOTO the copula DA. Past studies (Teramura 1981, Agetsuma 1991, Tsubone 1994, etc.) have noted the MONODA construction's pragmatic effects of conveying a wide range of speaker modality, or emotive affect, such as nostalgic reminiscences, conviction toward a natural truth, deep-seated desires, disbelief, indirect commands, etc. In contrast, KOTODA's capacities as a modal are limited to marking mild disbelief and indirect commands. These studies, however, have neglected to explain what specific semantic features inherent to MONO (but not KOTO) endow this element to imbue the construction with such far-reaching pragmatic capabilities.

This study presents a unitary analysis to account for the discourse modal functions of MONO and KOTO in Modern Japanese. It alternatively proposes that the opposing semantics of a "physically perceived/unrationalized" existence versus a "cognitively conceived/rationalized" existence are the key, definitive features distinguishing MONO from KOTO in instances when they are to take on a referential reading. Namely, the former references an existence perceptible via the body, and the latter, to that conceived within the mind. It furthermore claims that when MONO and KOTO are employed in the MONODA and KOTODA constructions, where they receive a non-referential reading, the semantics signaled by the two "shifts" by way of metaphorical inferencing (Space > Time) from denoting an entity with a spatial orientation, to one with temporal persistence. Moreover, via metonymic processes, "existence" comes to denote a particular type of epistemic truth or deontic obligation: One that has been established socially or collectively, with MONODA (physical = social; unrationalized = unindividuated), or by a higher authority known only to the speaker, with KOTODA (conceived within [speaker's] mind = identifiable to speaker [but not hearer])

A contextualized analysis of MONODA and KOTODA tokens as they occur in authentic Japanese discourse data (e.g. telephone conversations, broadcast interviews and news reports, Internet blogs, television dramas, etc.) is presented in further illustration and support of the claims made above.

Keywords: grammaticalization, japanese

Suggested Citation

Yoshida, Nina, Perception by Body versus Mind: An Alternative Analysis of 'Things' (Mono and Koto) in Japanese Discourse (November 20, 2008). 9th Conference on Conceptual Structure, Discourse, & Language (CSDL9). Available at SSRN:

Nina Yoshida (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) ( email )

405 Hilgard Avenue
Box 951361
Los Angeles, CA 90095
United States

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