'Japanese Linguistics': Insightful description meets valuable instruction

by Peter Backhaus

Contributing Writer

English books on the Japanese language are not in short supply, but this one is different. Being neither another monograph for specialists nor a how-to book for the airport reader, Mark Irwin and Matthew Zisk’s “Japanese Linguistics” is somewhere in between — and that’s what makes it such a useful read.

Japanese Linguistics, by Mark Irwin & Matthew Zisk.
286 pages

Apart from the core topics of linguistics — pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary — a number of other areas are covered. A whole chapter is dedicated to writing, where the authors not only provide an up-to-date description of the well-known complexities of putting Japanese on paper (or elsewhere), but also illustrate how the Japanese writing system has left its mark on the language as a whole.

Another noteworthy feature is the strong focus on Japanese in its social context. In fact, there are three full chapters on the topic, covering everything from anti-honorifics and “role language” to language software and nonverbal communication.

“Japanese Linguistics” is not only up-to-date, but also takes historical facts into account. For instance, the section “Grammar through Time” helps us see some grammatical quirks in a new light. And after reading this book, you will also understand where the “” in phrases like ohayō (good morning) and arigatō (thanks) comes from.

Taken together, “Japanese Linguistics” is a well-done blend of insightful description and valuable instruction. It will also make for a good textbook in undergraduate classes.

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