If nouns are the bones of a language, verbs are the blood that keeps it moving. The thing about Japanese is that there are so many of them that it is close to impossible to know them all, particularly if we include combinations of two single verbs. The good news is that the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL) has recently published a large-scale database of these so-called compound verbs, available free of charge and with translations in English, Chinese and Korean.

The database contains no less than 2,759 compound verbs, including anything from abarekomu (暴れ込む, to enter a place by force, e.g., a mob) to zuriochiru (ずり落ちる, drag down and fall off, e.g., trousers).

Included are only fully lexicalized verbs, not ad hoc formations with second verbs such as –naosu (~直す, do something again) or –hajimeru (~始める, start something). This makes sense because otherwise the list might quickly become endless. Also, care has been taken to include only words that are in actual usage, so you can be sure you don’t sound like a person from the Meiji era when you use them. All entries are accompanied by example sentences, and directly linked to NINJAL’s online Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese, where more examples can be found.

Scrolling through the 56 pages of the list, one of the first things you may notice is that some verbs seem particularly eager to get themselves combined. The verb miru (見る, see), for instance, appears as the first verb in no less than 59 compounds that describe different ways of seeing, such as miageru (見上げる, look up at something) and mikaesu (見返す, look back at someone). Kiku (聞く, hear) is a little less productive, with only 26 compounds. These include both actions of listening very intently, such as kikiiru (聞き入る) and kikikomu (聞き込む), and rather cursory or intentionally non-attentive ways of taking something in, like in kikinogasu (聞き逃す) and kikinarasu (聞き流す).

The most frequent verb in first position is toru (取る, take), which forms a total of 72 compound verbs describing how something can be taken up (toriageru, 取り上げる), handled (toriatsukau, 取り扱う), exchanged (torikawasu, 取り交わす), retaken (torimodosu, 取り戻す), canceled (torikesu, 取り消す), withdrawn (torisageru, 取り下げる), dropped (toriotosu, 取り落とす) or accidentally allowed to escape when one was so close to catching it (torinigasu, 取り逃がす), among others.

As to the verb that occurs in second position, its role is to further specify the first verb of the compound. One candidate particularly apt for this job is the transitive/intransitive pair ageru (上げる, raise) and agaru (上がる, rise). In total, there are 183 compound verbs that use either of these in second position. What makes the pair so popular is not merely the capacity to “up” something, such as aforementioned miageru. At least as important is its ability to express completeness of an action, as in araiageru (洗い上げる), amiageru (編み上げる), yudeageru (茹で上げる) and iriageru (煎り上げる), which respectively express the end of some washing, knitting, boiling or roasting chore.

But the champion of all modifying verbs is komu (込む), which occurs no less than 255 times in second position. It is used when some out-in movement is to be described. One example, which everyone who uses public transport must be familiar with, is the verb kakekomu (駆け込む) that means “rush into” and is a standard component in train and station announcements that warn against doing just that: “駆け込み乗車は危険です(kakekomi jōsha wa kiken desu, It’s dangerous to rush into trains).”

A second, equally dangerous compound verb with komu in second position is furikomu (振り込む), which means to put money into an account, usually by bank transfer. Lately the term has achieved some notoriety due to the continuing occurrence of remittance frauds, in which people are tricked into transferring large sums of money to an unknown account. This crime is commonly known as furikome sagi (振り込め詐欺).

NINJAL’s database is sure to contain quite a couple of verbs that even advanced learners may never have heard of. Or did you know the term kajirichirasu (かじり散らす), which means “to make dirty by nibbling a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” like in the case of sweets or snacks? And what about the two terms waraikokeru (笑いこける) and waraikorogeru (笑い転げる)? They both describe slightly differing ways of laughing one’s head off.

The database is available at vvlexicon.ninjal.ac.jp/db. Check it out when you next come across some unfamiliar compound verb, or just want to enhance your “verbal” competence in Japanese overall.

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