My understanding for this site is that it is to help people learn Japanese, and that it should be open and welcoming to people learning basics.

However, I've noticed a fair amount of heavy linguistic terminology which is like having to learn a whole separate field of study on top of Japanese. Like this example from a recent question:

に can be used either as a dative case marker or as an element leading the agentive-phrase in passive.

... say what?

That kind of explanation is probably fascinating to linguists, but am I crazy in thinking that it makes Japanese into an academic exercise for experts and not something practical for people who want to experience life in the language?

I'm a native English speaker and consider myself articulate, but that statement is so steeped in linguistic terminology I have no idea what it is talking about. Or, more accurately, it's that it's so heavy with terminology that I am too overwhelmed with apathy to try and understand it. I want to learn Japanese, not how to describe Japanese in English.

That said, I know there are some linguists on this site that have provided interesting insights which I enjoyed, so it's not that there is nothing for the language learner in information from linguists. It's a matter of presentation: Can a Japanese learner, especially a new one, be expected to understand it? Do we really expect everyone who wants to learn Japanese to know what "dative" or "agentive-phrase" means?

Wikipedia tries (and admittedly often fails) at maintaining levels of readability and accessibility so that non-experts can understand the information offered.

Should we not aspire to the same thing?

Perhaps the best solution is to add a tag like "linguistics" so that members can specify what kind of learning they hope to achieve? Personally, if I knew if a questioner would want to get into the linguistics aspect, I would not attempt to answer or be involved in the discussion.

So, in short, my question is two fold:

  1. Should this site aspire to make all questions and answers accessible?

  2. Should there be a tag or some form of guidance to help members distinguish academia from practicality?

Please note: nowhere in this have I said, or do I mean, that linguistic discussion should be banned. I am merely suggesting it be made either more accessible and/or identifiable so that people who don't find it useful or engaging can circumvent it.

Update: A new point I thought of. Isn't the aim of this site to be of help to everyone who wants to improve their Japanese? The problem with overly technical linguistic terms is that it is exclusionary. People who understand it benefit, those who don't get nothing from it. However, in the opposite case, non-linguistic answers are accessible to everyone, including linguists.

So it seems to me that if the goal of this site is to be helpful to all who might use it, the onus is on the technical linguists to make their knowledge accessible to all, where accessible = readable without having to have words that even native English speakers don't understand.

Otherwise the linguists are using a forum built for everyone to do their own thing within it.

Agree, I don't get that too, but we can't tell people not to use linguistic terms, IMHO. I think, All we can do is ask them what that mean in comments, when we don't understand something that they posted. –  YOU Jul 7 '11 at 9:23
Would it be considered inappropriate to downvote an answer because it is too obscure? –  Questioner Jul 7 '11 at 9:45
@Dave M G: Look at the tooltip on the downvote arrow. If you think that fits with what you think of the answer, then do it. First I would make sure that my question is clear about what I'm looking for though. –  repecmps Jul 7 '11 at 9:48
I think (sorry for dwelling over that again…) that it is related to my latest question on meta: what kind of answer is the asker looking for? I'm pretty sure that a single question asked by @foo and @bar calls for completely different answers… –  Axioplase Jul 7 '11 at 12:15
I thought we only had one linguist here. Boaz. Apart from him I sometimes describe myself as an armchair linguist because I take an interest in it but have no formal qualifications. Should I ask people not to use terms only familiar to people who have formally studied Japanese which are obscure to me? Should I think them exclusionary? Do you feel yourself an overlooked minority in comparison to the linguists? Should i feel like a minority because I never paid for a Japanese lesson? Why not anybody just ask for clarification when they don't know what something means? It happens to us all. –  hippietrail Jul 8 '11 at 11:05
@hippietrail: No one is saying anything about minorities or any kind of malicious motivations. The case I am making is: 1. I think we all want this site to grow with more members as more participation means more helpful information. 2. What kind of discussion happens now determines who joins. 3. An excess of overly technical jargon will make this site appear more exclusionary than it is, thus defeating the objective in point 1. That's all I'm saying. –  Questioner Jul 8 '11 at 16:01
I think if we want this site to grow we should just ask more questions and give them more answers - of all types. I think you've only pointed to one question which now seems to have answers on multiple levels. I think your fears are unjustified. Like on every other SE site neither every question nor every answer will appeal to every user. If we succeed you may not even be able to read them all! –  hippietrail Jul 9 '11 at 4:18
@hippietrail: What if someone were to give an answer in Swedish? Would that be acceptable? There are probably some Swedish users on the site who might find the use of Swedish words helpful. –  Questioner Jul 9 '11 at 5:26
@Dave: No that would be silly and I have no idea what you're even getting at. –  hippietrail Jul 9 '11 at 5:39
@hippietrail: It's silly because most users of this site wouldn't understand the words, and so it excludes most users from getting any benefit from the explanation. Which is exactly why it is silly for linguists to throw around terms like "agentive-phase" which is only useful to them and no one else. I'm for having linguists take linguist-related discussion to a linguist related site, the same way I'm for Swedish speakers to have their own site about learning Japanese. –  Questioner Jul 9 '11 at 5:47
@Dave: You're making a Mount Everest out of one phrase in one good faith answer to one question that got other good answers. –  hippietrail Jul 9 '11 at 18:11
@hippietrail: That's a subjective deflection away from the point that I guess you don't have a counter for. Linguistic terminology is as useful on this site as Swedish in that it serves only those that understand it. If there were just one Swedish answer, it would be downvoted and the person would be asked not to do it. –  Questioner Jul 10 '11 at 13:25
@Dave: Except that the definition of this site is not "for students, teachers, and Swedish speakers wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language" but "for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Japanese language". –  hippietrail Jul 10 '11 at 19:02
@hippietrail: Yes, which is why I've been clear that I'm not against linguists, but against excessive linguistic terminology. The description in the "About" section of the site describes who the site is for, but the debate about how they use it is still open. Students and teachers don't have terminology particular to themselves so it's not an issue with them. What I am hoping to see on Japanese SE is discussion on language where any one of the three named groups can peruse questions and answers and hope to benefit. Not a site where two thirds can't understand one third of the answers. –  Questioner Jul 11 '11 at 4:18
Students and teachers might not have special terminology particular to themselves but users of this site do. 形容動詞 and 名詞 for instance. I believe I am in the "two thirds" who can't understand the "one third" of answers using them. \-: –  hippietrail Aug 31 '11 at 7:11

9 Answers 9

Can I be wishy-washy and say that doses of linguistics can, at times, be useful?

If someone wants to know how to stop a car, you could legitimately respond with, "Press the brake pedal." This solves your problem 99% of the time. But you could also say, "You need to increase the hydraulic pressure in the brake line so that the piston pushes the brake pads into contact with the rotor, thereby converting rotational energy into heat and slowing down the wheel." To which most people would reply, "Oh. Uh, how do I do that?" And at this point you're back to, "Press the brake pedal."

Both answers have issues. The problem with the first is that it leaves out too much. The brake pedal becomes an infallible magic wand to stop the car. If you don't know that brakes work by using friction to "burn off" energy, you probably don't see how brakes could fail if they get too hot (by overusing them when going down a steep incline) or if they get wet (by driving through deep water). The problem with the second is that it favors technical knowledge (how and why the brakes work) over practical knowledge (how to use the brakes).

The solution is a balanced answer that includes technical knowledge when it is necessary to give a thorough understanding of a concept as well as practical knowledge for knowing when and where to apply said concept.

Fair enough. I did not say in my question that linguistic answers be banned. However, if you compare my answer in the cited question, you can see I am going with a completely different approach. If the questionor, however, really wanted an answer that uses terms like "dative" and "agentive-phrase", then I have completely wasted my time trying to answer in my way. So what I'm saying is, people looking for linguistic discussions should declare it. And, if I may be so bold, the default should be answers that necomers to the site can engage in. –  Questioner Jul 7 '11 at 17:04
@Dave M G: Understood, but I don't think it should be necessary to explicitly declare that the questioner seeks a linguistic answer. This should be clear from the question itself. In your linked example, I found sawa's answer (in its original form, as it has gone through several revs) to be inappropriate for the question. This is evident in how many people (including myself) have commented about its inscrutability. But if you want a way to keep answers that revolve around esoteric terms from being upvoted, I'm not sure what you can do, save for commenting, which you did in this case. –  Derek Schaab Jul 7 '11 at 18:02
@Dave M G: Incidentally, on the topic of accessibility, this is precisely why I want ruby tag support, because newcomers shouldn't have to reconfigure their browsers or bust out the kanji dictionary just to read an answer. So I'm with you on that count. –  Derek Schaab Jul 7 '11 at 18:07
It would be ideal if the preference for linguistic technicality was apparent in the question, but I'm not sure that can be relied upon. After all, it's not just the OP that shapes the discussion. I think what can happen is one respondant posts something technical, and then a few like minded linguists upvote it, and then subsequent visitors to that question get the idea that this isn't a discussion for them. This is about behaviour, so I doubt there's a final technical solution. But, do we have a "linguistics" tag? Maybe we should, and could encourage its use. –  Questioner Jul 7 '11 at 18:16
@Dave M G: It kind of sounds like we need tagging for answers, really. So you could go into a question and say, "Show me the stuff from the elevated-forehead bunch," or, "Give me down-to-earth answers any old Joe Tanaka would get." –  Derek Schaab Jul 7 '11 at 18:21
That could possibly help, though it's unlikely to happen given the coding required. Also, it seems that might might be against the Stack Exchange ethos in that only one answer can be marked correct. So what would it mean to have two categories of answer, but only one correct answer? –  Questioner Jul 8 '11 at 4:57
@Dave - Another idea might be to just shuffle the more linguistically oriented questions over to a linguistics Stack Exchange site once one is up and running in the same way theoretical computer science questions are shuffled off the Stack Overflow site. –  rob Jul 8 '11 at 13:29
@Rob: Shuffling questions from ja.SE to linguistics.SE may also further lower the "questions per day" count here if it's felt there are too many. If it's not felt there are too many this is all a storm in a teacup. –  hippietrail Jul 10 '11 at 11:38
@Rob: I am in favour of that. In my ignorance, I thought there already was a linguistics site on SE. Once one comes up, that will be my proposal. –  Questioner Jul 10 '11 at 13:30
Also, getting more back to Derek's original answer... I am not saying that linguists and the valuable information they hold be unwelcome on the site. Very much the opposite. I'd like to give a shout-out to Boaz, who I think is a linguist, but from the answers of his I've seen, he does what a good teacher does and makes what he knows accessible. No, what I'm against is simply linguistic terminology. –  Questioner Jul 10 '11 at 13:35

The answer to this question lies in a simple point:

Know your audience

If a person wants a linguistic answer, chances are they have hinted at such through the use of certain terminology in their question.

On the other hand, if a person says

Can someone explain the meaning of んです? Why not just say です instead? I think it's something about emotion or confirmation but it still doesn't really make sense to me.

then I think it would be pretty obnoxious to respond with any linguistic terminology whatsoever.

Most importantly:

If you are unsure, put any linguistic discussion in a side-note at the bottom of the post.

I agree with your last statement. There's nothing wrong with having a "short answer" and a "long answer" in the same post! –  Amanda S Jul 12 '11 at 6:09

Edit: Revision 1 of this answer was distracted too much by the example given in the question. The point of the question is much more interesting than what the example suggested, and I decided to ignore the example.

I do not think that your example corresponds to what you are talking about, but let me just go to your two concrete questions.

1.Should this site aspire to make all questions and answers accessible?

Yes. But “accessible” does not necessarily mean “no expert terminology.” Sometimes introducing linguistic terms makes an advanced concept easier to understand. Indeed, that is exactly why linguists use those terms in the first place.

Introduce linguistic terms if that makes an answer easier and/or clearer. I think that this is how this site has been working so far and should work in the future.

(Needless to say, we should be aware that users of this website are not necessarily linguists, and therefore the criteria deciding whether using some linguistic terms is suitable in a certain context or not are different here from in a research paper in linguistics.)

2.Should there be a tag or some form of guidance to help members distinguish academia from practicality?

No, please. Using a tag to specify which way an asker prefers (1) is not what a tag is meant to be for, (2) sometimes gives too little information to tell the suitable way to answer, and (3) is easy to overlook. Also note that it is natural that one question can be answered in several different ways, and it is not necessarily bad to have more than one answer to a question.

@DaveMG: Give me a real example, and I may take your criticism seriously. Currently you are just ranting about some post which you failed to understand. Or in your favorite words, you are posting a noise. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 7 '11 at 17:08
@DaveMG: I now understand the point of your question, which is indeed interesting. I really do not think that the example in your question works as an example, though. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 7 '11 at 18:07
Thank you for reforming your answer. I can see the rationale for your second point in that tags shouldn't be used to dictate the form of answers. On your first point, though, while I absolutely agree that terminology should be used when it helps explain an answer, there is just no way that I can believe anyone outside of linguistics knows terms like "agentive-phase". So my argument is that while I believe expert terms can be used to clarify, they can also be used to obfuscate. They can take a potentially good answer and make it obtuse if no care is taken to include non-linguists. –  Questioner Jul 7 '11 at 18:26
@DaveMG: I agree that linguistic terms should be used with care. I do not think that sawa assumed that the reader knows what “agentive-phase” means in his/her answer (and that that is why he/she explains what it means in the part following the quoted sentence), but ultimately I do not know the truth. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 7 '11 at 19:02
It's going to require more work from some of you, but I suggest then that linguistic jargon be linked to an explanation. I really appreciated how Sawa gave a link explaining "linguistic prescription" in a recent reply on 理由/わけ. I guess this would do no harm. Or even better, if SE technically allows it, have a jargon wiki with commonly used terms? –  Axioplase Jul 8 '11 at 1:52
@Axioplase: When there is a suitable external explanation, it is appropriate to link to one. We cannot hope that every expert term has a suitable explanation readily available somewhere, though. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 8 '11 at 18:34
@Axioplase, @Tsuyoshi: Also, I would add that since this is a site where people are already trying to learn new terms (in Japanese), adding another layer of research is creating more work of the wrong kind for the aspiring student. I'll admit, though, that it's an art, not a science, and so there will be some borderline cases where a link to a grammatical term would be merited. –  Questioner Jul 11 '11 at 4:22

I am a learner but also linguistically minded. People learn in different ways. Some people can pick up languages just by talking and listening. Others need to know how they work. I know I'm not in the majority but I fall into the second camp. I know a fair amount of linguistics terminology but not as much as an actual linguist. On the other hand I am certain I know less Japanese teaching terminology than anybody studying Japanese in a traditional language course.

I think people should answer in the way they are able to answer and if one answer is too technical for some community members then it may very well be supplemented by a less technical one. We aim after all for 2.5 answers per question on average.

But please don't upvote answers you can't understand because they look smart. Upvote answers you agree with (-:

Let me make sure this seldom viewed earlier question of mine is linked here: How much linguistics is within the scope of our site?


I agree. When I first arrived here, I thought it would be a site geared more toward non-linguists.

There is the danger that the barrier to entry (for new users,) might be too high if there are too many (possibly obscure,) linguistic terms being thrown here and there... even though, linguistic terms can help narrow down a concept. But it almost requires learners to learn both the world of linguistics as well as the world of Japanese... all at the same time... which does not seem to be a natural way of learning a language.

In response to the two parts of your question, here's my take:

1) Yes; answers should at least attempt to be accessible to non-linguists. Perhaps it would help if linguistic terms were placed in parentheses after a concept is explained in more basic terms.

For example: It is a person, place, or thing (a noun).

2) Yes; tags would, at least, be an easy way to separate some purely-linguistic questions from non-purely-linguistic questions.

By keeping answers accessible, it keeps the barrier to entry a little bit lower for new users. It also helps to provide somewhat of a "safe-haven" for users to ask (sincere) questions without fear of being ridiculed for not knowing terms from a separate branch of studies (whether the user comes from a background of Japanese language, or linguistics.)


haha, nice example. That made me laugh. Lots of people will upvote that kind of answer although they don't understand. It looks smart.

To answer with my personal opinion, it's the job of the person asking the question to detail what she/he is looking for. This is a Q&A site. You want an answer that solves your problem and that you can understand. (the linguistics tag is already there for those who want that kind of explanation)

Politely comment that you don't understand what is said and edit your question with what you're looking for.

I believe that linguistics should never be used to teach a language.

It's a language for researchers. Not for students or teachers.

Funny! By taking linguistics classes, I realised that I preferred languages :) –  Axioplase Jul 7 '11 at 12:16
I believe that linguistics should be used to teach a language for people with an aptitude for linguistics. –  hippietrail Jul 7 '11 at 14:11
I totally agree with your answer until the bit where you say people should never teach languages in the way that works best for me. Then I totally disagree (-: By the way do you consider terms like "noun" and "verb" linguistics? What about "inflection"? What about "tense" or "aspect"? Where would you draw the line? –  hippietrail Jul 7 '11 at 14:13
@hippietrail: You're confusing grammar and linguistics. After years of working with teachers at university level, I can tell you that 0 of them will ever consider making a sentence like the one above to explain (at any level) the passive form of 怒る. Linguistics is a field for researching a language. It works as teaching if you already know the language very well (and its grammar) and if you've studied the specific terminology. "direct/indirect object" is grammar, "dative case" is linguistics. –  repecmps Jul 7 '11 at 14:44
“Dative case marker,” “lead (a phrase)”, and “passive” are grammatical terms, and I think that so is “agentive,” and therefore I do not think that you are really talking about the difference between grammar and linguistics. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 7 '11 at 19:09
@Tsuyoshi Ito: 'dative case' is a syntactic term (syntax also being a branch of linguistics) When normal people talk about 'grammar', they mean construction of a sentence in general and this is what I'm talking about here. Linguists use this term in more specific contexts (generative grammar, transformational grammar...etc.), never on its own. Here I'm talking about traditional grammar used for teaching in schools and universities. This is what we should be using. –  repecmps Jul 8 '11 at 0:05
@ito: dative may be grammar it may not be. But as a native english speaker, and a learner of Japanese, i have not heard this term once in my studies. Now i may be uneducated, i may not be, but that word not being part of the common lexicon one coudl argue that it becomes a barrier to users of this site. –  Mark Hosang Jul 8 '11 at 4:46
@Mark: Exactly. –  Questioner Jul 8 '11 at 4:58
I never studied linguistics officially nor studied a language officially beyond early highschool stage. I poke around in both in my own time, in my own way. So I don't really know what a language teacher would say or what a linguist would say. Only what I would say. To the extent I know the languages I know I learned them by immersion and self study. I do know what "dative case" means. Probably primarily from learning German. I would've thought it more a grammatical term than a syntactic one. I thought grammar is overall or mainly inflections and syntax is mainly word order to a normal person. –  hippietrail Jul 8 '11 at 11:00

I don't think there's anything wrong with someone adding an easy-to-understand answer in response to an overly-technical-advanced-terminology answer on the same question. Those terms might not mean anything to us, but I'm sure they're used to refer to specific things for linguists, and somebody might find the advanced user helpful.

In the past, when someone has given an answer above my head, I've just simply commented that I don't understand it and they've either edited it or someone else has posted an alternate answer which explains the topic in layman terms.

We don't need to force any kind of tagging restriction. The site itself is capable of teaching multiple audiences at the same time. If the question asker doesn't understand an answer, he'll just accept a different one. If the readers don't understand an answer, they'll just vote up one of the others (I would hope they don't vote down unless something is wrong, rather than based on if they understand or not).


A good example of an answer which initially obfuscated the answer but immediately afterward made the answer to the question more clear.

When learners of a language (any language) are in the "intermediate" phase, I believe it is good for these terminology to be used to show the commonality and differences between language A and language B. Especially when making the transition from thinking in terms of language A to thinking in terms of language B.

I agree. Without these technical terms it is hard to talk about a concept between two languages. Abstraction is important in this case. –  Flaw Mar 5 '12 at 15:15

My only issue that your suggestion could lead to two of the same question, one with a japanese learner response and one with a linguists response. Is that ok? Personally i think having mutiples of the same question is not a good idea. Though would really like it if there was a way to pick two answers.

How does the English site deal with this btw?

Mark: Actually, I would be more or less okay with that. In fact, I would be okay with an entirely different Stack Exchange site where linguists discuss Japanese. My understanding of this site is that it is to help people learn Japanese, and should not be exclusive of anyone who has that goal. The problem as I see it is that a lot of linguistic discussion excludes some learners. Actually... that makes me think I should update my question... –  Questioner Jul 8 '11 at 5:00
The site description includes the word linguists or linguistics, I can't recall which off the top of my head. My understanding of this site is that it is to help everyone who has questions to ask about the Japanese language. –  hippietrail Jul 8 '11 at 11:09

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