Japanese equivalents of adjectives

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The Japanese language does not have words that function as adjectives in a syntactic sense – that is to say that tree diagrams of Japanese sentences can be constructed without employing adjective phrases.[citation needed] Nevertheless, there are words that function as adjectives in a semantic sense. This article deals with those words.

Types of adjective[edit]

In Japanese, nouns and verbs can modify nouns, with nouns taking the 〜の particles when functioning attributively (in the genitive case), and verbs in the attributive form (連体形 rentaikei). These are considered separate classes of words, however.

Most of the words that can be considered to be adjectives in Japanese fall into one of two categories – variants of verbs, and nouns:

  • adjective (Japanese: 形容詞, keiyōshi, literally "adjective"), or i-adjectives
These can be considered specialized verbs, and have a conjugating ending -i which can become, for example, past or negative. For example, atsui (暑い) "hot":
暑い日 (Atsui hi) ("a hot day")
今日は暑い。(Kyō wa atsui.) ("Today is hot.")
These can be considered a form of noun; these attach to a form of the copula, which then inflects, but use 〜な -na (rather than the genitive 〜の) when modifying a noun. For example, hen (変) "strange":
変な人 (Hen-na hito) ("a strange person")
彼は変だ。(Kare wa hen da.) ("he is strange.")

Both the predicative forms (終止形 shūshikei "terminal form") and attributive forms (連体形 rentaikei) of adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns can be analyzed as verb phrases, making the attributive forms of adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns relative clauses, rather than adjectives. According to this analysis, Japanese has no syntactic adjectives.

Japanese adjectives that do not fall into either of these categories are usually grouped into a grab-bag category:

  • attributives (連体詞, rentaishi, literally "attributive")
These may only occur before nouns, not in a predicative position. They are various in derivation and word class, and are generally analyzed as variants of more basic classes, where this specific form (possibly a fossil) can only be used in restricted settings. For example, ōkina (大きな) "big" (variant of 大きい):
大きな事(Ōkina koto) ("a big thing")

A couple of small sub-categories can be distinguished in these categories, reflecting former grammatical distinctions or constructions which no longer exist:

  • -shii adjectives (form of -i adjectives, see below)
  • -yaka na adjectives (see below)
  • -raka na adjectives (see below)
  • taru adjectives (ト・タル形容動詞, to,taru keiyōdōshi, literally "to, taru adjectival noun")
These are a variant of the common na-nominals (adjectival noun; see article for naming) that developed in Late Old Japanese and have mostly died out, surviving in a few cases as fossils; they are usually classed as a form of 形容動詞 (adjectival noun), as the Japanese name indicates.
These are words that were traditionally earlier forms of na-nominals, but that followed a path similar to taru adjectives, surviving in a few cases as fossils. These are generally classed as rentaishi.



Adjectival verbs (形容詞 keiyōshi) end with い i (but never えい ei) in base form. They may predicate sentences and inflect for past, negative, etc. As they head verb phrases, they can be considered a type of verbal (verb-like part of speech). Their inflections are different and not so numerous as full verbs. Conversely, the negative plain form of a verb is an adjective: it ends in 〜ない -na-i, which then inflects as an i-adjective.

The stem of i-adjectives can combine (prepend on the left), similar to the stem form (-masu stem) of verbs, though this is less common than for verbs. Conversely, nouns or verb stems can sometimes prepend i-adjectives, or two i-adjectives can combine, forming compound modifiers; these are much less common than Japanese compound verbs. Common examples include omo-shiro-i (面白い?, interesting) "face-whitening" (noun + i-adjective) and zuru-gashiko-i (狡賢い?, sly) "crafty-clever" (i-adjective stem + i-adjective), while haya-tochiri (早とちり?, going off half-cocked) "fast-fumble" (i-adjective stem + verb stem) shows an adjective stem joining to form a noun.


A number of i-adjectives end in -shii (〜しい?) (sometimes written -sii). These are overwhelmingly words for feelings, like kanashii (悲しい?, sad) or ureshii (嬉しい?, happy). These were originally a separate class of adjectives, dating at least to Old Japanese, where the two classes are known as -ku (〜く?) and -shiku (〜しく?), corresponding to -i and -shii; see Old Japanese: Adjectives. However, they merged over the course of Late Middle Japanese, and now shii-adjectives are simply a form of i-adjectives; see Late Middle Japanese: Adjectives. The distinction, although no longer meaningful in pronunciation, is still reflected by the writing system, where -し- is still written out in hiragana, as in atarashii (新しい?, new).


Adjectival nouns (形容動詞 keiyō-dōshi) always occur with a form of the copula, traditionally considered part of the adjectival noun itself. The only difference between nouns and adjectival nouns is in the attributive form, where nouns take no and adjectives take na. This has led many linguists to consider them a type of nominal (noun-like part of speech). Together with this form of the copula they may also predicate sentences and inflect for past, negative, etc.

嫌い kirai may be the only non-on'yomi-based na-adjective that ends with a hiragana い i. The rest are written in kanji so they have no 送り仮名 okuriganai. 嫌い kirai derives from 嫌う kirau, hence the exception.[1]

-yaka na adjectives[edit]

There are a number of na adjectives ending in 〜やか -yaka, particularly for subjective words (compare -i adjectives ending in -shii). This is believed to be a combination of two suffixes 〜や -ya and 〜か -ka, where -ya mean "softness" and -ka meant "apparent, visible" (similar to modern 〜そう -sō, which is also followed by 〜な), hence the combination -ya-ka meant "appears somewhat ..., looks slightly ...". This was believed to have been used in the Nara era, and have become particularly popular in the Heian period, but is no longer productive.[2] In some cases the original word is now only used (or almost always used) in the -yaka form, such as 鮮やか aza-yaka "vivid, brilliant", 穏やか oda-yaka "calm, gentle", and 爽やか sawa-yaka "fresh, clear", while in other cases the word is used in isolation, such as 雅 miyabi "elegant, graceful", which is used alongside 雅やか miyabi-yaka "elegant, graceful", and in other cases a related word also exists, such as 賑やか nigi-yaka "bustling, busy" and the verb 賑わう nigi-wau "be bustling, be busy". The most basic of these is 賑やか nigi-yaka "bustling, busy", but many of these are everyday words. Due to the -yaka being originally a suffix, it is written as okurigana, even though the compound word may now be a fixed unit.

-raka na adjectives[edit]

Similarly, there are also a few na adjectives ending in 〜らか -raka, of similar origin. These are generally less subjective, but declined in popularity relative to the -yaka construction in the Heian period[2] Notable examples include 明らか aki-raka "clear, obvious" and 柔らか/軟らか yawa-raka "soft, gentle". As with -yaka words, the 〜らか is written out as okurigana.


A variant of na adjectives exist, which take 〜たる -taru when functioning attributively (as an adjective, modifying a noun), and 〜と -to when functioning adverbally (when modifying a verb),[3] instead of the 〜な -na and 〜に -ni which are mostly used with na adjectives. taru adjectives do not predicate a sentence (they cannot end a sentence, as verbs and i-adjectives can) or take the copula (as na-adjectives and nouns can), but must modify a noun or verb. Note that sometimes na adjectives take a 〜と, and Japanese sound symbolisms generally take a (sometimes optional) 〜と, though these are different word classes.

There are very few of these words,[4] and they usually are considered somewhat stiff or archaic; this word class is generally not covered in textbooks for foreign language learners of Japanese. One of the most common is 堂々 dōdō "magnificent, stately". These are referred to in Japanese as ト・タル形容動詞 (to, taru keiyōdōshi) or タルト型活用 (taruto-kata katsuyō – “taru, to form conjugation”).

See 形容動詞#タルト型活用 for discussion in Japanese. Historically, these developed in Late Old Japanese as a variant of na adjectives,[5][6] but the form mostly died out; the remaining taru adjectives are fossils.


There are also a few naru adjectives such as 単なる tannaru "mere, simple" or 聖なる seinaru "holy", which developed similarly to taru-adjectives.[5] As with taru adjectives, these cannot predicate or take the copula, but must modify a noun (though not a verb – these only modify nouns via なる, not verbs via ×に), and often occur in set phrases, such as Mother Nature (母なる自然 haha-naru shizen?). In Late Old Japanese, tari adjectives developed as a variant of nari adjectives. Most nari adjectives became na adjectives in Modern Japanese, while tari adjectives either died out or survived as taru adjective fossils, but a few nari adjectives followed a similar path to the tari adjectives and became naru adjective fossils. They are generally classed into rentaishi.


Attributives (rentaishi) are few in number, and unlike the other words, are strictly limited to modifying nouns. Rentaishi never predicate sentences. They derive from other word classes, and so are not always given the same treatment syntactically. For example, ano (あの, "that") can be analysed as a noun or pronoun a plus the genitive ending no; aru (ある or 或る, "a certain"), saru (さる, "a certain"), and iwayuru (いわゆる, "so-called") can be analysed as verbs (iwayuru being an obsolete passive form of the verb iu (言う) "to speak"); and ōkina (大きな, "big") can be analysed as the one remaining form of the obsolete adjectival noun ōki nari. Attributive onaji (同じ, "the same") is sometimes considered to be a rentaishi, but it is usually analysed as simply an irregular adjectival verb (note that it has an infinitive onajiku). The final form onaji, which occurs with the copula, is usually considered to be a noun, albeit one derived from the adjectival verb.

It can be seen that attributives are analysed variously as nouns, verbs, or adjectival nouns.

Archaic forms[edit]

Various archaic forms from Middle Japanese remain as fossils, primarily uses of -shi (〜し?) or -ki (〜き?) forms that in Modern Japanese would usually be -i (〜い?). Everyday examples notably include yoshi (良し?, good, ok) and nashi (無し?, nothing) – in modern grammar yoi (良い?) and nai (無い?), respectively. Similarly, furuki yoki (古き良き?, good old (days etc.)) uses archaic forms of furui (古い?, old) and yoi (良い?, good).



Adjectival verbs (i-adjectives) are inflected by dropping the -i from the end and replacing it with the appropriate ending. Adjectival verbs are made more polite by the use of です desu. です desu is added directly after the inflected plain form and has no syntactic function; its only purpose is to make the utterance more polite (see Honorific speech in Japanese).

present past present neg. past neg.
i adjective あつ atsui あつかった atsukatta あつくない atsuku nai あつくなかった atsuku nakatta
polite i adj. あついです atsui desu あつかったです atsukatta desu あつくないです atsuku nai desu
あつくありません atsuku arimasen
あつくなかったです atsuku nakatta desu
あつくありませんでした atsuku arimasen deshita

良い ii "good" is a special case because it comes from the kanji 良い yoi. In present tense it is read as いい ii but since it derives from よい yoi all the inflections use that instead. For example, 良いですね ii desu ne "[It] is good" becomes 良かったですね yokatta desu ne "[It] was good". かっこいい kakkoi "cool" also fits the same category because it is a mash-up of 格好 kakkou and いい ii.[1]

i adjectives like 安 yasui ("cheap") have the い i changed to ければ kereba to change them to conditional form, e.g. 安ければ yasukereba; 安くなければ yasukunakereba.


Adjectival nouns (na-adjectives) are inflected by dropping the -na and replacing it with the appropriate form of the verb da, the copula. As with adjectival verbs, adjectival nouns are also made more polite by the use of です desu. です desu is used in its role as the polite form of the copula, therefore replacing da (the plain form of the copula) in the plain form of these adjectives.

present past present neg. past neg.
na adjective へん hen da へんだった hen datta へんではない hen dewa[i] nai へんではなかった hen dewa nakatta
polite na adj. へんです hen desu へんでした hen deshita へんではありません hen dewa arimasen へんではありませんでした hen dewa arimasen deshita
  1. ^ The では de wa in the conjugation of the copula is often contracted in speech to じゃ ja.

na adjectives have なら nara added to them to change to conditional form, and just like all other ない nai form inflections, behave like an い i adjective when in negative form, e.g. 簡単じゃなければ kantan ja nakereba.

Adverb forms[edit]

Both adjectival verbs and adjectival nouns can form adverbs. In the case of adjectival verbs, い i changes to く ku:

atsuku naru "become hot"

and in the case of adjectival nouns, な na changes to に ni:

hen ni naru "become strange"

There are also some words like たくさん takusan and 全然 zenzen that are adverbs in their root form:

全然分かりません zenzenwakarimasen "[I have] absolutely no idea."
i adjective はや hayaku "quickly"
na adjective しずか shizuka ni "quietly"

In a few cases, a 〜に form of a word is common while a 〜な form is rare or non-existent, as in makoto-ni (誠に?, sincerely)makoto (?, sincerity) is common, but

  • makoto-na (×誠な?, sincere) is generally not used.


This page Japanese (kanji) Japanese (rōmaji) Other names
adjectival verbs 形容詞 keiyōshi adjectival verbs, i-adjectives, adjectives, stative verbs
adjectival nouns 形容動詞 keiyōdōshi adjectival nouns,[a] na-adjectives, copular nouns, quasi-adjectives, nominal adjectives, adjectival verbs[a]
attributives 連体詞 rentaishi attributives, true adjectives, prenominals, pre-noun adjectivals

The Japanese word keiyōshi is used to denote an English adjective.

Because the widespread study of Japanese is still relatively new in the Western world, there are no generally accepted English translations for the above parts of speech, with varying texts adopting different sets, and others extant not listed above.


  1. ^ a b c In the traditional Japanese grammar, keiyō-dōshi, literally "adjective verb", includes the copula, while the adjectival noun in the analysis shown here does not include it. For example, in the traditional grammar, kirei da is a keiyō-dōshi and kirei is its stem; in the analysis here, kirei is an adjectival noun and kirei da is its combination with the copula. Considering the copula is a kind of verb and kirei is a kind of noun syntactically, both names make sense.


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