The first time I started struggling with Japanese was in my second year when we started learning more complicated grammar structures: particularly the passive and causative forms. I even had the perspective of a linguist and I still struggled, so I thought I would try and offer some insight.
I think one of the things that makes grammatical forms like the passive voice and causative form difficult is that there is a conception that there is no real English equivalent. That is far from the truth. You might not realize it, but the passive voice is common in English. Before I try to explain Japanese passives, let me walk you through English passives.
So, what exactly is passive voice? Or ‘voice’ in sentences in general? Think of it as a way of framing a scene. I can say in active voice: “The dog chased the child”, and that same sentence in a passive voice: “the child was chased by the dog”. These two sentences are saying the same thing. The difference is in the subject and object of a sentence.
Great, so what’s a subject and what’s an object? Well, in English, the subject is usually before the verb, and it is the agent. That is to say, the thing that is doing something. The object on the other hand is usually after the verb, and is the experiencer or theme, or the one that the agent is affecting.
Looking at our sentence in the active voice before:
The dog chased the girl
“The dog” is before the verb and is the one doing the chasing. It definitely fits the role of subject. Meanwhile “the girl” is after the verb, and is the theme of the action of being chased. In other words, it’s the object. But something changes in the passive voice:
The girl was chased by the dog
Notice the object of the active voice, “the girl”, is now before the verb – that is to say, it’s in subject position. Meanwhile, the subject of the active voice, “the dog”, is now after the verb in object position. However, “the girl” is not the agent of the verb chase. “The girl” is not doing the chasing, she is being chased. Similarly, “the dog” is not the theme of the chasing, the dog is still the agent of chase.
This interaction of word position, whether its before the verb or after (called syntactic position) and the role of word, whether its an agent or theme (called theta roles) is the essence of the passive voice.
The passive voice promotes the noun in object position to subject position, and demotes the noun that was originally in subject position. This changes the syntactic position of these nouns (‘the girl’ is now before the verb, for example). The passive voice does not change the theta roles of these nouns. No matter what happens, ‘the dog’ is still the agent of ‘chase’.
So now we have a basis of what the passive voice is in English and what it does. What about in Japanese.? To explain that, I’m going once again start with the active voice. (We are going to ignore the difference between “wa” and “ga” for this exercise, because while there are differences in meaning, it doesn’t have much bearing on structure of the passive voice.)
犬 が 子供 を 追いかけ た
inu ga kodomo o oikake -ta
dog SUB child OBJ chase -PAST
“The dog chased the child”
Above we have our sentence in active voice… with a lot of stuff under it. The first two lines are the Japanese, the bottom line is the English translation, but it’s the third line that gives us the tools we need to discuss the passive. In it is the linguistic function of each word. Some are fairly standard: “inu” means “dog”, “kodomo” is “child”, but you might notice that there are a few strange things in line 3, namely the “SUB” and “OBJ”. Those stand for “subject (marker)” and “object (marker)”. Check out this blog to learn a little bit more about how those particles work. The important thing for our purposes is that Japanese gives us a convenient way of tracking which noun is syntactically an subject or object.
So, just like in the English active voice, “dog” is the subject (marked helpfully by “ga“) and “child” is the object (marked by “o“). The word order is a bit different in Japanese, but the subject is still first, and the object is closer to the verb. “Dog” is still the agent, and “child” is still the theme.
What happens in the passive voice then? Let’s take a look:
子供 が 犬 に 追いかけ られ た
kodomo ga inu ni oikake -rare -ta
child SUB dog IOBJ chase -PASS -PAST
“The child was chased by the dog”
Notice that the syntactic subject (still marked by “ga“) is now “child” instead of dog. The object was promoted to subject position by the passive. In the same way, “dog” was demoted to object (marked by an indirect object marker, which can be treated just like normal OBJ in this case). Just like in English though, “the dog” is still the chaser, and “the child” is still the chase-ee.
So, for the most part, the passive voice behaves similarly in both English and Japanese. Why does it feel so much harder in Japanese then?
To start with, no matter the similarities on a linguistic level, learning a new language is hard. But, to offer comfort as you struggle with your Japanese homework, the Japanese passive does have a feature that English doesn’t worry about: the particles.
In English, the only real thing that distinguishes the subject and object is its position in the sentence – not so in Japanese. Subjects and objects have different particles connected to them, and when the subject or object gets changed by something like passive form, those particles have to change too. It’s just another thing to keep track of in learning the more nuanced parts of Japanese.
I might not be able to magically make Japanese easy to learn, but I hope this at least helped you understand a little more about the pieces you are working with. Don’t give up, you’ll be an expert in no time!