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Review of  Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation

Reviewer: Robert C. Albon
Book Title: Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation
Book Author: John Fry
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Japanese
Book Announcement: 16.2313

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Date: Tue, 2 Aug 2005 04:47:48 -0700 (PDT)
From: Rob Albon <>
Subject: Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation

AUTHOR: Fry, John
TITLE: Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation
SERIES: Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2003

Robert C. Albon, unaffiliated scholar


This book is of interest to students of linguistics and all others who
work with Japanese natural language as well as to researchers who
work with speech corpora in other languages.

It is divided into three parts and six chapters: Ch. 1 Introduction (pp 1-
6), Part I The CallHome Japanese (CHJ) corpus (pp 7-76), Ch. 2
Corpora and conversation (pp 7-26), Ch. 3 The CHJ corpus (pp 27-
36), Ch. 4 Annotating the CHJ corpus (pp 37-76), Part II Ellipsis and
wa-marking (pp 77-168), Ch. 5 Ellipsis (pp 79-120), Ch. 6 Wa-marking
(pp 121-168), Part III Appendices (pp 169-182), and bibliography (pp
183-198) and indexes (pp 183-204).

Fry's blurb written for Routledge reads: "Fry demonstrates that
Japanese conversation obeys certain principles of argument ellipsis
that appear to be language universal: namely, the tendency to omit
transitive and human subjects and the tendency to express at most
one argument per clause. He identifies a set of syntactic and semantic
factors that correlate significantly with the ellipsis of grammatical
particles following a noun phrase. These factors include the
grammatical construction type (question, idiom), length of the noun
phrase (NP), utterance length, proximity of the NP to the predicate,
and the animacy and definiteness of the NP. The animacy and
definiteness constrains are of particular interest because these too
seem to reflect language-universal principles."


On John Fry's website (, he says "[a] book must exhibit not
only outstanding scholarship, but also be a pleasure to read... the
second criterion seems to be harder to meet." In my opinion, Ellipsis
and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation meets both criteria with
flying colors, and has certainly earned its place in Routledge's
Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics series.

I found only one typographical error in the English text, although there
were a few more in the Japanese text (nanika "something" on pp 32,
52, 58, and 59 should be nanka, burukkrin "Brooklyn" on pg 53 should
be burukkurin). As you can see from the six page introduction, F has
done an excellent job paring away the literature review and other
dissertatorial fat. He kept the meat accessible to as wide an audience
as possible, providing introductory material on natural language in Ch.
2, information on corpus linguistics research for specialists in Ch. 4,
and information on the Japanese language in the appendices,
allowing readers to skip sections they are not interested in, but
insuring that no reader is left behind.

As indicated in the title, F uses natural language data to investigate
ellipsis and wa-marking. F distinguishes systematic data, such as
corpus or elicited data, from nonsystematic data, such as introspective
or anecdotal data. F says that elicited, introspective, and anecdotal
data may be useful for identifying linguistic phenomena and
formulating hypotheses, but corpus data is unique in its ability to
objectively and quantitatively measure linguistic phenomenon (p. 12).

The merits of corpus data are indisputable in the abstract, but any
data is only as good as the people who collected it. In Ch. 3, we see
some specific problems with the CHJ, such as the paucity of the
demographic information that was collected from participants. Far too
often, basic information such as age, education, and the dialect
spoken by participants is missing. In some cases, native speakers
employed by the University of Pennsylvania to transcribe the CHJ
made "judgments", as F politely puts it, as to the dialect spoken by a
participant. I believe "guess" would be a more accurate description
here. Obviously, no single Japanese native speaker can be a native
speaker of all Japanese dialects, and it seems that none of the CHJ
transcribers were native speakers of any of the Kyushu dialects, nor
were any of F's assistants. It seems F's Figure 3.3 (p. 30) may have
accidentally inflated the Kansai numbers at the expense of Kyushu
numbers, and Table A.3 on (p. 181) may include some dialect
particles, such as male wa and kashira, which F counts as standard
Japanese particles, inflating those numbers. However, for the most
part F handled dialect as best as he could -- carefully citing sources
and in some cases excluding dialect data. It is probably safe to say
that these items had little effect on F's discussion of ellipsis and wa-

In Ch. 4, F discusses how he annotated the CHJ corpus to allow
automatic processing. F advises "[r]eaders whose eyes glaze over at
the fine[r] details of corpus annotation" to skim through Ch. 4. If you
do choose to skim, be sure not to miss 4.5 Acoustic annotations (pp
67-76). I have long been intimidated by audio data, but F has cured
me of that. F gives an excellent description of how to use the
computer to measure audio files and how to use those measurements
in quantitative research. If you have not worked with audio files
before, this is a very painless introduction to the subject that will
benefit you greatly.

F's claim that ellipsis in Japanese appears to follow language
universals has potentially exciting ramifications for those working with
gender language, an area where many feel that Japanese differs
markedly from universals. F notes in 5.4.2 Sex and dialect (pp 101-
104) that the CHJ data does not support any "categorical
generalization about the effect of speaker sex on ellipsis in
Japanese". F is very polite, but, reading between the lines, I believe
that he is refuting Shibamoto's (S) claim that "male speakers are found
to retain particles with much greater frequency than female speakers"
(Shibamoto, 1985, as quoted by F). F suggests that S's use of elicited
data and her small sample size may have been problematic.

S was the first person to write on ellipsis in Japanese women's speech
in English, and is still widely cited on that subject today (Tanaka,
2004: 96). Naturally, she has been quite influential, and her work is
seen as "statistical" (Tsujimura, 1996: 377-9). Nonetheless, I strongly
agree with F's comments above, and I feel that as more researchers
use corpus data for quantitative research in to Japanese women's
language, we will find that many of the features of women's Japanese
described by S are perhaps not as marked as she suggests. However,
gender was not F's main theme, sometimes his description of gender
items, such as counts of female particles in Table A.3, must be taken
with a grain of salt. Fortunately, Table A.3 is provided as background
information in the appendix, and does not detract from F's primary

I heartily recommend this book. F writes well and does a great job
making what could be a dry read engaging. His is an excellent model
to follow for anyone interested in working with corpus data. I am sure
you will find this book especially useful if you want to work with audio
corpus data. F is soon to publish an annotated CHJ corpus, which will
make the CHJ data even more accessible. In addition to his findings
on wa-marking and ellipsis, F uncovered what I felt were some very
exciting finds in Japanese gender language, and has shown the
potential and some difficulties of using CHJ data for dialect research.
As with all good research, he carefully limited his scope, to ellipsis and
wa-marking, and has left the books on gender and dialect for
someone else to write.


Shibamoto, Janet (1985). Japanese Women's Language. New York:
Academic Press. (As quoted in F, Tsujimura (1996) and Tanaka

Tanaka, Lidia (2004). Gender, Language and Culture: A study of
Japanese television interview discourse. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Tsujimura, Natsuko (1996). An Introduction to Japanese Linguistics.
Malden MA: Blackwell.


Robert C. Albon graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
in 1995. He has been a freelance translator since 1992 (Japanese to
English, Chinese to English, French to English, Creole to English) and
was an official Japanese interpreter at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.
He currently lives in Zama City, Japan. His research interests include
informal language and dialects of Japanese, Chinese and French.

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