Verbs are the essence of language. This is true for all languages. In languages like English, a noun (or “the subject”) proceeds the verb in a sentence. Because of this people mistakenly assign greater weight to nouns/the subject of sentences. For example, when people begin learning languages, they often make a list of items (that is, “nouns”) and then try to learn them in the target language before tackling verbs.
Today’s topic is the attributive form (rentaikei 連体形) of verbs in classical Japanese. There are six inflected forms in classical Japanese, but to me, the attributive form is very easy to spot, and easy to translate!
The inspiration for today’s grammar point comes from a haiku by Fukagawa Shōichiro 深川正一郎 (1902-87):
(I put the attributive form in BOLD)
Tatsu sagi ni
This haiku was really a challenge to translate into 17 syllables, but here it is:
A grey heron in
flight appears–Mt. Fuji in
the 5th lunar month
This haiku starts with the verb tatsu 立つ. The verb appears in the dictionary as “tatsu” so it’s already in the attributive form! (The common, or “dictionary form,” of the verb is the rentaikei/ attributive form.) As if this wasn’t easy enough to identify, it is immediately followed by a noun, sagi 鷺 (heron). The attributive form acts as a type of adjective or descriptor, basically like a verb participle, just like in English. Think of examples like “the sleeping cat” or “the rolling clouds.” In these examples, the verbs (sleeping & rolling) appear before the nouns. The attributive form is just like these examples!
The attributive form is pretty flexible when translating into English. You could just as easily say “the cat that was sleeping” or “the clouds that were rolling [in]” and the image in the reader’s mind wouldn’t change. This flexibility is convenient when the number of syllables is important, such as in haiku:
the sleeping cat = 4 syllables
the cat that was sleeping = 6 syllables
- tatsu 立つ has a few meanings, not only “to stand,” as it is used in modern day Japanese.
- Figuring out which type of sagi 鷺 the author is talking about is a real mystery. Does the author not know? Did they intentionally not write it? Sagi can refer to both herons and egrets. There are many species of both in Japan. Another type of heron is the night heron (mizo goi ミゾゴイ) but it’s dark colored. A grey heron has a white chest that I think would have stood out more and caught the poet’s attention. That’s why I went with “grey heron.” Just “heron” would have made me a syllable short!
- I haven’t researched it, but I’d bet $100 this haiku is an allusion to Saigyō‘s 西行 poem about the snipe. In it he also use the verb tatsu 立つ to describe it not standing but rather lifting off. Therefore I think that you could also say, too, that this haiku delivers a sense of yūgen 幽玄 (mystery). Saigyō’s poem is a fall poem though and this one is clearly summer one~