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Two centuries of Japanese linguistics in France: 1825-1995

Catherine Garnier


This article offers a historical survey of the development of Japanese language studies in France since the beginning of 19th century. It demonstrates that, at the end of the 20th century, Japanese linguistics in France could be considered a field in its own right, the subject of research by an ever-growing number of specialists hailing either from Japanese studies or linguistics.

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Editor’s notes

Original release: Catherine Garnier, « La linguistique japonaise en France de 1825 à nos jours », Cipango — Cahiers d’études japonaises, no 8, 1999, p. 259-288.

Full text

1To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, in Tokyo, in 1948, the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyūjo 国立国語研究所) decided to issue a bibliography of works published outside of Japan on the Japanese language. Released in 1996, it featured the titles of some 13,504 books and journal articles. The French list, for which I was responsible, included 408 works, comprising 85 books and 323 articles. While quantity is not necessarily a significant criterion, for comparative purposes it is interesting to cite the following figures (only the United States and Western European countries were included):

United States
United Kingdom
Holland and Belgium

2,328 titles (books and articles combined)
1,193 titles (173 books, 1,020 articles)
 697 titles (213 books, 484 articles)
 150 titles (82 books, 68 articles)
  18 titles
   6 titles

2Besides the intrinsic value for researchers of a list of French publications on the Japanese language from 1825 to 1995, the compilation itself is a document I felt worthy of analysis, for it reflects an entire history, with its periods of productivity and stagnation, its successes and hesitations. What I hope to highlight is the way a discipline developed, the themes on which attention was focused throughout this development, and the stages leading up to the current state of affairs.

3In my view this history can be told in seven periods.

1. From 1825 to 1856: birth of a discipline;
From 1856 to 1886: Léon de Rosny and the beginnings of Japanology;
3. From 1886 to 1914: grammars and dictionaries;
4. The interwar years: stagnation;
5. From 1948 to 1970: Charles Haguenauer, a crucial stage, a new beginning;
6. From 1970 to 1978: Hubert Maës and the journal “Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise” – from grammar to linguistics;
7. From 1978 to 1995: a two-fold trend – linguistics in Japanese; Japanese in linguistics.

From 1825 to 1856: birth of a discipline

4The year 1825 saw the publication in Paris of the French translation of Arte da Lingoa de Iapam, and with it the beginning of the history of Japanese linguistics in France. It is only fair, however, to mention the Japanese word lists compiled just a short time earlier, in 1823, by Julius von Klaproth in his Asia Polyglotta, despite the limitations of his endeavour:

  • 1 Jean-Jacques Origas, « Les études japonaises en France », in Japanese Studies in Europe, Tokyo, The (...)

They were so many erratic fragments, and in an attempt to elucidate their etymology, he repeatedly put forward the most disconcerting hypotheses. 1

5The full title of the Arte da Lingoa de Iapam, also known as Arte Grande da Lingoa, is Arte da Lingoa de Iapam composta pello padre Joam Rodriguez Portugues da companhia de Iesu, dividida em tres livros. Com licença de ordinario e superiores – Em Nagasaqui no gollegio de Japam da Companhia de Iesu – anno 1604. It consists of a description of the Japanese language modelled on Latin grammars, and thus featured the same classification based on parts of speech and the same grammatical categories.

  • 2 Hubert Maës, La Linguistique japonaise en France, « Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise », (...)

Nouns had “case”, “gender”, “number” and were “proper” or “common” […]; verbs had “person”, “tense”, “voice” and “moods”. 2

6This book is considered to be the first major description of the Japanese language written by a European, and as such represents a vital step forward in knowledge of this language outside of Japan, in spite of its flaws (in particular in its description of the Japanese verbal system).

  • 3 Ibid., p. 12–13.

If we confine ourselves to evaluating the system itself, it can be considered a much less mediocre descriptive tool than one might initially be tempted to believe, given the relatively flexible way the European framework was applied to new linguistic realities. After all, the approach that consists in projecting a preconceived system of categories onto a language to be described, and modifying it according to the obstacles posed by the structural characteristics of this language, is it any different to that adopted in reality, and despite what they claim, by all modern schools of descriptive linguistics? 3

7In the first quarter of the nineteenth century ships belonging to the great powers began to make a tentative reappearance in Japanese waters following a virtually blanket ban that lasted two centuries. The information coming out of Japan at that time allowed sinologists (sinology being a well-established field since the major Jesuit works of the eighteenth century) to foresee the importance of understanding Japanese civilization, leading them to consider the “decipherment” of Japanese a necessity. Consequently, when the newly created Société Asiatique, founded in 1823 on the initiative of a group of sinologists, made the decipherment of this language one of its main objectives, attention turned quite naturally to Rodriguez’s work, a copy of which was held at the Bibliothèque Nationale (or more precisely, at the Bibliothèque du Roi as it was known at the time). At this point in time “[it] was considered the least bad of all the existing learning materials” (Maës, 1975). A translation was thus published in 1825: Éléments de la Grammaire Japonaise, par le P. Rodriguez, traduits du Portugais sur le Manuscrit de la Bibliothèque du Roi, et soigneusement collationnés avec la Grammaire publiée par le même auteur à Nagasaki en 1604, par M. C. Landresse, membre de la Société Asiatique (Elements of Japanese Grammar by Father Rodriguez, Translated from Portuguese Based on the Manuscript Held at the Bibliothèque du Roi, and Carefully Compared with the Grammar Published by the Same Author in Nagasaki in 1604, by M. C. Landresse, Member of the Société Asiatique). The translation’s author, Charles Landresse, was a sinologist. And Maës concluded his paragraphs on the translation in the following terms:

  • 4 Ibid., p. 15.

Despite these weaknesses revealing the author’s lack of familiarity with the idiom of which the book was intended to facilitate learning, Landresse’s endeavour, which finally made a Japanese grammar, however imperfect and archaic, accessible to the public, drew the attention of orientalists and attracted considerable comment in Europe. 4

8Another noteworthy event was the publication by the German physician Philipp Franz von Siebold of the Bibliotheca japonica (1833-1841). This title grouped together six Japanese and Korean works chosen by Siebold from among the many books he brought back with him from his six-year stay in Nagasaki. Among these six works were two dictionaries, one of the Chinese characters used in Japan listed along with their so-called “Sino-Japanese” pronunciations, the other of Japanese words accompanied by definitions in Sino-Japanese.

9The year 1853 marked the official date of the early stages of the re-opening of Japan. After the initial contacts made by the American naval officer Commodore Perry and his famous “black ships”, Japan was forced to open its ports to the vessels of the great powers. And as Maës noted,

  • 5 Ibid., p. 18.

knowledge of Japanese, formerly the concern only of philologists, became a priority for politicians and diplomats. 5

10Thus when a young orientalist, Léon de Rosny (1837-1914), a student of the sinologist Stanislas Julien, would later seek to learn Japanese, two sources were available to him: the French version of the Arte da lingoa de Iapam by Landresse, and the dictionaries published in Siebold’s Bibliotheca japonica. It was on these foundations that in 1856 Rosny published his Introduction à l’étude de la langue japonaise (Introduction to Studying the Japanese Language), signalling the birth in France of the discipline that was to become Japanese linguistics.

From 1856 to 1886: Léon de Rosny and the beginnings of Japanology

11Léon de Rosny, a trained sinologist, was instrumental in establishing Japanology as an independent discipline. He began teaching Japanese at the École Impériale et Spéciale des Langues Orientales in 1863, and was appointed professor there in 1868. His education with regards to Japanese was based on his knowledge of Chinese and, as I mentioned earlier, on the works on the Japanese language at his disposal. His first contact with Japanese speakers, which he put to great use, came about in 1862, date on which the first Japanese embassy officials sent to Europe arrived in France.

12The list of Rosny’s work is impressive and the fields concerned rather diverse:

  • 6 Ibid., p. 22.

A glance at the catalogue of the Bibliothèque Nationale, where the (far from exhaustive) list of Rosny’s work covers no less than fifteen pages, gives some idea of the breadth and diversity of subjects explored by this astonishingly prolific author. 6

13Natural history, politics, travelogues, philosophy, Christianity, Bible, pre-Columbian writings, China, India and Japan, Rosny’s interests were limitless. The same can be said of his activities: in 1859 he co-founded the Société d’Ethnographie; in 1868 he founded the first Japanese-language newspaper outside of Japan (whose lifespan was limited to just one issue); and he was the heart and soul of the first International Congress of Orientalists in Paris in 1873. Diversity and quantity, however, are not necessarily a guarantee of quality.

  • 7 Bernard Frank, « La japonologie – Histoire et définition d’une approche », in Les Études japonaises (...)

He had an inquiring and original mind but was incredibly prone to spread himself too thinly, publishing studies on all manner of subjects that were completely unrelated to Japan, and on which it was clearly impossible for him to have any genuine competency. 7

14Be that as it may, it is the volumes devoted to the Japanese language that retain our attention in this body of work. They can be grouped under three headings, in descending order based on the number of publications:

1. Japanese grammar for students.
2. Studies on the Japanese script.
3. Research on the origins and genealogy of Japanese.

15The third group consists merely of a few articles or reports of papers given at congresses or learned societies: “Affinités du japonais avec certaines langues du continent asiatique” (Similarities between Japanese and Certain Languages on the Asian Continent), and “Affinités des langues sino-japonaises” (Similarities between Sino-Japanese Languages). For the second group, however, one senses that Rosny set out to present the Japanese writing system in all its complexity. Thus, for example, we have him to thank for a presentation of the syllabaries and above all an attempt to put together a dictionary of “Chinese Ideograms with their Pronunciation used in China and Japan” (Dictionnaire des signes idéographiques de la Chine avec leur prononciation usitée en Chine et au Japon).

16The first group occupied a central position in Rosny’s studies on the language. Between 1856 and 1874 he embarked on the publication of a series of fascicules (twenty appear to have been planned), several of which were re-workings of previous publications (in particular the aforementioned dictionary). In these fascicules collectively entitled Cours de japonais (Lessons in Japanese), Rosny presented a mixture of rather “theoretical” data: presentation of the language, rudiments of grammar, and “practical” data: pronunciation, conversation lessons, collections of texts, exercises and vocabulary lists.

17There is often speculation as to which “Japanese” Rosny taught in his classes. Whatever the case may be, and as evidenced by some of these fascicules, it is clear that he wished to avoid restricting himself to older forms of the language and instead introduce students to contemporary Japanese.

18If we examine the most elaborate grammar book, namely Éléments de grammaire japonaise (Rudiments of Japanese Grammar), volume two of Cours de japonais published in 1873, it is obvious that the majority of Rosny’s presentation was descended directly from Rodriguez, despite him having greatly increased his knowledge through contact with Japanese speakers since volume one, entitled Introduction à la langue japonaise (Introduction to the Japanese Language) from 1856.

19The classification system adopted differed from that used by Rodriguez but the description itself barely deviated from that in Arte da lingoa. It was no doubt inspired by one of the grammars that proliferated at the time in Japan, and which presented a description of the Japanese language modelled on the descriptions of European languages, in particular Dutch, followed by English, but it is not known which one. Despite stating that he had not followed the old Japanese classification which distinguished na, or nouns, kotoba, or variable words, and tenioha, in other words all units that did not fall under the first two categories, Rosny proposed a three-point presentation: “nouns”, “verbs” and what he called “mots de condition”, the latter being like tenioha, a residual category for everything that was neither noun nor verb. As for the description of nouns and verbs, it differed little from that of Rodriguez. Nouns no longer had “gender” but “case” and “number” remained. Verbs were described according to Rodriguez’s system of three conjugations and featured “tense”, “mood”, “number” and “person”.

20Another issue to pique Rosny’s interest was that of the dialectal variants of Japanese, on which he delivered a paper at the International Congress of Orientalists in 1874 (“Sur quelques patois japonais” [On some Japanese dialects]).

21During this period spanning 1856 to 1886, Rosny was virtually alone in taking an interest in grammar. This can be explained of course by his work as a teacher and the need to provide his students with study materials. The publication in Yokohama, in 1873, of a French translation of the grammar written by British Japanologist Aston does not appear to have influenced him.

22The main issue mobilising scholars of the time in France, including Rosny, was the writing system. The decipherment of newly discovered or rediscovered scripts was the great concern of the nineteenth century. Champollion was not far away, and the decipherment of cuneiform was at its height. It was in this same spirit that a number of scholars took an interest in the “decipherment” of Japanese and knowledge of the various scripts used in Japan, their origin and their history. The complex issue of transcribing Japanese in Roman letters was also on the agenda at the Congresses.

23As we saw, Rosny’s teaching position led him to publish a dictionary of the Chinese characters used in Japan; however, his activities did not extend to lexicology. It was other scholars – Soutcovoy, Mermet de Cachon and Pagès – who, in 1862, 1866 and 1868, published glossaries or French-English-Japanese and Japanese-French dictionaries, kick-starting an intense activity in dictionary compilation which characterised the following period.

From 1886 to 1914: grammars and dictionaries

24Interest in script-related issues and the genetic relationship of Japanese to other languages tailed off. The genealogy of Japanese gave rise to just two publications, one concerning the relationship between Japanese and Chinese (1905), the other examining the “Soi-disant parenté des langues basque et japonaise” (So-Called Relationship between the Basque and Japanese Languages) (1906), a theory which, despite not garnering the support of the linguistics community, has never really disappeared from their view.

25As for the script, its “decipherment” no longer posed a problem. The issue was now to make the necessary tools available to the public. This was done by Millot, in 1909, with his Dictionnaire des formes cursives des caractères chinois (Dictionary of Cursive Forms of Chinese Characters), and Rivetta, in 1912, with his book Les cent caractères hiragana les plus employés au Japon (The One Hundred Most Used Hiragana in Japan) and an article entitled “Sur la transcription des noms étrangers avec les signes de l’Iroha japonais” (On the Transcription of Foreign Names Using Symbols from the Japanese Iroha).

26On the other hand, this was a productive period for the fields of lexicology and grammatical description. Between 1888 and 1905 no less than seven bilingual dictionaries were published: four French-Japanese and three Japanese-French. The three dictionaries published prior to 1900 remained small in size, containing between two and three hundred pages. Despite calling themselves “dictionaries”, they more closely resembled glossaries which sought, according to the term used in their title, to present “common words” from the Japanese language. In 1895 one of the authors also presented an article entitled “Notation des couleurs au Japon” (Notation of Colours in Japan). The dictionaries compiled in 1904 and 1905 by two members of the Missions Étrangères de Paris (Paris Foreign Missions Society) – Le Maréchal for the Japanese-French dictionary, and Raguet for the French-Japanese dictionary –, each containing around one thousand pages, can be considered the first major modern bilingual dictionaries. In reality they have never really been replaced (with the exception of the dictionary compiled at a later date by Cesselin).

27At the same time, the French had much more practical interests, as evidenced by the publication by the Société de Langue Française in Tokyo of two Japanese-French dictionaries in 1885 and 1887, one of “legal, political economic and administrative terms”, the other of “military, nautical and hippology terms”. They were accompanied in 1888 by an article published in the Bulletin de géographie historique et descriptive (Bulletin of Historical and Descriptive Geography) on the “Geographic and Administrative Nomenclature of Japan” (“Nomenclature géographique et administrative du Japon”). There was also a Dictionnaire militaire japonais-français (Japanese-French Military Dictionary) published by Renondeau in Tokyo in 1912.

28The second major concern, as in the previous period, remained grammar. Five grammars were published in French between 1899 and 1907. The titles clearly specified “grammar of spoken Japanese”. Two were published in Japan, on the printing presses of the Missions Étrangères (Sansaisha). They were the work of two members of the Missions Étrangères de Paris: Émile Raguet (previously cited as a dictionary author) and Cyprien Balet. Another was published in Paris, the work of diplomat Maurice Courant (a specialist in Korean affairs rather than Japanese), one more in Brussels and one in Germany. All, apart from the grammar by Maurice Courant, resulted from the experience of men living, or having lived extensively, in Japan.

29Grammatical studies during this period continued to aim for a comprehensive description of the language for the use of learners. They shared this point in common with the undertakings of Rosny. Nevertheless, the gulf separating them could now be gauged, as much in terms of the homogeneity of the language described – which was now clearly intended to be contemporary Japanese – as in the descriptive principles, which were largely inspired by the research of British scholars Aston and Chamberlain, on whom Maës made the following remarks:

  • 8 Hubert Maës, op. cit., p. 28.

The theoretical presuppositions behind the descriptive models they developed for Japanese were, if I may say so, the exact opposite of those put forward by Rodriguez. Aware of the complete inadequacy of a method that consisted in making a non-Indo-European language fit the Greco-Latin mould, of the typological diversity of the world’s languages and the need to provide each of them with a description reflecting its “spirit” or “genius”, they nonetheless saw this diversity as being reducible to three main types: isolating, agglutinative and inflecting. 8

30Whatever one might think of this typological view today, it undeniably provided the necessary conceptual framework to move away from Rodriguez’s “Greco-Latin mould”, adopted by Rosny, to describe the Japanese language.

31The influence on British grammarians, and through them the French-speaking grammarians of interest here, of the new descriptions used in Japan from the end of the nineteenth century onwards must also not be underestimated. Known as “compromise” grammars (setchū 折衷), they combined concepts from the Japanese tradition with elements taken from Western grammars. The most obvious result of this blend was the abandonment of certain notions derived directly from the description of Latin declensions and conjugations. This was the case for notions such as “case”, “number” and “gender” for nouns, and “person” for verbs (although these terms were occasionally retained, or the concepts mentioned to indicate that they did not exist in Japanese). On the other hand, the notions and terms “voice”, “mood” and “tense” continued to be used to describe the verbal system.

32The fundamental change lies in the following two sentences taken from Balet’s grammar:

  • 9 Cyprien Balet, Grammaire japonaise – Langue parlée, Tôkyô, Sansai-sha, 1899, p. 198.

In order to show the various relations between words in a clause, the Japanese language uses postpositions, so called because they follow the word whose relation they explain.9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 124.

All verbs, whatever their voice or form, include: 1. an invariable root which is sometimes decomposable, sometimes irreducible; 2. stems obtained by attaching a suffix to the root; 3. moods and tenses obtained by adding new suffixes to the stems. 10

33The notion of “stem” was directly derived from the Japanese tradition. It was conducive to ambiguity. European grammarians attempting to name the different stems often confused syntactic criteria and semantic criteria. The word “stem” itself, adopted by all the grammarians of the period, was virtually the only new term to be used to describe Japanese, all the others having been borrowed from French grammar. The very notion of what constituted a grammar book exactly replicated the model of the era, which is still familiar to users of Latin or Greek grammars from my generation.

34It is worth taking a moment to examine Balet’s grammar, since it is highly significant in these various respects. An introductory chapter was devoted to pronunciation, followed by a first section presenting morphology and a second one, syntax.

35The “morphology” section covered each part of speech: noun, number noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb, conjunction and interjection.

36The “syntax” section consisted of chapters on sentence construction, postpositions, degrees of comparison, subject, verb, quotation, figures and honorifics. This final chapter was the only one to depart from the traditional model.

37With regards to Balet, his stance was clear: the starting point was unquestionably French grammar. He looked for the Japanese equivalents of the different elements of the French language and thus felt no need to use new terms. Furthermore, he often used what could be described as a description “by absence”:

  • 11 Ibid., p. 41.

Japanese nouns have no gender.11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 42.

Japanese substantives have no number.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 44.

The Japanese language, like Mongolian languages, has neither declensions nor articles or prepositions.13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 74.

If we exclude one or two words translating the first-person pronoun, Japanese can be said to have no real personal pronouns.14

  • 15 Ibid., p. 81.

Relative pronouns and adverbs do not exist in Japanese. 15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 163.

Adverbs proper are extremely rare in Japanese; on the other hand, adverbial phrases of every origin allow French adverbs to be conveyed. 16

38Similarly, after reflecting on the difference between logical subject and grammatical subject – the latter being defined as “so closely linked (to the verb) that a change in the subject such as the number, gender or person should entail a change in the form of the verb” –, Balet declared that:

  • 17 Ibid., p. 229.

This distinction made, one can and must say that Japanese has no grammatical subject.17

39At the same time, Balet gave a clear account of what was defined at the time as the “agglutinative” nature of the Japanese language.

40The contribution of grammars from this period is to have clearly highlighted the particularities of the Japanese language and attempted to propose a coherent description of it, a considerable step forward from previous studies.

41Before moving on to the next period I must mention an important body of work accomplished by Deffennes and Cesselin, consisting of a regular section in the issues of a journal published in Tokyo between 1904 and 1910. It took the form of a list of the “Proverbs, Sayings and Figurative Expressions in the Japanese Language” (by Deffennes, “Proverbes, dictons et locutions figurées dans la langue japonaise”) and “Popular Sayings in Use among Japanese Peasants” (by Cesselin, “Dictons populaires en usage parmi les paysans japonais”). Halfway between linguistics and ethnology, this was an original attempt to approach the linguistic life of the Japanese by less normalising means.

42Finally, a new field – phonetics – made a timid appearance with the publication in 1903 of Étude phonétique de la langue japonaise (A Phonetic Study of the Japanese Language) by Edwards.

The interwar years: stagnation

43After the wealth of publications – in terms of both quality and quantity – during the previous period, the interwar years were a remarkably quiet time for studies on the Japanese language.

44The only significant exception was the publication in 1939 of the remarkable 2,365-page Dictionnaire japonais-français by Georges Cesselin. Intended to be comprehensive, in other words covering both the classical language and contemporary Japanese, this dictionary was unique. It has never been replaced.

45Although the grammars by Raguet, and above all Balet, continued to be revised and reprinted, there were no new publications in this field. On the other hand, presentations of the Japanese language by non-specialist scholars appeared in collective works on several occasions. This is the case, to name but a few well known examples, of the presentations by Serge Elisseev in Les Langues du monde (World Languages) (Champion, 1924), or Henri Maspero in Encyclopédie française (French Encyclopaedia) (Larousse, 1938).

46The script continued to preoccupy scholars. Dautremer, Rosny’s successor as the chair in Japanese at Langues Orientales, published a new dictionary of Chinese characters in 1919. And in 1927 a young scholar living in Japan presented a translation of a Japanese essay on a point relating to the syllabic script. His name was Moïse Haguenauer and he would reappear twenty years later at the heart of the Japanese studies of the following period.

47Another continued focus of research was the origins of Japanese and its genealogy, specifically its relationship with Ural-Altaic and Austro-Asiatic languages.

48The only field to see any real output was phonetics. In 1936 one issue of the Bulletin de la Maison franco-japonaise in Tokyo presented three important contributions in the field of historical phonetics and morphophonology under the title “Études de linguistique japonaise” (Studies in Japanese Linguistics). It was the first significant output in this field.

49The return to the productivity of the beginning of the century would not come about until 1948, with Haguenauer’s first publications.

From 1948 to 1970: Charles Haguenauer, a crucial stage, a new beginning

50After an education that took in Japanese, as well as Chinese and Malay, Sanskrit and Indian Studies, linguistics, ethnology and sociology, [Moïse] Charles Haguenauer (1896-1968) left for Japan in 1924. He would live there for eight years, until 1932. Upon his return to France he was appointed chair in Japanese at the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, taking over from Dautremer.

  • 18 Francine Hérail, « Charles Haguenauer », in Langues’O, 1795-1995 –  Deux siècles d’histoire de l’Éc (...)

He can be considered responsible for providing Japanese studies with its true beginning in France, on as solid foundations as the other main fields of orientalism. 18

51We are not yet dealing with a “linguist”, in the sense given to this term today, but rather an encyclopaedic mind:

  • 19 Ibid., p. 324.

His curiosity with regards the field of Japanese was virtually all-encompassing. However, he was above all notable for his linguistic studies, including the memorable Morphologie du japonais moderne (1951) and Nouvelles recherches comparées sur le japonais et les langues altaïques (1977), his multidisciplinary approach in Origines de la civilisation japonaise (1956) […], and his work as an ethnographer and historian of religions in addition to his expert knowledge of classical texts. 19

52Indeed, both of the two major works to mark the revival of Japanese studies after the war were written by Haguenauer: the first volume of Morphologie du japonais moderne (Morphology of Modern Japanese) in 1951; and the publication of Origines de la civilisation japonaise, the first part of his theory on the origins of Japanese civilisation, in 1956. These two works are closely linked to the subject of this paper.

53To some extent Haguenauer continued in the tradition of the previous period with a short essay on “japanese scripts” (“Les écritures japonaises”) written for the Imprimerie Nationale (French official printing works) and articles providing a general presentation of Japanese, initially in a book published in 1948 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, then in Les Langues du monde (Champion, 1952), edited by Meillet and Cohen. However, at the same time he marked a radical departure from the research conducted to date on the history of Japanese and the description of its morphology.

54Completed before the war, then revised and supplemented “as soon as it became possible to access the studies published in Japan after 1939” (Haguenauer, 1956), this vast work approached the question of the origins of Japanese civilisation from four perspectives: those of an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a linguist and an archaeologist. Unfortunately, the second part which was to be devoted to archaeology never saw the light of day. It is significant that three quarters of volume one, published in 1956 as Origines de la civilisation japonaise – Introduction à l’étude de la préhistoire du Japon (Origins of Japanese Civilisation - Introduction to the Study of Prehistoric Japan), focus on the linguistic perspective. In this volume Haguenauer meticulously examined the resemblances between “common Japanese” and “Altaic” with regards phonetics, lexicography, morphology and function. He remained highly cautious in his conclusion to the 460 pages he devoted to this study:

  • 20 Haguenauer, Charles, Origines de la civilisation japonaise  – Introduction à l’étude de la préhisto (...)

I believe I have sufficiently explained the cautious stance I adopt here to not risk giving readers the impression that I pretend to have successfully shown that “common Japanese” belongs definitively to a well-defined “Altaic” family that includes Turkish, Mongolian, Tungusic and Korean, if not Ainu. It is even less my intention to claim that “common Japanese” presents itself in every aspect as an original member of such a family. In fact, I have contented myself to submitting a certain number of observations to the opinion of qualified specialists in the justifiable or fanciful hope […] that they illustrate, with all the desired clarity, the existence, between “Altaic” on the one hand, and “common Japanese” on the other, of resemblances that can only be explained by the existence of extremely ancient contacts, at least between certain human groups which, currently, speak languages related to those taken into consideration for the comparative study conducted above.20

55This book was subsequently supplemented by articles, then by another book published in 1976, Nouvelles recherches comparées sur le japonais et les langues altaïques (New Comparative Research on Japanese and Altaic Languages), in which the author continued his lexicographic comparisons of Japanese, Mongolian, Tungusic, Korean and Turkish.

56Origines de la civilisation japonaise had a clear impact on the French scientific community, as well as overseas, as evidenced by the many book reviews that followed its publication not only in France, but also in Italy, Great Britain and Finland. In France, Haguenauer’s research on the origins and genealogy of Japanese constitutes a unique body of work that has yet to be continued.

57Morphologie du japonais moderne was part of an ambitious plan to present a comprehensive description of Japanese under the title Cours de langue japonaise moderne (Lessons on the Modern Japanese Language). This is reminiscent of Rosny’s attitude and feeling, as a teacher, of being entrusted with a mission to offer students all the elements necessary for their studies. Haguenauer’s Cours de langue japonaise moderne was to include volumes entitled Phonétique, Structure de la Langue and Morphologie. The latter was to comprise two volumes, the first devoted to general points and an analysis of invariable words, the second to a study of enclitics, variable words and suffixes. Only the first volume of Morphologie was actually published, in 1951, and represented something of a phenomenon. Book reviews appeared in linguistics journals from France, America, Britain and Italy. And, as such, it was a phenomenon. Though it remained incomplete, Haguenauer’s Morphologie represented a watershed in studies on the Japanese language. The author’s intentions, as set out in the introduction to his book, were clear:

  • 21 Charles Haguenauer, Morphologie du japonais moderne, Paris, Klincksieck, 1951, p. 1.

An effort has been made to describe the Japanese language in conformance, as far as possible, with its own genius and true nature. I have thus renounced the terminology that has remained in use in grammars, in particular each time I realised that the terminology in question only succeeded in masking the essential workings of the mechanism of the language and, consequently, in creating a more or less erroneous view. […] In other words, deploring that the majority of grammarians have disfigured the Japanese language by forcing it into an inappropriate framework, that of the grammars valid for Indo-European languages, I have attempted to provide an analytic description of the language that is more in keeping with its “Altaic” character.21

58An examination of the planned outline of the two morphology volumes clearly shows that Haguenauer used the word categories established by the Japanese tradition: 1. words: variable and invariable; 2. grammatical elements: particles and suffixes. He completely abandoned the previous model, adopted in the grammars of Balet and Raguet, and proposed an entirely new and original description that drew heavily on his knowledge of the history of Japanese. He expressed it using a terminology that was itself new, directly inspired from that used at the time by Japanese linguists.

59The influence of this book was considerable since it is still possible today to state that the terminology used to teach Japanese in France, as well as the foundations of the “standard” description of Japanese, are directly derived from the model proposed by Haguenauer. Maës judged the contribution of Morphologie in the following terms:

  • 22 Hubert Maës, op.cit., p. 43.

While this “philological” attitude taken to the problems of descriptive linguistics might today appear to be one of the book’s outmoded aspects, the author must be commended for having, above all guided by his intuition and experience of Japanese linguistic realities, highlighted certain fundamental theoretical difficulties ignored by the superficial pragmatism of grammars from the Chamberlain school. And one cannot reproach a man whose aim, in this field, was merely to “prompt criticism and stimulate the research necessary for the progress of scientific investigation” for having raised or evoked, more often than he resolved, the problems posed by the synchronic analysis of Japanese.22

60Paradoxically, Haguenauer, whose true interest clearly lay in studying the history of the language, as evidenced by his studies on the particles wa and ga (1960), or the particle no (1970), or even on the origin of certain words, paved the way in France for a new, modern and original approach to synchronic Japanese linguistics.

61This first step was consolidated by the publication in 1968, in the Encyclopaedia Universalis, of an article on the Japanese language by Fujimori Bunkichi, showing that a new stage had definitively been reached and that, in a way, the ground had been prepared for a development in linguistic research. Although, as Maës pointed out, the problems remained unresolved, they had been formulated, and skilfully so.

62While this period stretching from 1948 to 1970 was undeniably dominated in France by the studies and personality of Charles Haguenauer, we must not forget that it began with the publication in 1947 (the first of the post-war period) of Aspect et tendances actuels du phonétisme japonais (Current State and Trends in the Japanese Phonetic System) by Jean Drans, an excellent study but isolated in the field.

63Above all, this period saw a flourishing of research in the field of dialectology and studies on Ainu, in Belgium, at the Catholic University of Leuven. This research was given expression through the journal Orbis, published by this university. In 1961 and 1962 Pierre Naert and A. J. Van Windekens published numerous articles on the Ainu language. The etymology of certain words from this language was the subject of debate, even within the journal itself. In this same journal between 1952 and 1970, Willem A. Grootaers and Fujiwara Yōichi looked at the issues of linguistic geography and dialectology in Japan.

64Finally, continuing the orientations seen in the previous period, these years also saw the publication of two dictionaries by J.-M. Martin, though without this being a truly original work. The Dictionnaire français-japonais was a revised and expanded edition of Raguet’s dictionary and the Dictionnaire japonais-français an abridged and modernised Cesselin.

65The publication in 1966, by Bernard Saint-Jacques, of an Analyse structurale de la syntaxe du japonais moderne (Structural Analysis of Modern Japanese Syntax) in some ways completed the “syntax” volume missing from Charles Haguenauer’s oeuvre. With its clearly functionalist inspiration it already belonged to the following period, but did not have the impact one might have expected, due largely to the fact that its author, who lived in Japan, was virtually unknown to French specialists of Japanese.

From 1970 to 1978: Hubert Maës and the journal “Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise” – from grammar to linguistics

66The changeover that would take place, in 1970, from Charles Haguenauer to Hubert Maës (1938-1976) signalled the transition from grammar to linguistics.

67The descriptions of Japanese that had been proposed during the previous periods clearly belonged to the field of grammar. They were often motivated by teaching needs and were at times written by individuals whose main area of specialism was not necessarily the strictly linguistic study of the language.

68The 1970s saw a spectacular growth in the teaching of Japanese at university, as well as its expansion into secondary education. It is in this context that I must mention the vital work updating teaching materials undertaken at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (or Inalco, formerly the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes) by Jean-Jacques Origas, Fujimori Bunkichi, Ninomiya Masayuki, Hayakawa Masami and Kanō Misawa. These texts, such as, for example, those entitled “Structure de la langue” (Origas, [Structure of the Language]) and “Analyse et traduction” (Fujimori, [Analysis and Translation]), which were distributed from 1974 onwards by the Centre National de Télé-Enseignement (CNTE, National Centre for E-Learning) but never published in book form, constitute a body of both theoretical (grammatical) and practical data which, through successive revisions, reinforce the instruction given at Inalco.

69Hubert Maës’s motivation was very different, as was his education, since he himself described himself as a disciple of André Martinet. Through his adherence to functionalism he paved the way for an entirely new approach to studying the language, and it does not seem exaggerated to call him the first true specialist of Japanese linguistics in France. He was also the first to defend a doctoral thesis in the field, on Le temps et l’aspect en japonais moderne (Tense and Aspect in Modern Japanese), in 1970. Furthermore, he was the first to teach a course in Japanese linguistics, at Paris 7 University, following the creation in 1969 of an Education and Research Unit (UER) in East Asian Languages and Civilisations (LCAO).

70This change in orientation was clearly signalled by the publication, edited by Maës, of the “Travaux du Groupe de linguistique Japonaise – Université de Paris VII” (Studies from the Japanese Linguistics Research Group - Paris VII University) (renamed following Maës’s death, from volume 5 onwards, “Travaux de linguistique japonaise – Université de Paris 7” [Studies in Japanese Linguistics - Paris 7 University] edited by André Wlodarczyk, and which ceased publication in 1991).

71Maës’s work bore some of the characteristics of the previous period in that he still tended to present a comprehensive description of Japanese phenomena, although his approach was clearly and explicitly linguistic. In 1976, volume three of “Travaux du Groupe de Linguistique” published his Présentation syntaxique du japonais standard (Syntactic Presentation of Standard Japanese). Functionalist in its inspiration, it “limited” itself – to borrow the term used by Maës himself – to 1) listing and classifying lexical and grammatical monemes (smallest syntactic units); 2) listing and classifying the functions linking these monemes and groups of monemes together (syntagms).

72Volume five consisted of a Phonologie du japonais standard (Phonology of Standard Japanese) written by Maës in tandem with the Japanese linguist Kinda’ichi Haruhiko. In fact, these two volumes corresponded to two of a three-part whole to be published in the collection “Les Langues du monde” (edited by Jean Perrot, at the publishing arm of the CNRS). The third part was to be a volume entitled “Généralités” (general points), written by Kinda’ichi and translated by Maës.

73In any case, the impetus had been given to research on syntax. This field of research, through various contributions, would make up the majority of the remaining volumes of “Travaux [du Groupe] de Linguistique Japonaise”, of which nine were published between 1975 and 1991. 

74Syntax was the preferred area of study throughout this entire period. The seminar and research group led by Hubert Maës at Paris 7 University from 1972 until his death in 1976 was explicitly focused on this field (and the research conducted by this group also provided the material for the articles in the majority of issues of “Travaux”). Mention must also be made of the research by André Wlodarczyk on the structure of the verbal syntagm in Japanese, then on the workings of the nominal syntagm, or those of Maurice Coyaud on the expression of the subject in Japanese (the supposed “ambiguity” of the subject, an issue in vogue at the time).

75Although Maës considered syntax to be at the heart of research, for him it entailed, inevitably one might say, studies in two other directions.

76Firstly, with describing a language inevitably came the problem of metalanguage. Volume one of “Travaux” was thus devoted entirely to the issue of terminology, for, as Maës himself explained in the introduction to this volume,

the situation of Japanese linguistics in France is such that it seems almost impossible to draw on a widely recognised and accepted terminological tradition. Although the influence of Haguenauer’s Morphologie du japonais moderne was and remains quite considerable, a uniform interpretation of the terms introduced by this work is required. Furthermore, we have seen the emergence over the years, and from author to author, of a terminology born of translation, which more or less explicitly reflects Japanese grammatical vocabulary, […]; however, these attempts remain incomplete and disparate.

  • 23 Hubert Maës, Introduction, « Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise », Université Paris  II, v (...)

It was thus important to agree as soon as possible on a provisional and pragmatic terminology that can be easily and immediately applied to the most diverse fields.23

77After the research conducted by his group was complete, Maës decided to propose a list of terms that was “a French adaptation of the standard Japanese terminology”. Although a relatively limited number of these terms made it into common usage for describing the language, many terminological issues remain unresolved today. Nevertheless, Maës’s endeavour must be recognised as an extremely fruitful one which not only lent credibility to the discipline, but also, following on from Haguenauer’s initiative, definitively legitimised the search for methodological tools developed exclusively for the description of Japanese.

78The studies conducted on Japanese terminology led Maës quite naturally to take an interest in the Japanese grammatical tradition and the history of linguistic thought in Japan. The first volume of “Travaux” thus featured several essential contributions on the history of key terms from the Japanese tradition.

79The decade between Maës receiving his degree in Japanese from the École Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes in 1966 and his premature death in 1976 was a period of rare productivity for Japanese linguistics in France. This brief period was capital in that it established a discipline that could henceforth truly be called Japanese linguistics. It led to fruitful developments, as evidenced by the many publications devoted to the field since the beginning of the 1980s. Yet one further step remained to be taken. This would be accomplished at the beginning of the following period.

80Mention must be made of certain significant works in lexicology, with several specialist studies published in mathematics, natural history and biology, by Maurice Coyaud, in aquaculture, by Nadine Lucas, or in culinary terminology, by Jane Cobbi.

81Finally, a number of studies in phonetics, at the Institut de Phonétique d’Aix, as well as articles on Ainu may also be cited.

From 1978 to 1995: a two-fold trend – linguistics in Japanese; Japanese in linguistics

82Beginning in 1978, Japanese linguistics established itself as an independent field within Japanese studies, while at the same time the phenomena and descriptions of Japanese began to be known and recognised in linguistic circles.

83This trend no doubt began at the end of the 1970s when several young Japanese students, originally all specialised in the French language, arrived to study for PhDs at the Department of Linguistic Research at Paris 7 University under the supervision of Antoine Culioli, at the very time he was encouraging his own students – originally specialised in English – to take a close interest in languages from other linguistic fields, including Japanese.

84Symbolic of this new development was the publication in December 1982 of issue 68 of the journal Langage, entitled “Japanese Linguistics”. I might also mention the publication, in 1984, of volumes one and two of Recherches en linguistique japonaise ([Research in Japanese Linguistics] ERA 642 collection, Laboratory of Formal Linguistics at the Department of Linguistic Research at Paris 7 University).

85This was no longer a time for sweeping general presentations of grammar – although mention must be made of both volumes of Manuel de japonais (Japanese Textbook) by Kuwae Kunio in 1980 and the first volume of Grammaire systématique du japonais (Systematic Grammar of Japanese) by Shimamori Reiko in 1994 –, but rather for specific linguistic studies.

86There are too many publications for me to describe them in detail. I will simply attempt to provide a brief inventory for each field, whether old or new. For some fields disappeared, while others appeared. I have chosen to present the studies briefly, according to the number of publications, starting with the least represented fields.

87The two notable absentees are clearly dialectology and dictionary compilation. There were no dialectology publications in French during this period and no serious dictionary compiled, the last having been Cesselin in 1939 and its revised version by Martin in 1970.

88Four fields were still in their infancy. In phonetics and phonology, two doctoral theses were defended, including one in historical phonetics by Laurence Labrune in 1993, and four articles published.

89Research on the script, which for Japanese is undeniably one area of linguistic enquiry, was limited to research on the history of the control exercised by the Japanese over the evolution of their writing system (Pascal Griolet). The history of the language and description of Early Middle Japanese were still in their early stages. Two theses were written, including one by Okada Hitomi on the history of dictionaries (in particular during the twelfth century), in addition to six articles. The publication in 1998 of Jacqueline Pigeot’s Manuel de japonais classique (Textbook of Classical Japanese) thus filled a huge gap. The history of linguistic thought also began to be significantly represented with eight articles published.

90On the other hand, three new fields appeared. These were translation studies, with numerous studies conducted by Daniel Gile beginning in 1984, and research into natural language processing, on which six articles were published after 1984 (in particular by Nadine Lucas and André Wlodarczyk). Similarly, what could be described as a stylistic approach made a timid appearance (five articles counted). This period also saw a rise in the number of articles written by specialists with the aim of disseminating data concerning the Japanese language (ten articles) and its script (seven articles), whether in non-specialised works (encyclopaedias) or in publications devoted to knowledge of Japan.

91Besides the continued compilation of specialised lexicons (aquaculture and oceanography), the scope of lexicological research began to broaden with the publication of what could be described as monographs on certain words or groups of words. Maës had already paved the way in 1974 with his study entitled “Métaphores japonaises dans la faune et la flore” (Japanese Metaphors in Flora and Fauna). Thirteen articles of this type were published between 1981 and 1995.

92The field that overwhelmingly occupied the forefront of research is that of the description of language phenomena, a label I apply to anything belonging to what was traditionally referred to as morphology, syntax, morphosyntax and semantics, given just how blurred the boundaries between these different starting points for observing the language have become. It is more interesting to attempt to identify the main themes tackled. While this is admittedly a somewhat risky endeavour, it will throw light on emerging tendencies. This major field is represented by thirteen theses and 82 articles, among which it is possible to identify some popular centres of interest. Since it is not possible to cite the names of all those who have contributed to these studies, I will limit myself to those who have made a particular field the focus of their research activity and have authored several publications.

93Clearly in front (with twenty-two titles) are the studies on the Japanese verbal system (six theses and sixteen articles): verb morphology, aspect, tense, modality, voice (passive, causative), in particular France Dhorne and Patrick Le Nestour. In second place are strictly syntactic studies, in other words those directly concerned with the structure of the utterance, with twelve mentions (two doctoral theses – including my own – and ten articles, four of them on appositive clauses). Next come studies on particles (ten titles, including one book by Shimamori Reiko and nine articles). Next we can cite (with nine mentions) the studies on deixis (one thesis) and the demonstrative system (eight articles), on language registers (with Ōshima Hiroko’s thesis, a book by André Wlodarczyk and eight articles), as well as the studies on the expression of person (eight articles). Topic and subject were the focus of five articles, while questions and appositive clauses were each the subject of four articles. Four more were devoted to issues of semantic analysis. Hypothesis, concession and cause were each the focus of one article, as was the numeral system. These latter four articles were essentially the work of Irène Tanba and Terada Akira. At the end of this period a new area of enquiry – the description of spoken language phenomena – gave rise to promising studies by Higashi Tomoko and Ōshima Hiroko.

94This brief presentation of developments in Japanese linguistics from 1978 to 1995 clearly demonstrates that at the end of the twentieth century, although certain fields remained underrepresented, Japanese linguistics could be considered a field in its own right, the subject of research by an ever-growing number of specialists hailing either from Japanese studies or linguistics. The situation during this period no longer bore any resemblance to that of previous periods, nor even to the end of the 1970s. Furthermore, conditions had evolved greatly in the field of general linguistics in France. Having long been stuck in a narrow view limited to conclusions drawn from the study of (Western) European languages, it began to broaden its field of enquiry to include languages from other zones. This is clearly evidenced by the collaboration of specialists in Japanese linguistics (and other Asian languages) on several research projects in general linguistics, as well as the interest taken in Japanese language phenomena by numerous researchers from outside the field. This is undoubtedly one of the aspects that will characterize the next period, the boundaries of which have yet to be defined.

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1 Jean-Jacques Origas, « Les études japonaises en France », in Japanese Studies in Europe, Tokyo, The Japan Foundation, 1985, p. 81.

2 Hubert Maës, La Linguistique japonaise en France, « Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise », Université Paris VII, vol. 2, Paris, 1975, p. 11.

3 Ibid., p. 12–13.

4 Ibid., p. 15.

5 Ibid., p. 18.

6 Ibid., p. 22.

7 Bernard Frank, « La japonologie – Histoire et définition d’une approche », in Les Études japonaises en France (conference proceedings of a symposium held in Paris in October 1979), p. 10.

8 Hubert Maës, op. cit., p. 28.

9 Cyprien Balet, Grammaire japonaise – Langue parlée, Tôkyô, Sansai-sha, 1899, p. 198.

10 Ibid., p. 124.

11 Ibid., p. 41.

12 Ibid., p. 42.

13 Ibid., p. 44.

14 Ibid., p. 74.

15 Ibid., p. 81.

16 Ibid., p. 163.

17 Ibid., p. 229.

18 Francine Hérail, « Charles Haguenauer », in Langues’O, 1795-1995 –  Deux siècles d’histoire de l’École des langues orientales, texts collected by Pierre Labrousse, Paris, Hervas, 1995, p. 324.

19 Ibid., p. 324.

20 Haguenauer, Charles, Origines de la civilisation japonaise  – Introduction à l’étude de la préhistoire du Japon, Klincksieck, 1956, p. 637-638.

21 Charles Haguenauer, Morphologie du japonais moderne, Paris, Klincksieck, 1951, p. 1.

22 Hubert Maës, op.cit., p. 43.

23 Hubert Maës, Introduction, « Travaux du Groupe de linguistique japonaise », Université Paris  II, vol. 1, Paris, 1975, p. 1-2.

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Electronic reference

Catherine Garnier, Two centuries of Japanese linguistics in France: 1825-1995Cipango - French Journal of Japanese Studies [Online], 2 | 2013, Online since 10 June 2013, connection on 26 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Catherine Garnier

Centre d’études japonaises, Inalco

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