“Eel sentences” in Japanese

Imagine the following conversation:

Waiter: What would you like for the main course?
Customer 1: I will have the squid.
Customer 2: I am an eel.

In English, this makes no sense, unless Customer 2 is actually an eel, which seems unlikely. Japanese, however, has a construction that can be literally translated as though the speaker is declaring that they are an eel. This is called the “eel sentence”.

An eel sentence (or unagibun in Japanese) is a sentence of the format “X wa (topic marker) Y da (copula)”. This format, in its most basic use, can be translated as “X is Y”. However, in the case of an eel sentence, this meaning does not apply. Therefore, a customer in a restaurant might say: “Boku wa unagi da”, with X = boku (“I”) and Y = unagi (“eel”). But rather than intending to say that they are an eel, the customer here means that they will have it for dinner.

The term unagibun was coined by Keiichirō Okutsu in 1978, and since then it has been used by many linguists and featured in Japanese language textbooks. Of course, the word “eel” can be substituted by almost any other noun depending on the context, but since “eel” was the example originally used by Okutsu the term “eel sentence” stuck.

If you would like to read more about eel sentences, see the articles listed in the bibliography below.

Anne Aarssen
Editor of Brill’s Linguistic Bibliography

Koya, Itsuki: Shitei unagibun to “NP1 no NP2” ni tsuite. – Reports of the Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies 45, 2014, 227-238 | The specificational “eel” sentence and its relation to the “NP1 no NP2” construction.

Obana, Yasuko: Unagi-sentences in Japanese and mutual knowledge. – Journal of pragmatics : an interdisciplinary monthly of language studies 33/5, 2001, 725-751.

Yagihashi, Hirotoshi: Why can a Japanese unagi-sentence be used in a request? – Lodz papers in pragmatics 5/2, 2009, 227-240.

Welcome to Brill’s Language & Linguistics Blog

As the acquisitions editor for the Language & Linguistics list, I often run into people who have never heard of Brill and it is true that as a linguistics publisher we are relatively new. As a publisher of studies on languages, though, we have been around for a little while. In 1685, two years after Jordaan Luchtmans started the company that would become Brill, Luchtmans published the Schola Syriaca by Johannes Leusden, followed a year later by the Opus Aramaeum by Carolus Schaaf.

Grammatica Arabica
Interior of the Grammatica Arabica, first published by Samuel Luchtmans in 1747 and reedited by his sons in 1767. The Arabic scholar Albert Schultens adapted in his book the older grammar of Thomas Erpenius. Brill Coll. [1]
In 1855 Brill published Het Gebed des Heeren in veertien talen, ‘The Lord’s prayer in fourteen languages’, which was printed in all of the exotic fonts available to the publishing house at the time (Hebrew, Aramaic, Samaritan, Sanskrit, Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Tartar, Turkish, Javanese, Malay and Greek), contributing to Brill’s reputation as a publisher specializing in languages.

The Lord’s prayer in Coptic (1855)
The Lord’s prayer in Coptic (1855) [2]
Between these and the recently published 4-volume work The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of the Assyrian Christians of Urmi by Geoffrey Khan, many hundreds of books on the study of languages have been published by Brill. Most of these were part of broader lists on Asian, Middle Eastern Studies and Classical Studies but in 2009 a dedicated acquisitions editor was appointed and the publications list on language and linguistics greatly expanded. While we are remaining true to our roots and still publish a lot of books with descriptions of ancient and modern languages, we are also expanding into other branches of linguistics. We also look beyond the monograph to journals, reference works and other new products, both print and online.

With this new blog we will give a voice and a face to our authors and editors, explore developments in scholarly publishing that affect our authors and showcase our newest publications.

Irene van Rossum, PhD

Senior Acquisitions Editor | Language and Linguistics | Literature and Cultural Studies

[1] From: Veen, Sytze van der: Brill – 325 years of scholarly publishing / with contributions by Paul Dijstelberge, Mirte D. Groskamp and Kasper van Ommen. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008, p. 27.

[2] From: Van der Veen (2008), p. 52.