Classical Construction Ahead: Why Modern Japanese Speakers Should Still Care About the Ancient Verb あり
The picture you see above was taken yesterday on a main street in a sleepy suburb of Tokyo. At first sight there seems to be nothing particularly difficult about this short Japanese text. But on a closer look you will notice one word that appears very unusual: what could that あり possibly be doing there?
Before we reveal the answer, let's go over the text as a whole. The sign says:
「交差点・副道あり 追突注意」(こうさてん・ふくどうあり ついとつちゅうい)
The meaning is: Intersection and Service Roads Ahead — Beware of Collision. A literal translation would be: There Are Intersection, Service Roads — Read-End-Collision-Caution. If you suspected that あり was somehow related to ある, now you know you were right. Yes, あり is literally "there is". But why use this strange form and not simply write ある?
Genji on a Sign
Learners of modern Japanese know あり as the connective form (連用形) of the existence verb ある — which can be seen everywhere as part of the polite form あります. But in classical Japanese, あり was actually the verb's default form. For all intents and purposes, the verb was あり, and that's how it appeared at the end of sentences. The form ある was merely the noun-qualifying form (連体形, coming directly before nouns); it was only much later that ある replaced あり as the dictionary form of the verb.
あり was actually part of a small and eccentric group of about four classical verbs that ended with り instead of with a final [u] sound like all other verbs. This irregular conjugation is called ラ行変格活用. The importance of this group went far beyond its four verbs, because あり was the basis for many common auxiliary verbs and affected their conjugation as well.
Another feature of classical Japanese relevant to our discussion is that simple sentences typically didn't use any particle to mark the subject. Where modern Japanese has the basic structure "Subject + が + Verb", classical Japanese had "Subject + Verb". Here's what it looks like in a short sentence from The Tale of Genji (源氏物語):
The sentence translates as something like "Every field has its own experts". As you can see, ものの師 is the subject of the verb あり, but isn't marked by any particle. This is entirely normal in classical Japanese, whereas modern Japanese would have had to follow the ものの師 with a が particle.
Which brings us back to our road sign. Let's look at the first part again:
As you can see, this is identical to the classical construction. Not only does this sentence contain the classical あり, but it has a subject (交差点・副道) that isn't followed by a subject particle. It's essentially a bona fide Genji-like sentence in a completely modern setting.
Ignore at Your Own Peril
Now, why would anyone in his right mind want to use a grammatically correct classical sentence to warn 21st-century Japanese drivers of a dangerous intersection?
The likeliest reason is the simplest one: it stands out. Warning messages have to be able to grab people's attention, but in a typical Japanese street crammed with outlandish signs that glare at you from every direction, a modest traffic sign can have a hard time making an impact on people. Using the peculiar style of Classical Japanese is a quick and effective way of setting the message apart from everything else around it.
Another important reason is the emotional tone of Classical Japanese. It feels formal, solemn, severe — something quite detached from everyday language. A message written in it looks much more serious than one written in ordinary Japanese, so it's also more likely to be taken seriously by its intended audience.
An English equivalent would be to rephrase the road sign Do Not Enter as Thou Shalt Not Proceed: ignore the former and you may get a traffic ticket, but violate the latter and you may be struck by a thunderbolt from heaven.
Beware of Grammatical Alarmists
If you spend some time in Japan you'll see that this usage of あり is quite common, whether on the road or in any other context where a warning must be noticed and taken seriously. Here's another example, this time on an electric lamp:
In this case the classical sentence in a modern setting is:
Which means Fire Risk. The warning is related to using the correct type of light bulb — one of up to 40 watts. Use anything above that and your heavenly punishment may come in the form of an unpleasant conflagration.
The alarmist あり is just one of many classical relics that are still actively used in modern Japanese. Others may be discussed in future posts, and if you find any that you want to see explained here, you're welcome to send me your suggestions. In the meantime, whenever you come across あり in an everyday setting, remember to give it proper attention — it's good for your Japanese and, very often, for your health.
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