In any language the meaning of a word is defined by its usage (dictionaries only reflect the usage, not the other way around). So in one sense one can say that word meaning is socially conventionalized. In other words, the meaning of a word has a number of connotations of meaning that go well beyond the dictionary definition. In this essay we will discuss the idea of synonymity across languages. Are spigot and faucet synonymous in English? Not if a spigot, not a faucet, sticks out from the back of the house and a faucet, not a spigot, is installed in the kitchen! This suggests that there may be few, if any, synonyms in any language.
Synonymous words across languages are equally difficult to find. Take an example of the Japanese word for water mizu. You might say water and mizu are synonyms, but are they? Mizu refers to cold water and cannot refer to hot water (unless you are speaking of water as the substance H2O). In Japan, you will need oyu 'hot water,' not mizu, to make hot tea. Water in English refers to all kinds of water in its liquid states of H2O. This example illustrates that word meaning is located in its use, and different languages create words following their own conventions. Now the question is "Does the same principle apply to grammar?" In other words, is the same idea expressed in different ways across languages, beyond the differences arising from any semantic mismatches in the basic meanings of the constituent words? What is meant by the "same idea" in such a question?
This essay tries to deal with the issue of how different grammars (Japanese and English, for instance) express the "same idea," or fill the same or substantially similar functional need. To illustrate how the same idea an be expressed differently in Japanese and English, let us examine how the nature of any particular piece of information determines the way it is encoded in Japanese, including who controls the information being conveyed, and what the speaker's attitude about the reliability of information is, among other issues.
Ko, So, A, Do Words and Control Domains of Information
One illustration we can use to show how the Japanese language shows who "owns" information is the case of so called the ko-, so-, a-, do-words. In the first few weeks of a beginning Japanese language class, students learn about words such as kono 'this', sono 'that', and ano 'that (over there)' as a sort of pointing words indicating an object's nearness to the speaker. Thus kono hon 'this book' refers to a book within reach of the speaker (but far away from the addressee), sono hon 'that book within reach of the addressee (but out of reach of the speaker)', and ano hon 'that book out of reach from both the speaker and the addressee.' A similar, but not identical system, exists in English, where the word this is used like kono and the word that is used like sono. There is no simple equivalence to ano, so a parallelism between the languages breaks down here.
There is more to be said about these words, termed "deictic" by linguists, words in which the speaker indexes things and ideas in a particular context in which a given utterance is made. Beyond the physical distance and reachability in the case of kono and other members of this group, these words are used when referring to objects in an abstract world, the world of conversation, for instance. It turns out that the rules for using these deictics in the physical and abstract worlds are remarkably similar.