I was just working on an article (one of my 80 drafts) about the difference between the potential form and 「ことができる」 when an amazing insight hit me! I didn’t want to clutter up that article so I decided to write about it separately in this post.
I was discussing the potential form and how only 「する」 had this curious exception of using a completely different verb: 「できる」. While I never thought much about it these many years, with some Chinese under my belt now, I suddenty realized that “出来” was also used in Chinese to indicate potential!
In Chinese, “出来” means to “come out” and you can see various examples of this here.
Ask the whole family to come out so that I can take their photograph.
You may be wondering what this has to do with 「出来る」 but what the dictionary doesn’t tell you is that this “出来” is often combined with a verb to indicate that the verb is able to be performed. For example, “听得出来” means “able to hear”, basically the same definition as 「聞こえる」 in Japanese. The listening is coming out, therefore you can hear it. I guess it does kind of make sense, in a weird Chinese sort of way.
I harvested the following example from Google since my Chinese is not too good. So I hope I’m not making any mistakes here in the translation.
Can you hear what song it is?
Some of you may be wondering why there a “能” in there as well which seems redundant. Yeah well, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. (See, I told you I wasn’t very good at this.)
Chinese grammar (if indeed, there is such a thing) doesn’t seem very consistent but my guess is when you have a subject (in this case 你), you need 能 to act as the verb. The 得 (which is kind of like の but only for verbs) kind of rendered 听 a description rather than a traditional verb, hence the need for 能.
So things are a bit different for the negative case because you use 不 and don’t need 得. Here’s another similar example I pulled from Google.
Can’t you hear who I am?
Please feel free to correct me on any of this as I’m pulling these explanations out of my ass as I’m writing it.
Chinesepod has a great podcast discussing “不出来” and “得出来” so I encourage you to check it out. You can also find many additional podcasts with dialogues using “出来” by using the search box. Sorry, I can’t give you a direct link to the search results since it seems to POST and not GET. (John, this is a tiny suggestion for you.)
Anyway, I hope you can see how “出来” means more than just “come out” and is used to express potential as well. So the fact that Japanese uses a verb with the exact same kanji for a similar purpose seems a bit too much for mere coincidence. Could 「出来る」 be some kind of weird Japanized version of “出来”, originally derived from Chinese? Sounds like a good topic for a research paper. All I can say is it’s mighty suspicious that only 「する」 has this weird exception of becoming 「出来る」 unlike every other verb in the whole Japanese language.
Kim pointed out something that I completely forgot about. Another odd potential exception is 「あり得る」 from 「ある」. Is the use of the kanji 「得」 here just another coincidence? The suspicion is growing…