On the (possible) origin of 「出来る」

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.

叫全家人都出来, 我好给他们拍照。
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…

31 thoughts on “On the (possible) origin of 「出来る」

  1. “I’m literally pulling these explanations out of my ass”
    Do you mean really mean “literally”? hahahah

    “unlike very other verb”
    every, I guess. Typo?

  2. I’m chinese (although I’m pretty poor at it) and this has always kinda made sense to me when I first learned 出来る. Though, I didn’t think about it as in-depth as you did. Hah.

  3. Hmm I can’t really comment on the Japanese bits as my knowledge of it is still inadequate.

    But the Chinese bits are largely accurate, though I would say that a more accurate translation would be:

    Can you tell (by hearing) what song it is?

    For the use of 能 in that sentence, it seems optional to my intuition and may or may not have something to do with the presence of a subject.

    Can’t you tell (by hearing) who I am?

    Examples of sentences with other verbs that can be combined with 出来:

    Can you tell (by eating/tasting) what taste it is?

    Can you tell (by smelling) what scent/smell it is?

    You still can’t tell what his real motive is?

    I didn’t add (by seeing/looking) in the translation for this as you can’t literally see a motive.

    But I guess a common pattern that emerges is that the 出来 can be combined with verbs which convey the meaning of the five or so senses.

    I’ve also put 来 in parentheses as it seems quite optional in the sentences above.

    Now to find out whether a similar construction exists in Korean…

  4. Wow, 来 is optional? I think one of the hardest part of Chinese is all the abbreviations and key hanzi that can be dropped. I wouldn’t be surprised if 以心伝心 was originally a Chinese saying.

    So you would say 能 is optional as well?

  5. Ah.. though a quick google of “得出来” reveals that there are several other verbs which can be combined too:


    Some of the combinations convey the meaning “capable of V”, eg 笑得出来 capable of laughing (despite being in a dire situation), while others retain the “can tell by V-ing”, eg 查得出来 can tell (by investigating).

    Yeah Chinese is tough as grammaticalization is often interlaced with the use of words idiomatically.

  6. I was going to say exactly what K. said. Right on the mark.

    “Can’t hear” is most often represented by 听不到 (the opposite being 听得到).

    Potential is actually very complicated in Chinese, there being a million ways to do it, with various gradations of meaning. Of course, all of it is governed by an underlying grammar. Not sure if you were kidding or not, but please don’t spread the myth that Chinese has no grammar. I spent two years in grad school studying Chinese grammar, and I’m more than convinced of its existence.

    As for 出来る, I think the answer lies in comparing the Japanese language before and after contact with China (if such a thing is possible). I think it’s quite obvious that some decisions on how to write Japanese were based on Chinese, and actually made little sense in spoken Japanese (the only form that existed then). Example: “ひ” means sun AND fire. But Chinese has 火 and 日, so both were used, both called “ひ”. This attempt to map the spoken Japanese language onto Chinese characters is the reason Japanese is such a mess.

    It all makes me wonder, though… 出る and 来る are basic Japanese verbs, as is できる. Could it be possible that 出来る was once pronounced “でくる”? It would explain a lot. Your explanation seems equally plausible, though. Even if the meanings don’t match perfectly, they’re close enough to force it.

    I’ll look into that ChinesePod search page issue.

  7. I forgot about 听不到. There’s certainly a lot of ways to express potential in Chinese! And I still haven’t figured out how to use them all correctly.

    As long as certain things are correct or incorrect, every language has grammar, of course. What I’m really trying to say is whether fully understand that grammar is beneficial to the learner or not. I think for some languages, the complexity of the grammar outweighs the benefit of understanding it. English I think is one example, based on how well the grammar approach seems to work for Japanese speakers learning English (not very). I don’t understand Chinese grammar well enough to judge but I haven’t found anything in print or online yet that explains it and simplifies it in a way that helps me to learn and understand it.

    As for spreading myths, I think it’ll be quite some time before anybody takes what I have to say about Chinese seriously!

    The reading of できる certainly corresponds to the Japanese readings but I don’t know whether the kanji or the reading came first.

    Thanks for agreeing to look into the search issue. It’s just a minor inconvenience but being able to link the search results is a nice-to-have feature. I’ll take a look at how comments are displayed.

  8. Hi,

    I’ve been learning and speaking Chinese since young, and in my opinion, “出来” doesn’t really have the meaning of potential. Instead, “能” and “得” play that role in most instances.

    I would liken the Chinese “出来” more to the Japanese “出て来る”, because both contain the meaning of “come out”.

    Can you consume seafood?
    Can you taste the ingredient in it?
    Have you tasted that ingredient in it?

    “能” mostly means “ability”. But “得” carries an “attainment of goal” meaning with it. Like in the above, “吃得出来” is something like “has the taste reached you?”. “能” and “得” are seldom used together.

    BTW, “不可思議” and “半信半疑” have the same meaning in Chinese too. In Chinese, this type of 4-character words are called 成语.

    First time commenting here. Your blog has aided my learning of Japanese a lot. 🙂

  9. As K mentions in a comment above, it seems to depend on the verb. 能,行,会,到,出来 depending on the situation can all express what we know in English as “can”. But of course, in Chinese they all have differences in nuance and usages most of which I’m only just starting to get.

    I say 出来 expresses potential because 不出来 expresses the opposite or inability. With your argument, I would need “得” as well which obviously isn’t the case.

  10. Very interesting!

    Looking through some books on classical Japanese it seems like できる has existed since at least the 万葉集. Although at that time it was pronounced いでく from いづる (old form of 出る) + く (old form of 来る). This later turned into でく, and the modern できる stems from the 連体 form でくる.

    However, according to one response at http://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1412955349 it seems like できる didn’t gain its meaning of “be able to” until the Edo period. One other commenter says that while it looks like the Chinese 得出来, no clear evidence for a relation has yet been found.

    I did talk briefly with a Korean friend about it and she claimed that the same word combination exists in Korean as well. Which would indicate a common ancestor in Chinese to me.

    It’d be interesting to cross check with a proper 語源辞典 for both Japanese, Chinese and Korean to see if there is anything more to be found on this.

  11. Thanks for the great link!

    John, it does indeed seemed to have been でくる at one time!

    The evidence seems to indicate that the Japanese version was independently developed from a similar thought process. But no telling on how much influence Chinese had in that process. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare both Chinese and Japanese etymology and the dates. From reading one of the comments, the lateness of the current usage of potential (Edo period) suggests to me that Chinese was first and might have influenced the change of usage in Japanese.


    The question of course then is, what did they use before できる?

  12. 不 has a different meaning, depending on its position relative to the verb.

    不吃了 means I’m not eating it anymore.
    吃不了 means I couldn’t/can’t eat it (due to some reason).

    出不去 means We can’t get out from here.
    出不了门 means I can’t go out (to play).
    今天不出门了 means I’m not going out today.

    There’s actually no need for the use of 出来 to indicate inability. Having 不 behind the verb already indicates inability.

    As for 出来, there’s actually another similar form 出去.

    出 is conjugated with other verbs to indicate a coming out motion. 来 and 去 mean come and go respectively. So

    逃不出去 means I can’t escape from here. (An “away” motion)
    唱不出来 means I can’t sing it. (More of a “towards yourself” motion)

    Without 不, there is no negation nor indication of ability.

    逃出去了 means He escaped.
    唱出来了 means She sung it.

    In order to indicate positive ability, 得 can be added.

    逃得出去 means We can escape out of here.
    唱得出来 means She can sing it.

    However unlike 能, 得 is added after the verb. If 得 is added before, the meaning, as well as the reading, would change completely.

    得逃(dei3 tao2) means We have to escape.
    得吃(dei3 chi1) means We have to eat it.

    I haven’t studied the structure of the Chinese language before, and the way I use the language is more intuitive than structural. So the above is purely based on my own analysis and understanding.

  13. @Kim: Oh could you ask your Korean friend what the equivalent in Korean would be?

    I know “come out” is 나오다, but while 오 means “come” or 来, I don’t think 나 means “out” or 出.

    “Out” is expressed by a separate 밖, though 밖오다 doesn’t exist.

    Further, I’m not aware if 나오다 can be used in the non-literal sense of “can tell” as demonstrated in Chinese (and Japanese?).


  14. > The question of course then is, what did they use before できる?

    Potential was indicated by the inflectional suffix ゆ/らゆ in the Nara period and る/らる in the Heian period. Although る/らる was first used for negative potential in the Heian period it later came into usage in positive senses as well. Also, like modern られる/れる they could also indicate passive voice, respect and spontaneous action.

    However, more interesting in the context of Chinese is the construction 連体形 + を + 得. My textbook on Classical Japanese (An Introduction To Classical Japanese, Akira Komai and Thomas H. Rohlich) only give a short explanation though: “This expression is used to indicate the potential, and its modern equivalent is 「することができる」. 「得」, means 「てにいられる」, “to obtain, or get” as in “get a horse”, 「馬を得」{馬をてにいれた}.”

    It’s pronounced う in the base form and conjugates as え、え、う、うる、うれ、えよ. It’s the source for the modern ありえる/ありうる. Which makes me wonder, how is it pronounced in Chinese?

    I asked a friend who has studied a bit of Classical Chinese about 出来 today, and he didn’t think that it was used for potential at that time. Although it would be interesting with more sources on this.

    Anyway, just some more pieces in the puzzle 🙂

  15. She didn’t specify what construction it was, and my Korean is limited to some very idle studies so I couldn’t even begin to take a guess. I’ll ask her for more details the next time I talk to her.

  16. Thanks Kim for the fascinating comment.

    I was actually wondering what they used for する. すれる maybe?

    I didn’t think about the 得 in あり得る! Interesting…
    In modern Chinese, it’s pronounced ‘de’. I suspect, that the Kanji was slapped on the native Japanese うる・える but the choice of character is indeed very interesting.

    This is seriously turning into an interesting research topic. Somehow, it all seems connected…

  17. Ah, then it sounds reasonable that the choice of 得 for うる/える is for the meaning rather than the sound.

    A quick note on すれる*. When らる is attached to す (old する) it inflects as せ, forming せらる, but is often contracted to さる.

    If anyone is interested http://www.sengokudaimyo.com/bungo/bungo.html seems like a good quick intro to Classical Japanese.

    This is indeed turning very interesting. I have a feeling that there has to exist a research paper on this somewhere.

  18. Oh, and to correct my first comment, the base form of old でる is いづ, not いづる, which is the 連体 form.

  19. Hi,

    Firstly kudos to you, great job on the grammar guide. That helped me alot in my Japanese Studies.
    Now, I’m from Singapore and would consider myself to be a native speaker of Chinese although there’s still a great difference between my standard and that of a PRC national. Hopefully, my input will be of help. 🙂

    Firstly..”不可思議” and “半信半疑” have completely DIFFERENT meanings. The first idiom is used when describing something that is unbelivable or more literally “unimaginable”. The latter is used to describe feelings of suspicion. The idiom itself is literally “half believe half suspicious”.

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that “听得出/听不出” does not really indicate potential in the context that you have mentioned. Tortiz has written a good post about this.

    From my viewpoint, adding “得出” has transformed the verb “听(listen)” into a different verb more similiar to “identify/decipher/recognise” something. “你听得出我是谁吗?” is more accurately translated as “Can you recognise me (via my voice)?” Here, the sentence is in fact discussing the potential to recognise and identify a voice, NOT the potential to HEAR since it’s obviously a given in this context. As K has mentioned, this applies mainly to the 5 senses (看,听,闻,吃,感觉) so you could say that they are SPECIAL CASES.

    As for other verbs, it does indicate a potential (or lackof) to carry out an action. As for the usage of “来”, it’s really a tricky issue. Generally speaking, it is used at the end of a sentence such as “把答案说出来!”(Say OUT the answer).

    Where I’m from, our Mandarin teachers never ever teach grammar as it is taught in English and Japanese. I have no memory of any single lesson focusing on grammar being taught, though they do have jumbled up sentences which we were supposed to rearrange into the correct form mostly through intuition…. =P

  20. What I meant was:

    不可思議(fu ka shi gi) in Japanese
    has the same meaning as its Chinese counterpart 不可思議(bu ke si yi);

    半信半疑(han shin han gi) in Japanese
    has the same meaning as its Chinese counterpart 半信半疑(ban xin ban yi).

    If I remember correctly, spoken Japanese had Polynesian roots. It was when Japan came into contact with Chinese culture that the Chinese script was adopted.

    Most of the kanji were adopted for their meanings. But there are cases where the Japanese pronunciation of a kanji is very similar to its Chinese counterpart, like the above.

    Maybe it would be good to examine the Chinese used in China at the time of the cultural exchange to uncover the roots of 出来る.

  21. Oops… sorry about that 😛

    I believe “弱肉强食” is present in Japanese with the same exacting meaning too?

  22. @THT

    It sounds like 听得出来 is equivalent to 聞き取れる in Japanese.

    Though Chinese make very specific distinctions between many different kinds of potential (it drives me crazy), you have to consider that other languages like English or Japanese might be simpler. (In English, we all lump them into one word, “can”.)

    So even if you don’t consider it as “potential” in Chinese, it may very well be “potential” in another language. In fact, 聞き取れる is the potential of 聞き取る and means that you are able to follow and understand something rather than just being able to hear it which is 聞こえる.

    Japanese does have the saying 弱肉強食. In fact, there are many, many 四字熟語 shared by both languages.

  23. I read through all the posts and no one seems to have mentioned;
    出来 【しゅったい】 (n,vs) occurrence, happening, taking place, (P)

    in its raw sino-japanese reading, shuddai, which is close enough to whatever that chinese edict had~ “chū lái”

    Which i guess kinda explains why suru becomes 出来る

  24. Looks like I am very late to the party but I would like to say a few things

    > 不 has a different meaning, depending on its position relative to the verb.

    > 不吃了 means I’m not eating it anymore.
    > 吃不了 means I couldn’t/can’t eat it (due to some reason).

    While this looks confusing, this is actually because 了 is being used two different ways,
    first phrase [ bu chi le ] 了 is being used as a sentence-final type of thing, while [ chi bu liao ] 了 is actually *also* serving to denote a degree of ability. That is, you could also say

    > 出不去 means We can’t get out from here.
    > 出不了门 means I can’t go out (to play).
    > 今天不出门了 means I’m not going out today.

    > There’s actually no need for the use of 出来 to indicate inability. Having 不 behind the verb already indicates inability.

    > As for 出来, there’s actually another similar form 出去.
    Well, yes, go out/come out is necessary in English/Japanese/etc.. as well


    > However unlike 能, 得 is added after the verb. If 得 is added before, the meaning, as well as the reading, would change completely.

    > 得逃(dei3 tao2) means We have to escape.
    > 得吃(dei3 chi1) means We have to eat it.

    Alternatively, you could be less picky about choice of hanzi; if you just used 的 for everything instead of 得 and 地 this wouldn’t look so confusing. Then again, some places are pickier than others about whether you used the right one (usage after a lexeme depends on the part of speech of the lexeme)

    > I haven’t studied the structure of the Chinese language before, and the way I use the language is more intuitive than structural. So the above is purely based on my own analysis and understanding.

  25. I’m a complete non professional at this, but would like to add my two bits after futilely searching for an answer to etymology and origins of Japanese 出来る and Chinese 得出来/不出来.

    I tried searching hard for occurrences of just “出来” in classical chinese texts, (such as the ones at http://www.shuku.net/novels/classic) but the latest I could find were after the Qing dynasty, and from authors post 1900s. Has someone found/Can someone find it in an older source? I’m inclined to believe that the origins are Japanese/Korean (shared construction perhaps not surprising for reasons unrelated to Chinese influence).

    Someone mentioned a 語源辞典, but I was unable to find one either online or through the University. Any ideas?

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