There is an English phrase that keeps appearing in my Japanese textbooks that drives me mad. And it came up again today. “I am a Japanese.” The first time I saw this I told my teacher I believed that it was wrong and that it should really be “I am Japanese“. She countered by saying “I am an American“. After a bit of thought, and chatting to some friends, I realised that the word “American” is both a noun and an adjective whereas I believed that the word “Japanese“, used in this context, is an adjective.
When we saw it again today, in a respected textbook, my teacher told me that she believed it was correct and that if a student writes “I am Japanese” in an exam it would be considered a wrong answer.
It is difficult for me to convince my teacher that I am correct about something in English. I don’t have any qualifications in the English Language and although I am well educated I am aware that I speak a dialect of English and that I could indeed be wrong about the use of a particular word. The other problem is that I rarely think of English sentences in grammatical terms and sometimes when I know that something is wrong I find it very hard to articulate why. So, we looked the word up in a dictionary and it said that “Japanese” is both a noun and an adjective. But since I wasn’t on the ball I didn’t quickly realise that the noun form means “the language of Japan” and may not refer to a native of Japan. I told my teacher that I would research it further.
Since I have just started studying for an English degree I have access to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). What I discovered made me feel much better about the word. Japanese, meaning native of Japan, was formerly a noun but now it is used as an adjective. What I can’t find out is when it changed from being a noun. At least now I know that in modern English it is correct to say “I am Japanese“. What I don’t know is whether it is also correct to say “I am a Japanese“. The OED does not say that the noun is obsolete just that the use has changed and I don’t know the conventions of the dictionary well enough to know how long it takes an entry to move from former use to obsolete use.
However, it is not correct to say “I am an Irish.” as the word meaning native of Ireland is an adjective and I can’t find any reference of it ever having been a noun when used in that context.