Japanese pronouns

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Japanese pronouns are words in the Japanese language which are used to address or refer to people or things. Some linguists suggest that the Japanese language does not have pronouns as such, since, unlike pronouns in most other languages that have them, these words are syntactically and morphologically identical to nouns.[1][2] As others point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages.[3][4]

Pronouns are used less frequently in the Japanese language than in many other languages,[5] mainly because there is no grammatical requirement to include the subject in a sentence. So, pronouns can seldom be translated from English to Japanese on a one-to-one basis.

The common English personal pronouns, such as "I", "you", and "they", have no other meanings. However, most Japanese personal pronouns do. Consider for example two words corresponding to the English pronoun "I": 私 (watashi) also means "private" or "personal" and 僕 (boku) also means "manservant".

Japanese words that refer to other people are part of the encompassing system of honorific speech, and should be understood within that context. Pronoun choice depends on the speaker's social status (as compared to the listener's), as well as the sentence's subjects and objects.

The first-person pronouns (e.g., watashi, 私) and second-person pronouns (e.g., anata, 貴方) are used in formal contexts. In many sentences, pronouns that mean "I" and "you" are omitted in Japanese when it is clear who the speaker is talking about.[3]

When it is required to state the topic of the sentence for clarity, the particle wa (は) is used, but it is not required when the topic can be inferred from context. Also, there are frequently used verbs that can indicate the subject of the sentence in certain contexts: for example, kureru (くれる) means "give" in the sense that "somebody gives something to me or to somebody very close to me." Ageru (あげる) also means "give", but in the sense that "someone gives something to someone other than me." In sentences comprising a single adjective (often those ending in -shii), it is often assumed that the speaker is the subject. For example, the adjective sabishii (寂しい) can represent a complete sentence that means "I am lonely."

Thus, the first-person pronoun is usually only used when the speaker wants to put a special stress on the fact that he is referring to himself, or if it is necessary to make it clear. In some contexts, it may be considered uncouth to refer to the listener (second person) by a pronoun. If it is required to state the second person, the listener's surname, suffixed with -san or some other title (like "customer", "teacher", or "boss"), is generally used.

Gender differences in spoken Japanese also create another challenge, as men and women refer to themselves with different pronouns. Social standing also determines how people refer to themselves, as well as how they refer to other people.

List of Japanese personal pronouns[edit]

The list is incomplete, as there are numerous Japanese pronoun forms, which vary by region and dialect. This is a list of the most commonly used forms. "It" has no direct equivalent in Japanese[3] (though in some contexts the demonstrative pronoun それ is translatable as "it"). Also, Japanese doesn't generally inflect by case, so, I is equivalent to me.

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Level of speech Gender Notes

– I/me –
watashi わたし formal/informal both In formal or polite contexts, this is gender neutral, but when used in informal or casual contexts, it is usually perceived as feminine.
watakushi わたくし very formal both The most formal polite form.[6][better source needed]
ware われ 我, 吾 very formal both Used in literary style. Also used as rude second person in western dialects.
waga わが 我が very formal both Means "my" or "our". Used in speeches and formalities; 我が社 waga-sha (our company) or 我が国 waga-kuni (our country).
ore おれ informal males Frequently used by men.[7] It can be seen as rude depending on the context. Establishes a sense of masculinity. Emphasizes one's own status when used with peers and with those who are younger or who have less status. Among close friends or family, its use is a sign of familiarity rather than of masculinity or of superiority. It was used by both genders until the late Edo period and still is in some dialects. Also oi in the Kyushu dialect.
boku ぼく informal males Used when casually giving deference; "servant" uses the same kanji. ( shimobe), especially a male one, from a Sino-Japanese word. Can also be used toward children. (English equivalent – "kid" or "squirt".)
washi わし formal/informal mainly males Often used in western dialects and fictional settings to stereotypically represent characters of old age. Also wai, a slang version of washi in the Kansai dialect.
jibun じぶん 自分 formal/informal mainly males Literally "oneself". Originally a military term and succeeded to feudalistic environment (See also Senpai and kōhai). Also used as casual second person in the Kansai dialect.
atai あたい very informal females, rarely males (girlish) Slang version of あたし atashi.[6]
atashi あたし informal females, rarely males (girlish) Often considered cute.[6] Rarely used in written language, but common in conversation, especially among younger women.
atakushi あたくし informal females
uchi うち 家, 内 informal females (girlish) Means "one's own". Often used in western dialects especially the Kansai dialect. Generally written in kana. Plural form uchi-ra is used by both genders. Singular form is also used by both sexes when talking about the household, e.g., "uchi no neko" ("my/our cat"), "uchi no chichi-oya" ("my father"); also used in less formal business speech to mean "our company", e.g., "uchi wa sandai no rekkaasha ga aru" ("we (our company) have three tow-trucks").
(own name) informal both Used by small children and young women, considered cute and childish.
oira おいら informal both Similar to 俺 ore, but more casual. May give off sense of more country bumpkin.
ora おら informal both Dialect in Kanto and further north. Similar to おいら oira, but more rural. Used among children influenced by main characters in Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan. Also ura in some dialects.
wate わて informal both Dated Kansai dialect. Also ate (somewhat female).

– you (singular) –
(name and honorific) formality depends on the honorific used both
anata あなた 貴方, 貴男, 貴女 formal/informal both The kanji is rarely used. It is not used as much, since, when speaking to someone directly, the name of the addressee is better.[3][7][better source needed] Commonly used by women to address their husband or lover, in a way roughly equivalent to the English "dear".
anta あんた informal both Version of あなた anata.[6] Often expresses contempt or familiarity towards a person. Generally seen as rude or uneducated when used in formal contexts.
otaku おたく お宅, 御宅 formal, polite both A polite way of saying "your house", also used as a pronoun to address a person with slight sense of distance. Otaku/otakki/ota turned into a slang term referring to a type of geek/obsessive hobbyist, as they often addressed each other as otaku.
omae おまえ お前 very informal both (masculine) Similar to anta, but used by men with more frequency.[7] Expresses the speaker's higher status or age, or a very casual relationship among peers. Often used with おれ ore.[7] Should never be said to elders. Commonly used by men to address their wife or lover, paralleling the female use of "anata".
temee, temae てめえ,
てまえ
手前 rude and confrontational[6] mainly males Temee, a version of temae, is more rude. Used when the speaker is very angry. Originally used for a humble first person.
kisama きさま 貴様 extremely hostile and rude mainly males Historically very formal, but has developed in an ironic sense to show the speaker's extreme hostility / outrage towards the addressee.
kimi きみ informal both The kanji means "lord" (archaic). Generally used with 僕 boku.[7] The same kanji is used to write -kun.[8] It is informal to subordinates; can also be affectionate; formerly very polite. Sometimes rude or assuming when used with superiors, elders or strangers.[7]
kika きか 貴下 informal, to a younger person both
kikan きかん 貴官 super formal, used to address government officials, military personnel, etc. both
on-sha おんしゃ 御社 formal, used to the listener representing your company both
ki-sha きしゃ 貴社 formal, similar to onsha both

– he / she –
ano kata あのかた あの方 very formal both Sometimes pronounced ano hou, but with the same kanji.
ano hito あのひと あの人 formal/informal both Literally "that person".
yatsu やつ informal both A thing (very informal), dude, guy.
koitsu, koyatsu こいつ, こやつ 此奴 very informal, implies contempt both Denotes a person or material nearby the speaker. Analogous to "this one".
soitsu, soyatsu そいつ, そやつ 其奴 very informal, implies contempt both Denotes a person or material nearby the listener. Analogous to "he/she", "it" or "this/that one".
aitsu, ayatsu あいつ, あやつ 彼奴 very informal, implies contempt both Denotes a person or (less frequently) material far from both the speaker and the listener. Analogous to "he/she" or "that one".

– he –
kare かれ formal (neutral) and informal (boyfriend) both Can also mean "boyfriend". Formerly 彼氏 kareshi was its equivalent, but this now always means "boyfriend".

– she –
kanojo かのじょ 彼女 formal (neutral) and informal (girlfriend) both Originally created from 彼の女 kano on'na "that female" as an equivalent to female pronouns in European languages. Can also mean "girlfriend".[9]

– we (see also list of pluralising suffixes, below)
ware-ware われわれ 我々 formal both Mostly used when speaking on behalf of a company or group.
ware-ra われら 我等 informal both Used in literary style. ware is never used with -tachi.
hei-sha へいしゃ 弊社 formal and humble, used when representing one's own company both Used when representing one's own company. From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "low company" or "humble company".
waga-sha わがしゃ 我が社 formal, used when representing one's own company both

– they (see also list of pluralising suffixes, below)
kare-ra かれら 彼等 common in spoken Japanese and writing both

Archaic personal pronouns[edit]

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Meaning Level of speech Gender Notes
asshi あっし I males Slang version of watashi. From the Edo period.
sessha せっしゃ 拙者 I males Used by samurai during the feudal ages (and often also by ninja in fictionalized portrayals). From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "one who is clumsy".
waga-hai わがはい 我が輩,吾輩 I males Literally "my fellows; my class; my cohort", but used in a somewhat pompous manner as a first-person singular pronoun.
soregashi それがし I males Literally "So-and-so", a nameless expression. Similar to sessha.
warawa わらわ I females Literally "child". Mainly used by women in samurai family. Today, it is used in fictional settings to represent archaic noble female characters.
wachiki わちき I females Used by geisha and oiran in Edo period. Also あちき achiki and わっち watchi.
yo 余, 予 I males Archaic first-person singular pronoun.
chin ちん I males Used only by the emperor, mostly before World War II.
maro まろ 麻呂, 麿 I males Used as a universal first pronoun in ancient times. Today, it is used in fictional settings to represent Court noble male characters.
onore おのれ I or you males The word onore, as well as the kanji used to transcribe it, literally means "oneself". It is humble when used as a first person pronoun and hostile (on the level of てめえ temee or てまえ temae) when used as a second person pronoun.
nanji なんじ 汝, less commonly also 爾 you, often translated as "thou" both Spelled as なむち namuchi in the most ancient texts and later as なんち nanchi or なんぢ nanji.
onushi おぬし 御主, お主 you both Used by elders and samurai to talk to people of equal or lower rank, as well as by fictional ninja. Literally means "master".
sonata そなた 其方 (rarely used) thou both Originally a mesial deictic pronoun meaning "that side; that way; that direction"; used as a lightly respectful second person pronoun in previous eras, but now used when speaking to an inferior in a pompous and old-fashioned tone.
sochi そち 其方 (rarely used) thou both Similar to そなた sonata. Literally means "that way"

Suffixes[edit]

Suffixes are added to pronouns to make them plural.

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Level of speech Notes
tachi たち informal; examples:
  • 私達, watashi-tachi,
  • あなた達, anata-tachi
  • 君達, kimi-tachi
Makes the pronoun plural; for example, watashi ("I") becomes watashi-tachi ("we"). Also can be attached to names to indicate that person and the group (s)he is with (Ryuichi-tachi = "Ryuichi and friends").
kata,
gata
かた,
がた
formal (ex. あなた方, anata-gata) More polite than 達 tachi.
domo ども humble (ex. 私ども, watakushi-domo) Casts some aspersion on the mentioned group, so it can be rude
ra informal (ex. 彼ら, karera. 俺ら, ore-ra. 奴ら, yatsu-ra. あいつら, aitsu-ra) Used with informal pronouns. Frequently used with hostile words. Sometimes used for light humble as domo (ex. 私ら, watashi-ra)

Demonstrative and interrogative pronouns[edit]

Demonstrative words, whether functioning as pronouns, adjectives or adverbs, fall into four groups. Words beginning with ko- indicate something close to the speaker (so-called proximal demonstratives). Those beginning with so- indicate separation from the speaker or closeness to the listener (medial), while those beginning with a- indicate greater distance (distal). Interrogative words, used in questions, begin with do-.[3]

Demonstratives are normally written in hiragana.

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Meaning
kore これ 此れ this thing / these things (near speaker)
sore それ 其れ that thing / those things (near listener)
are あれ that thing / those things (distant from both speaker and listener)
dore どれ 何れ which thing(s)?
kochira or kotchi こちら / こっち 此方 this / here (near speaker)
sochira or sotchi そちら / そっち 其方 that / there (near listener)
achira or atchi あちら / あっち 彼方 that / there (distant from both speaker and listener)
dochira or dotchi どちら / どっち 何方 what / where

Reflexive[edit]

Japanese has only one word corresponding to reflexive pronouns such as myself, yourself, or themselves in English. The word 自分 (jibun?) means "one's self" and may be used for human beings or some animals. It is not used for cold-blooded animals or inanimate objects.[3]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Noguchi, Tohru (1997). "Two types of pronouns and variable binding". Language 73: 770–797. doi:10.1353/lan.1997.0021. 
  2. ^ Kanaya, Takehiro (2002). 日本語に主語はいらない Nihongo ni shugo wa iranai [In Japanese subjects are not needed]. Kodansha. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Akiyama, Nobuo; Akiyama, Carol (2002). Japanese Grammar. Barron's Educational. ISBN 0764120611. 
  4. ^ Ishiyama, Osamu (2008). Diachronic Perspectives on Personal Pronouns in Japanese (Ph.D.). State University of New York at Buffalo. 
  5. ^ Maynard, Senko K: "An Introduction to Japanese Grammar and Communication Strategies", page 45. The Japan Times, 4th edition, 1993. ISBN 4-7890-0542-9
  6. ^ a b c d e Personal pronouns in Japanese Japan Reference. Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  7. ^ a b c d e f 8.1. Pronouns sf.airnet.ne.jp Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  8. ^ "old boy". Kanjidict.com. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  9. ^ "he". Kanjidict.com. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 

External links[edit]