Gender differences in Japanese
The Japanese language has some words and some grammatical constructions that are associated with men or boys, while others are associated with women or girls. Such differences are sometimes called "gendered language". In Japanese, speech patterns associated with women are referred to as onna kotoba (女言葉, "women's words") or joseigo (女性語, "women's language"), and those associated with men are referred to as danseigo (男性語, "men's language").
In general, the words and speech patterns associated with men are perceived as rough, vulgar, or abrupt, while those associated with women are considered more polite, more deferential, or "softer". Some linguists consider the description of "rough–soft continuum" more accurate than the description of "male–female continuum". For example, Eleanor Harz Jorden in Japanese: The Spoken Language refers to the styles as "blunt/gentle", rather than male/female.
Traditional women's speech
The word onnarashii (女らしい), which is usually translated as "ladylike" or "feminine," refers to the behaviour expected of a typical Japanese woman in a traditional context. As well as behaving in particular ways, being onnarashii means conforming to particular styles of speech. Some of the features of women’s speech include speaking in a higher register, using more polite forms and using polite speech or honorifics in more situations, and referring to themselves and those whom they address more formally.
Some linguistic features commonly associated with women include omission of the copula da, the use of first person pronouns such as watashi or atashi among others, use of feminine sentence-final particles such as wa, na no, kashira, and mashō, and the more frequent use of the honorific prefixes o and go.
Actual language used by Japanese-speaking women differs from these ideals. Such onnarashii speech is a social norm that institutions such as education and media encourage women to adopt. Similarly, these forms may be prescribed for women learners by Japanese textbooks and other materials. There are, however, various deviations from these norms in conversation.
Although Japanese women may not follow the gender norm in speech, some linguistic studies indicate that Japanese women tend to use more honorific language than men do, which reinforces the idea of onnarashii and traditional gender roles.
Traditional men's speech
Just as there are modes of speaking and behaviour that are considered intrinsically feminine, there are also those that are considered otokorashii (男らしい, "manly" or "masculine"). Based on men's reports of their own speech, as well as prescriptive advice for language use, men's language is thought of as using fewer polite forms, distinct pronouns and sentence-final particles, and some reduced vowels.
Some words associated with men's speech include the informal da in place of the copula desu, first person pronouns such as ore and boku, and sentence-final particles such as yo, ze, zo, and kana. Masculine speech also features less frequent use of honorific prefixes and fewer aizuchi response tokens.
Research on Japanese men's speech shows greater use of "neutral" forms, forms not strongly associated with masculine or feminine speech, than is seen in Japanese women's speech.
Some studies of conversation between Japanese men and women show neither gender taking a more dominant position in interaction. Men, however, tend to show a "self-oriented conversation style", telling stories and expressing their expertise on topics being discussed more than is typical of women in these studies.
In modern society
Since the late twentieth century observers have noted that individual Japanese men and women do not necessarily speak in the ways attributed to their gender. Scholars have described considerable variation within each gender; some individuals use traditional characteristics of gendered speech, while others do not. Upper-class women who do not conform to traditional expectations of gendered speech are sometimes criticized for failing to maintain "traditional Japanese culture".
Another recent phenomenon influencing gender norms in speech is the popularity of okama (おかま) entertainers, typically men who enact very feminine speech, dress, and other gender markers. The word okama originally referred to male homosexuals, but its usage has expanded to refer to gay men and cross-dressers as well as trans women, among other uses. Entertainers who identify as okama sometimes use a form of speech called onē kotoba (お姉言葉), literally "older sister speech", a speaking style that combines the formal aspects of women's speech described above with blunt or crude words and topics. For example:
- あたし 今 カレー 食ったら 下痢 だ わ。
- Atashi ima karē kuttara geri da wa.
- "If I ate curry now, I'd get diarrhea."
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