Japanese pronouns

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Japanese pronouns (or Japanese deictic classifiers) are words in the Japanese language used to address or refer to present people or things, where present means people or things that can be pointed at. The position of things (far away, nearby) and their role in the current interaction (goods, addresser, addressee, bystander) are features of the meaning of those words. The use of pronouns, especially when referring to one self and speaking in the first person, vary between gender, formality, dialect and region where Japanese is spoken.

Use and Etymology[edit]

In contrast to present people and things, absent people and things can be referred to only by naming as in "Miyazaki", by instantiating a class as in "the house" (in a context where there is only one house) and by presenting things in relation to present, named and suigeneris people or things as in "I'm going home", "I'm going to Miyazaki's place", "I'm going to the mayor's place", "I'm going to my mother's place", "I'm going to my mother's friend's place". Functionally, deictic classifiers not only indicate that the referenced person or thing has a spatial position or an interactional role but also classify it to some extent. In addition, Japanese pronouns are restricted by a situation type (register): who is talking to whom, about what, and through which medium (spoken or written, staged or in private). In that sense, when a male is talking to his male friends, the pronoun set that is available to him is different from that which is available when a man of the same age talks to his wife and from that which is available when a woman talks to her husband. These variations in pronoun availability is determined by the register.

In linguistics, generativists and other structuralists 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 functionalists point out, however, these words function as personal references, demonstratives, and reflexives, just as pronouns do in other languages.[3][4]

Japanese has a large number of pronouns, differing in use by formality, gender, age, and relative social status of speaker and audience. Further, pronouns are an open class, with existing nouns being used as new pronouns with some frequency. This is ongoing; a recent example is jibun (自分, self), which is now used by some young men as a casual first-person pronoun.

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. That means that 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 or connotations. However, most Japanese personal pronouns do. Consider for example two words corresponding to the English pronoun "I": 私 (watashi) also means "private" or "personal". 僕 (boku) carries a masculine impression; it is used by males, especially those in their youth.[6]

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 (However the latter can be considered rude). In many sentences, pronouns that mean "I" and "you" are omitted in Japanese when the meaning is still clear.[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: 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 not used unless the speaker wants to put a special stress on the fact that they are referring to themselves 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; in casual speech, it is typically only used by women. Use by men in casual context may be perceived as either stiff or feminine.
watakushi わたくし very formal both The most formal personal pronoun.[7][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.[8] Establishes a sense of masculinity. Can be seen as rude depending on the context. Emphasizes one's own status when used with peers and with those who are younger or of lesser status. Among close friends or family, its use conveys familiarity rather than masculinity or superiority. It was used by both genders until the late Edo period and still is in some dialects. Also oi in Kyushu dialect.
boku ぼく informal males Used by males of all ages; very often used by boys. Perceived as humble, but can also carry an undertone of "feeling young" when used by males of older age. Also used when casually giving deference; "servant" uses the same kanji ( shimobe). Can also be used as a second-person pronoun toward male 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"; used as either reflexive or personal pronoun. Can convey a sense of distance when used in the latter way. Also used as casual second person pronoun in the Kansai dialect.
atai あたい very informal females Slang version of あたし atashi.[7]
atashi あたし informal females, rarely males (Edo dialect) A feminine pronoun that strains from わたし ("watashi"). 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 mostly females 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 rekkāsha 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 males Similar to 俺 ore, but more casual. Evokes a person with a rural background, a "country bumpkin".
ora おら informal both Dialect in Kanto and further north. Similar to おいら oira, but more rural. Famous as used by main characters in Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan among children. Also ura in some dialects.
wate わて informal both Dated Kansai dialect. Also ate (somewhat feminine).
shōsei しょうせい 小生 formal, written males Used among academic colleagues. Lit. "your pupil".[9]

– 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 are very rarely used. The only second person pronoun comparable to English "you", yet still not used as often in this universal way by native speakers, as it can be considered having a condescending undertone, especially towards superiors.[3][8][better source needed] For expressing "you" in formal contexts, using the person's name with an honorific is more typical. More commonly, anata may be used when having no information about the addressed person; also often used as "you" in commercials, when not referring to a particular person. Furthermore, 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 Contraction of あなた anata.[7] Can express contempt, anger 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.[8] Expresses the speaker's higher status or age, or a very casual relationship among peers. Often used with おれ ore.[8] Very rude if 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[7] mainly males Literal meaning "the one in front of my hand". Temee, a reduction of temae, is more rude. Used when the speaker is very angry. Originally used for a humble first person. The Kanji are seldom used with this meaning, as unrelated to its use as a pronoun, 手前 can also mean "before", "this side", "one's standpoint" or "one's appearance".
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) and is also used to write -kun.[10] Informal to subordinates; can also be affectionate; formerly very polite. Among peers typically used with 僕 boku.[8] Often seen as rude or assuming when used with superiors, elders or strangers.[8]
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 only used in spoken language.
ki-sha きしゃ 貴社 formal, similar to onsha both only used in written language as opposed to onsha

– 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 "he/she" or "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" or "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".[11]

– 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 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 both Used when representing one's own company.

– 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".
wagahai 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-person 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". (Sochira and kochira, sometimes shortened to sochi and kochi, are still sometimes used to mean roughly "you" and "I, we", e.g. kochira koso in response to thanks or an apology means literally "this side is the one" but idiomatically "no, I (or we) thank/apologize to you"; especially common on the telephone, analogous to phrases like "on this end" and "on your end" in English.)

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
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. gata is the rendaku form.
tomo,
domo
とも,
ども
humble (ex. 私ども, watakushi-domo) Casts some aspersion on the mentioned group, so it can be rude. domo is the rendaku form.
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. ^ "The many ways to say "I" in Japanese | nihonshock". nihonshock.com. Retrieved 2016-10-17. 
  7. ^ a b c d Personal pronouns in Japanese Japan Reference. Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  8. ^ a b c d e f 8.1. Pronouns sf.airnet.ne.jp Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  9. ^ http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=22618#comment-1505689
  10. ^ "old boy". Kanjidict.com. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 
  11. ^ "he". Kanjidict.com. Retrieved 2012-05-07. 

External links[edit]