Japanese pronouns

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Pronouns in the Japanese language are used less frequently than they would be in many other languages[1], mainly because there is no grammatical requirement to explicitly mention the subject in a sentence. So, pronouns can seldom be translated from English to Japanese on a one-on-one basis.

Most of the Japanese pronouns are not pure: they have other meanings. In English the common pronouns have no other meaning: for example, "I", "you", and "they" have no use except as pronouns. But in Japanese the words used as pronouns have other meanings: for example, 私 means "private" or "personal"; 僕 means "manservant".

The words Japanese speakers use to refer to other people are part of the more encompassing system of Japanese honorifics and should be understood within that frame. The choice of pronoun will depend on the speaker's social status compared to the listener, the subject, and the objects of the statement.

As a general rule, the first person pronouns (e.g. watashi, 私) and second person pronouns (e.g. anata, 貴方) are avoided, especially in formal speech. In many sentences, when an English speaker would use the pronouns "I" and "you", they are omitted in Japanese. Personal pronouns can be left out when it is clear who the speaker is talking about.[2]

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 circumstances: for example, kureru (くれる) means "give", but in the sense of "somebody gives something to me or somebody very close to me"; while ageru (あげる) also means "give", but in the sense of "someone gives something to someone (usually not me)". Sentences consisting of a single adjective (often those ending in -shii) are often assumed to have the speaker as the subject. For example, the adjective sabishii can represent a complete sentence meaning "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 situations it can be considered uncouth to refer to the listener (second person) by a pronoun. If it is required to state the second person explicitly, 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 bring about another challenge as men and women use different pronouns to refer to themselves. Social standing also determines how a person refers to themselves, as well as how a person refers to the person they are talking to.


[edit] List of Japanese pronouns

The following list is incomplete. There are numerous such pronoun forms that exist in Japanese, which vary by region, dialect, and so forth. This is a list of the most commonly used forms. "It" has no direct equivalent in Japanese.[2]

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Level of speech Gender Notes

- I -
watashi わたし formal both わて wate in the Kansai dialect.
watakushi わたくし very formal both The most formal polite version.[3]
ware われ very formal both
waga わが 我が very formal both Means "my" or "our". Used in speeches and formalities; 我が社 wagasha (our company) or 我が国 wagakuni (our country).
ore おれ informal men Meaning "I". Frequently used by men.[4] It can be seen as rude depending on the situation. Establishes a sense of masculinity. Used with peers or those younger or of lesser status, indicating one's own status. Among close friends or family, its usage is a sign of familiarity rather than masculinity or superiority.
boku ぼく informal men and boys rarely women[5][3] Also meaning "I". Used in giving a sense of casual deference, uses the same kanji for servant (shimobe), especially a male one, from a Sino-Japanese word. Can also be used towards children, (English equivalent - "kid" or "squirt")
washi わし old men Colloquial. Often used in fictitious creations to stereotypically represent old male characters.
atai あたい very informal women Slang version of あたし atashi.[3]
atashi あたし informal women Often considered cute.[3] Rarely used in written language, but common in conversation, especially among younger women.
atakushi あたくし formal women
uchi うち informal mostly young girls Means one's own. Often used in the Kansai and Kyūshū dialects. Uses the same kanji for house ( uchi).
(own name) informal both Used by small children, considered cute.
oira おいら informal both Similar to 俺, but more casual. May give off sense of more country bumpkin.
ora おら both Dialect in Kanto and further north. Gives off sense of country bumpkin. Used among children influenced by main characters in Dragon Ball and Crayon Shin-chan.

- 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.[2][4] 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.[3] Similar to omae. Often expresses anger or contempt towards a person. Generally seen as rude or uneducated. Used by old men who also use washi instead of watashi.
otaku おたく お宅, 御宅 formal, polite both Polite form of saying "your house", also used as a pronoun to address a person with slight sense of distance. Otaku/Otakku/Otaki/Otakki turned into a slang referring to some type of geek/obsessive hobbyist, as they often addressed each other as Otaku.
omae おまえ お前 very informal both Used by men with more frequency,[4] but also used by women. Expresses contempt/anger, the speaker's higher status or age, or a very casual relationship among peers. Used with おれ ore.[4] Should never be said to elders.
temee, temae てめえ,
手前 rude and confrontational[3] mainly men Temee, a version of temae, is more rude. Used when the speaker is very angry.
kisama きさま 貴様 extremely hostile and rude[3] mainly men 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.[4] The same kanji is used to write -kun[1]. It is informal to subordinates; can also be affectionate; formerly very polite. Sometimes rude or assuming when used with superiors, elders or strangers.[4]
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 both Literally "that person".
yatsu やつ informal both A thing (very informal), dude, guy.
koitsu こいつ 此奴 very informal, implies contempt both Denotes a person or material nearby the speaker. Analogous to "this one".
soitsu そいつ 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 あいつ 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 now always means boyfriend.

- she -
kanojo かのじょ 彼女 formal (neutral) and informal (girlfriend) both Can also mean lover.[2]

- we -
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, used when representing one's own company both

- they -
kare-ra かれら 彼等 common in spoken Japanese and writing both

- notable others -
ware-ware われわれ 我々 formal "we" sometimes "they" both Mostly used when speaking on behalf of a company or group.
Romaji Hiragana Kanji Meaning Level of speech Gender Notes

- Archaic pronouns -
asshi あっし I men From the Edo period.
sessha せっしゃ 拙者 I men Used by samurai in the Edo period. From a Sino-Japanese word meaning "one who is clumsy".
waga-hai わがはい 我が輩,吾輩 I both 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 Ancient form of "watakushi".
warawa わらわ I Ancient form of "watakushi".
yo 余, 予 I men Archaic first-person singular pronoun.
nanji なんじ 汝, less commonly also 爾 you, often translated as "thou" both Spelled as なむち namuti in the most ancient texts and later as なんち nanti or なんぢ nandi.
onushi おぬし 御主 men Used by samurai to talk to people of equal or lower rank. 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 medieval times, but now used when speaking to an inferior in a pompous and old-fashioned tone.

[edit] Suffixes

Suffixes are added to pronouns to make them plural.

Romaji Hiragana Kanji Level of speech Gender Notes

- we -
tachi たち informal. examples:
  • 私達, watashi-tachi,
  • あなた達, anata-tachi
  • 彼女たち, kanojo-tachi
  • 君たち, kimi-tachi
both Makes the pronoun plural. 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 or gata がた formal (ex. あなた方) both More polite than 達 tachi.
domo ども humble (ex. 私ども, watakushi-domo) both casts some dispersion on the mentioned group, so it can be rude
ra informal (彼らkarera 俺ら, ore-ra, 奴ら, yatsu-ra, あいつら, aitsu-ra) both Used with informal pronouns. Frequently used with hostile words (ex. お前ら, omae-ra).

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Maynard, Senko K: "An Introduction to Japanese Grammar and Communication Strategies", page 45. The Japan Times, 4th edition, 1993. ISBN 4-7890-0542-9
  2. ^ a b c Akiyama, Carol; Nobuo Akiyama (2003) (in English). Japanese (Second ed.). Barron's. p. 30. ISBN 9780764120619. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Personal pronouns in Japanese Japan Reference. Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  4. ^ a b c d e f 8.1. Pronouns sf.airnet.ne.jp Retrieved on October 21, 2007
  5. ^ TRANS Nr. 16: Rika Ito (St. Olaf College, MN USA): BOKU or WATASHI: Variation in self-reference terms among Japanese children

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