In English the only main way to refer to oneself is through the first person pronoun “I”. However, in Japanese there are a variety of first person pronouns. Depending on the situation, the specific one used changes.This is a quirk of the language that contrasts with English. Since the first person pronoun a person uses has underlying meanings, it is important for foreigners to become familiar with the distinctions. Translation technology has become advanced, nevertheless since English lacks an equivalent, in order to understand Japanese pronouns it is necessary to learn and research them, as well as their role in society.
In the Japanese language formality is extremely important. There are specific words and sentence structures used for different occasions. Respect is an essential component for communication that manifests itself within the language in many ways, such as the different versions of first person pronouns.
Watashi (私) can be used by men and women in both casual and business settings. It is formal and is the first person pronoun that foreigners learning the language are taught. There is also an even more formal version, Watakushi. Both grew to be used as personal pronouns from their original meaning of “private”. Over time the meaning shifted from referring to things that are personal, to referring to a person’s own self. From there it became a personal pronoun in the thirteenth century. While there are many first person pronouns to choose from,Watashi is still the optimal choice for foreigners. The usage of personal pronouns is based on a context which is hard for foreigners to understand. Therefore unless a person is assured of fluency they should be careful of their usage of first person pronouns other than Watashi. A more feminine version of Watashi, Atashi is used almost exclusively by women. Atashi is more casual, and appears more often in casual conversation. While it is presently a feminine pronoun, in the Edo era male artisans used it. This is one example of how the usage changes over time. Japanese is a living language, so the specific connotations of each pronoun can change.
Gender is critical to which personal pronoun a person chooses to use, as there are certain implications associated with each one. While it is true that men use Watashi, it can be seen as stiff. The two other main first person pronouns used by men are Ore (俺) and Boku (僕). Ore is masculine and casual. Ore is another first person pronoun that probably used to be second person. For this reason it is not completely male, as in many dialects it is still used by women. Boku is also casual, but more humble and soft; that humble impression is because Boku used to be the personal pronoun of male servants.Boku is commonly used among young boys. Men often switch between first person pronouns depending on the situation. With a Japanese article from Coto Academy written by a male author saying that “even within a close relationship between Ore and Boku the image I give is different, so which one I use depends on the person.” (“親しい間柄でも俺と僕は与えるイメージが異なるため、どちらを使うかは人によっても異なります。”) For men the usage is quite fluid and adaptable.
Those are the basic examples, but there are many more. In the Kansai dialect women use Uchi, which means house, to refer to themselves. This has recently become more popular among teenagers. Another trend is for women to use Boku or even Ore, this appears to be inspired by anime and pop culture. In many Japanese pop songs female singers use Boku. In a similar vein, even referring to oneself in third person is an option. Doing so is seen as cute, but childish—it would be odd for an adult to do this. It seems that as women become more prominent in society the male oriented roles become more gender neutral. At the very least as society changes the use of language adapts as well.
There are also a variety of archaic pronouns that are no longer in use. Most of these represent specific members of society. For example, Chin (朕) was exclusive to the emperor, and Sessha (拙者) which was used by Samurai in the Feudal age. While such pronouns are no longer in use, they still appear in media and portrayals of the past. They also give insight into just how integral a person’s place in society is to everyday life and perception.
English, and the other romance languages lack these distinctions. “I” is gender neutral and implies nothing about the speaker. The reason for this difference stems from the previously stated importance of formality, and of context. In English the statement “I go to school.” portrays only basic knowledge about the identity of the speaker, and the setting in which they spoke. The same statement in Japanese would provide information about the probable gender of the speaker, and how formal the setting is. For example “ore wa gakkou ni ikimasu (俺は学校に行き ます。）translates into “I go to school.” but contains a great deal more information. From the use of the pronoun Ore, it is implied that the speaker is a comparatively masculine boy in a casual setting. The possibility of this statement being said to an elder is also reduced, as using Ore in that scenario is impolite. Of course that example somewhat reduces other facets of the language used in the sentence, because the form of the sentence in general is formal,Though, the basic idea stays the same.
Through examining this difference in language it can be easier to understand other cultures. This includes the other Romance languages, as it can be understood that in such societies formality in language is not nearly as important. In Japanese the context of honorific speech is essential for communication. While in this article the different versions of “I” were explored in Japanese, honorific speech is much more complicated. There are also many different forms of “you” and a lot of the time personal pronouns are not even used. The differences between English and Japanese are numerous, but through their examination both languages reveal the spirit of their cultures.
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