Anyone who studies Japanese learns early on in her or his study that there are other ways of saying "I" than the standard "watakushi." This is odd from the point of view of the speakers of English and most European languages. Each form of "I" defines the speaker's notion of self-presentation according to gender, station, profession, self-image, and, sometimes, regional origin. This is one peculiar feature of this language and reveals something essential about this culture that pays an inordinate attention to the precise degree of self-condescension in presenting oneself to the interlocutor.

Every language, of course, has hierarchy markers. That they appear in the speaker's designation of her/himself is what makes the phenomenon noteworthy.

I can easily come up with the following twenty odd forms of "I". Some of these are variants of "watakushi" but they are lexically marked and each of them carries a clearly registered connotation.

watakushi: standard form, gender-neutral

atakushi: variant, feminine and affected (ladylike)

watashi: less formal than watakushi, gender-neutral

atashi: further slurred, largely feminine

atai: feminine and lowly (girlish)

washi: masculine, elderly

wasshi: masculine, elderly, coarse

asshi: masculine, coarse

ware: literary, formal

wai: antiquated; also used to mean "you"

ai: a variant of wai

boku: masculine, youthful

ore: masculine, youthful, coarse

onore: literary, formal

oresama: masculine, arrogant

wagahai: masculine, self-aggrandizing

yo: literary, antiquated (not Spanish)

jibun: military

chin: imperial

uchi: Kyoto, Osaka and Western Japan

sessha: masculine, samurai, condescending

temae: formal, humbling; could also mean "you" (belittling)

watakushime: self-deprecating


It must be pointed out further that "you" also comes in different words: anata, anta, anatasama, sonata, omae, omeh, temae, temeh, kimi, kiden, kisama, gozen, onushi, etc. They are not as numerous because the preferred form of address is to use the title or name, each with the proper honorific to go with it.


T. Kaori Kitao, 03.03.00


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