On Pronouns


Pronouns. I used to have a hard time with them. What are you talking about? Are you trying to tell me that you aced English Lit but have trouble placing your thees and thines? Don’t be a pretentious twit in the introductory paragraph, I tell myself. And stop talking to yourself without using paragraphs. Or quotation marks. “It’s confusing!” Where was I? Oh yes. Pronouns.

I’m not talking about English pronouns, of course.  Those require no effort whatsoever, unless you’re prone to the occasional bout of delusional grandeur and start pluralizing yourself. I’m talking about Japanese pronouns.

Novices, don’t let the wikipedia page on the subject scare you. You can pretty much go from birth (e.g. watching torrented Naruto episodes on a PSP) to death (e.g. getting homesick after 1 week of working in corporate Japan) with just one of them- you can nampa (ナンパ) at Hachiko ,  jikoPR (自己PR) at an interview, or hold a shazai-kaiken (謝罪会見) with a simple watashi (私). I’ve done at least one of these. Hazard a guess which?

Way back in my childhood (If you’re wondering, I am not in my 80s), I kept a Japanese diary for my weekly Japanese classes. It was basically me pouring my heart out to my teacher (read into that what you will) and receiving nothing but red marks in return- along with, dare I say it, speedier mastery of the language compared to my classmates. Before I started, there was one major dilemma to clear- which pronoun to use?

Watashi just seemed too formal for a diary. Ore (俺), too rough for my tastes. I sure as hell wasn’t going to use wacchi (わっち)- no matter how adorable it sounds. I ended up settling on a simple boku (僕). That said, after three to four diaries riddled with bokubullets I still have trouble referring to myself as boku in speech.

How do natives do it, I wonder? Just a few weeks back I read a horrifically interesting manga, whose main character was bullied at school for being somewhat weird- and for speaking in a somewhat soft manner, using boku. His eventual love interest told him to start talking in a more manly manner by using ore.  At work my boss casually throws around boku– I don’t see anyone calling him a big softy.

Unfortunately I don’t have a crush to tell me which pronoun to use. At work, I’m surrounded by ladies- which may play a teeny-weeny part in why my watashis sound dangerously close to the feminine atashi (あたし). I frequently use uchi (うち) as well… oh dear. If I’m to salvage what remains of my verbal masculinity I should probably look for work with the yakuza and go oraoraora all day long. Well done, you’re probably on a touchy, pinky-less hitman’s kill list. Well at least then I wouldn’t have to think about pronouns- small price to pay.


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