A life learning language corner #1: Me, Myself and I

This is a new part of the blog that you'll be seeing more of in the coming weeks and months. Its about time I started talking about language and what effect it has on my reality. The hardships, the successes, and the continuous confusion will be analyzed and the everyday experiences will be explored. Some of the comments I make are from personal experiences and others from excessive studying. However, I also state my opinions and realize that I’m not going to get things right on the first try essentially. This I can say is the beginning of a gathering of ideas and thoughts I have been holding onto for some time.

I can remember back to the first days of language class where I learned my first words in Japanese. Words like ‘book’, ‘sun’, ‘Japan’, ‘library’ and ‘I’. I remember very vividly my first Japanese Sensei in high school telling all the boys in the class they’d be referring to themselves as ぼく (boku) and the girls as わたし (watashi). Immediately I begin to believe there’s a male and female form for addressing oneself. “Not to worry”, my Sensei said, “When you grow up (or if you want to sound like an adult) then you can use watashi”. This was how we began to structure some of are first sentence like ‘I like Japan’ and ‘Today I am going to the Library’ thinking we had it right saying boku and watashi with every sentence. Well there are a lot of things they don’t teach you in textbooks. It turns out that addressing yourself and others with English speakers call pronouns is quite a different thing all together in Japanese. First off you don’t need to say “I” and “you” especially when its implied or context sensitive. If you’re talking about yourself, family, etc. it is implied after the onset of the conversation, which is why missing the beginning of a conversation can lead to huge confusion. One of the things I come across the most when correcting English paper from native Japanese speakers is leaving the subject out of the sentence when grammatically it is impossible to finish the sentence without one. The subject is not important if it’s already known what is being talked about. However, English is subject crazy. I can remember back to the elementary school days when the teachers would ask you to find a way to write a paper without starting every sentence with “the” or “I”. It got to the point where I was to believe that you weren’t suppose to refer to yourself at all in Japanese or as little as possible, which also lead to confusion and people wondering if I was talking about myself or someone else. So obviously there is a middle ground for how these words should be used.

So another problem I’ve had is how to refer to others. There are various ways to say you but unlike the word you they imply a relationship with who you’re speaking with. I remember really early on in my stay here talking to a friend of mine using the word あなた (anata) and being told to stop. The reasoning was is that the word is rarely used and can have the connotation of addressing one’s lover. It was kind of a surprise because when I learned this word that was never explained. At this point I’ve given up on using these types of words and just sticking with people’s names. There is another form 君 (kimi) that is an informal way to refer to "you" and is also used as a title following the name (kun) usually for males, and boys (12/8/07 thanks for the correction Justin). Maybe the most confusing form is the he/she form referring to someone 彼、彼女 (kare, kanojo) which can refer to a formal way to refer to someone at the same time it also has the meaning of boyfriend or girlfriend. This right here is enough to stop me from referring to others with out creating confusion about the relationship of the person I’m talking about.

When using these words something interesting happens. Instead of just saying “I”, “me”, “you” one has to think about the relationship he/she has with the listener. There is the very informal male form of “I” 俺 (ore) which can be offensive to some people (I've actually heard that some women don't like guys who to refer to themselves this way) and the very formal non-gender form わたくし (watakushi) that’s purpose is to place you below the listener. To be straight, none of these words translate and are really quite numerous if you count some of the more archaic forms and honorific forms (more on honorifics another time).

Some of these pro-noun like words have contextual meaning that paints an image to the listener whether to show the speakers affection or pique towards another. One of these words has changed quite a bit in the recent past. お宅 (otaku) once a very formal form of you is now used to describe someone who is obsessive or nerdy. The form is not only a reference to another person but can also mean that person’s residence. Another mystery to me is the use of the word うち (uchi) usually used by women referring to themselves, their possessions, or family members kind of like the word "my" in english. The mystery is is this the same uchi that refers to house or home? One source says yes and another says no. If the answer is yes then a sense of self and a sense of family or household could be one and the same. Another thing I’ve noticed is a tendency for some women to refer to themselves in the third person. This makes me question what is the sense of self that these people hold and how is it different from how other people think.

I do think that studying Japanese makes one rethink how they think about themselves and others, or at least how to rephrase sentences without the pro-nouns. It leads me to think a lot about English and so much of it seems to be about “us” and “them”, “you” and “me”, “mine” and “yours”. I’m reminded of the various seminars at Evergreen where giving an opinion seemed to be so confrontational. The delicate way of phrasing how you have an opinion differing from someone else’s will seemingly come down to a my opinion vs. someone else’s. Those tension thick discussions I have yet to witness in any of the seminar classes I’ve had while being in Japan. I can’t say that it has to do with how people phrase their sentences but its definitely a different attitude.

1 comment:

phreakymonkey said...

A few notes... 自分 (jibun) is also often used as 'I', and 君 (kimi) is non-gender specific, although the same kanji is an informal male honorific when attached to a name (-kun). Other than that, I think you pretty much covered the main ones.