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NATLANG: Japanese personal pronouns was Re: QUESTION: types of plurals, few/many

From:Tim May <butsuri@...>
Date:Thursday, June 20, 2002, 23:05
I've tagged this as NATLANG - we really should have a tag to denote
discussions of natural language features which don't have anything in
particular to do with any conlang (I refer only to this post in this
sense, as Mike Karapcik's original was a perfectly relevant reply to
Roger Mills about Mike's proposed conlang feature).

Karapcik, Mike writes:

 >         What I thought of was a cycling or change of pronouns.
 >         There is a similar case in Japanese. The 2nd person pronouns tend to
 > change in how honorific / pejorative they are over time. For example, "kimi"
 > was very honorific about 100-80 years ago. Then, it slid down and became
 > respectful. When I took Japanese about 11 years ago, the sensei (who worked
 > in Tokyo for 7 years, and his wife was from Hokkaido) said that "kimi" was a
 > step down from the speaker. It's something people use when speaking with
 > custodians, menial laborers, or someone they are annoyed with. A friend of
 > mine is taking Japanese now (starting level 5 in the fall, and his sensei is
 > from Japan), and he says "kimi" is very informal and casual, often used
 > among young friends (*not* a superior).
 >         Similarly, "kisama" is used in some old poetry (I think he said 300
 > years old or so) as a respectful form of address. Now, while it's one of the
 > second person pronouns, it's usually translated as "bastard" or "you,
 > a**hole".

I was reading about this recently.  Have you ever read Takao Suzuki's
_Words in Context_ (previously published (in abridged translation) as
_Japanese and the Japanese: Words in Culture_, originally _Kotoba to
Bunka_)?  It has a section comparing Japanese and Indo-European
personal pronouns, and suggests that it may be misleading to
categorize the former as personal pronouns at all, so great are the

I can quote from it if you're not familiar with it, and you're
interested, but here I'll be brief.  The same thing happened with the
1st person pronouns.  They started out as set phrases - things like
"servant", the original meaning of _boku_ - with concrete meanings
which implied respect to the addressee.  When they became standardized
as personal pronouns, they became gradually less respectful.

At the time Suzuki was writing (1970s) there were no 2nd person
pronouns which could refer to the superior member of a conversation.
He doesn't list any 1st person pronouns which can be used by a
superior*, although I believe there are some.  They may not be in
common use, though - the only one I can remember is _chin_, which can
only be used by the Emperor.  If the trend (first identified by Kanae
Sakuma) is as general as it appears, even these would have originally
been terms of euphemistic self-degredation.

This all happened relatively recently.  None of the personal pronouns
in modern Japanese existed in Old Japanese (up to around the Heian
period, I think) (at least, not as pronouns).  By contrast, most IE
pronouns are cognates with PIE roots, in continuous use over a period
of thousands of years.

* There's a diagram showing the terms used by a 40-year old
  elementary-school-teacher to refer to himself and to the addressee
  in conversation with various people of inferior, superior and equal
  rank.  There isn't any attempt to exhaustively demonstrate all the
  terms of address in Japanese.


Nik Taylor <fortytwo@...>NATLANG: Japanese personal pronouns was Re: QUESTION: types ofplurals, few/many