Monday, August 22, 2016

Watashi, Ore, Boku & Others - 私, 俺, 僕

Watashi 私, ore 俺, and boku 僕 are all words that mean "I" in Japanese. They are "first person pronouns," ichinin-shou 一人称.

But why are there so many ways to say "I" in Japanese? What's the difference between them? How does it work?

Nuances

To begin with, let's make on thing clear: watashi, watakushi, ore, boku, etc. are all identical in function. The only difference between them is in nuance.

Basically:
  • watashi
    (neutral.)
  • watakushi 私 (same kanji.)
    (more formal.)
  • atashi あたし
    (feminine.)
  • ore
    (masculine.)
  • boku
    (masculine.)

Social Contexts

In real-life Japan where real-life Japanese is used, there are some social contexts where one'd be expected to use one pronoun instead of another, which means figuring out which pronoun to use is important.

As one would expect, the safest bet is watashi 私, since it's neutral. You can usually say watashi to mean "I" and nobody will find it weird.

Excerpt from manga "Your Name." Kimi no Na Wa. 君の名は。 with Tachibana Taki 立花 瀧 trying to use a first person pronoun his colleagues approve of. Transcript: あ…私 私? わたくし? いや 僕… ええ…? 俺…?
Manga: "Your Name." Kimi no Na Wa. 君の名は。
  • (Taki tries to use a personal pronoun.)
  • a... watashi あ…私
    Ah... I...
  • watashi? 私?
    "Watashi?"
    (his friends look puzzled.)
  • watakushi? わたくし?
    "Watakushi"?
    (nope.)
  • iya boku... いや 僕…
    Erm... "boku"?
    (nope.)
  • ee...? ええ…?
    Eeh...?
    (hang in there, Taki!)
  • ore....? 俺…?
    "Ore"?
    (*nods*)

Like I said, you can usually say watashi to mean "I" and nobody will find it weird. But that doesn't mean watashi is always the right answer.

In the case above, for example, Taki's colleagues found it weird he was using watashi, but were fine with ore. This happens because Taki's colleagues all use ore. If Taki alone uses watashi, the neutral pronoun becomes feminine by comparison, and thus it stands out as weird.

In other words: if everybody is using ore, why aren't you?

Conversely, there are cases someone wants to deliberately stand out. Like saying the formal watakushi instead of the usual watashi to give the impression you're a serious person doing serious formal business, and not just anyone.

Characters' Identity & Self-Expression

In manga and anime, personal pronouns are often part of a character's identity and self-expression.

Sometimes changing from a pronoun to another can be seen as character development, since it implies a shift of the character's identity. (e.g. boku to ore.)

Although sometimes it's just the character speaking politely temporarily. (often in a comedic way, by stopping using ore in a sentence and using watashi, as well adding masu to verbs.)

Certain character archetypes pretty much always use certain pronouns, which then become tropes, and characters that break free from said tropes by using unusual pronouns are labelled into counter-tropes.

So understanding the difference between the pronouns helps you understand some of the considerations that were put in the design of certain characters.

Grammar

Grammatically, there's no difference between watashi, ore, boku, etc. Every time there's a phrase with watashi, you can replace it by ore or boku and keep the same literal meaning.

"I" in Japanese

For example, to say "I" in Japanese, any of the words would work:
  • watashi ga keeki wo tabemashita 私がケーキを食べました
    ore ga keeki wo tabemashita 俺がケーキを食べました
    boku ga keeki tabemashita 僕がケーキを食べました
    I ate the cake.

"Me" in Japanese

In Japanese, there's no separate word for "me." No subject and object pronouns. The same word that's used for "I" is used for "me."

That is: watashi, boku, ore, etc. are translated as "I" when they are subject, and "me" when they are object in the sentence.

For example:
  • watashi ga okuru 私が送る
    I send.
  • watashi wo okuru 私を送る
    Send me. (literally, like put me into a mail box or something)
  • watashi ni okuru 私に送る
    Send to me. (an e-mail etc.)

"We" in Japanese

There are no separate words for "we" and "us" either. Instead, a pluralizing suffix like tachi たち or ra is added to the pronoun.
  • watashitachi 私達
  • oretachi 俺たち
  • orera 俺ら
  • bokutachi 僕たち
  • bokura 僕ら

Note that you don't switch from one to another just because it's plural. If you'd use watashi to say "I," then you use watashi-tachi to say "we." If you'd use boku to say "I," then you'd use boku-tachi to say "we."

My, Mine, Our, Ours

There are no separate words for "my," "mine," "our," "ours" in Japanese either. In this case all you have to do is add the no の particle in front of the pronoun. For example:
  • Ore no Imouto ga Konna-ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai 俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない
    My Little Sister Can't Be This Cute.
  • Bokurano 僕らの
    Ours.

Implicit "I"

In Japanese, it's unnatural to use a first person pronoun in every sentence.

This means you should avoid using watashi, ore, boku, etc. as if they were "I" in English, even though they do translate to "I," because the way Japanese works is different from English.

In particular, the subject in a Japanese phrase is often omitted if it can be implied, whereas English requires the subject even when there is none.

For example, in English we say "it's raining." What is it? Why can't we say "is raining" instead? Because the English grammar requires a subject. So we have this "dummy it," or "weather it," that's a pronoun existing only to validate the syntactic requirement of the English grammar.

Japanese doesn't even have an "it."

Anyway, an example of the subject being omitted In Japanese:
  • watashi ga keeki wo tabetaa 私がケーキを食べた
    I ate the cake.
  • keeki wo tabeta ケーキを食べた
    Ate the cake. (who did?)
    [I] ate the cake. (it's implicit.)

A Note About Ambiguity

Note that there's ambiguity in the phrase above. It really only says "ate cake," there's not even a "the" article in Japanese. You just assume it means "I ate the cake" because that's probably the case.

It's more likely than someone saying "you ate the cake" or "he ate the cake" or "Bob ate the cake" in that context.

Note, however, that the same phrase in a different context could have a different meaning. For example:
  • kare ga nani wo shita? 彼が何をした?
    What did he do?
  • keeki wo tabeta ケーキを食べた
    [He] ate the cake.

Watashi

The word watashi 私 is the most basic way to say "I" in Japanese. Anyone can use it, male, female, young and old, and it doesn't carry a lot of nuance with it, at least not by itself.

Comparatively Feminine

Although watashi is supposed to be neutral, it can sound feminine by comparison.

For example, if everybody around you is using ore 俺, a masculine pronoun, and you're the only guy using watashi 私, you're then using a less masculine pronoun than everyone else, in other words, you're using a feminine pronoun.

On the other hand, if you're surrounded by people using watashi 私 and you're using watashi 私 too, it doesn't sound feminine. It sounds neutral.

Characters Using Watashi

In manga and anime, this is specially true, because the polite situations that'd require watashi hardly come by, so every guy, boy and man uses either ore or boku or another masculine pronoun. And watashi ends up being used almost exclusively by female characters.

That's not to say there aren't male characters that use watashi. They exist. It's just that ore and boku are more popular pronouns for male characters in manga.

All Might saying "I am here," watashi ga kita 私が来た, in manga Boku no Hero Academia 僕のヒーローアカデミア.
Male character: All Might.
Manga: Boku no Hero Academia 僕のヒーローアカデミア
  • watashi ga kita が来た
    • I came. (literally, kita 来た is past of the verb kuru 来る, "to come.")
    • I am here. (usually translated as this because of reasons.)

Comparatively Distant

Compared to boku 僕 and ore 俺, the pronoun watashi 私 is sometimes seen as distant.

That is, between friends, a guy using watashi might sound overly formal. As if they are not friends enough for him to relax and stop being overly polite.

Between lovers, the boyfriend using watashi may imply the same. And some guys stop using watashi and start using boku or ore when talking to their girlfriends as their relationship becomes more intimate.

Conversely, there are situations where distance is desirable: to show professionalism. In which case using anything but watashi shows a lack of professionalism. In particular, using ore can be seen as impolite in situations where watashi is expected.

Kanji

The kanji of the word watashi also shows up in words related to "private" and "personal", which just shows how closely related it is to that meaning. For example:
  • shiritsu 私立
    Private establishment. (like a private school)
  • shiyou 私用
    Personal use.

Watakushi わたくし

The word watakushi 私 also means "I," but it's like a formal version of watashi 私.
  • 私 (kanji)
  • わたくし (hiragana)
  • ワタクシ (katakana)

Note that, although they sound similar, watashi 私 and watakushi 私 are just different words written with the same kanji. They are not the same word.

In Real Life

In real-life, you'd use watakushi to sound like you're serious about your business. To give an impression. To stand out as a true professional and man of business.

However, recently, there have been reports of teenagers using that word more casually, so who knows if its nuance is going to stay the same in the future.

In Anime

In manga and anime, watakushi 私 is rarely used, simply because most characters in anime are in high-school, so they have nothing to do with business and business-speak.

Characters that do use watakushi tend to be office workers, or butlers of respectable families serving some ojousama お嬢様 or another.

Atashi あたし

The pronoun atashi あたし is used exclusively by females: girls and women. Guys don't use this word.
  • 私 (kanji)
  • あたし (hiragana)
  • アタシ (katakana)

I think this is obvious but atashi is just watashi said wrong slightly differently. It may even be written with the same kanji, too, as atashi 私, but it's normally written without kanji instead, as atashi あたし.

Female Language

The Japanese is a gendered language. This means there are many words that are used specifically by women and aren't used by men and vice-versa. Atashi is one of such words: it's not used by men, only by women. A guy using it would be weird.

To clear things up: women can use watashi and other pronouns. The word watashi is neutral. There's no law forcing them to use atashi. It's just that some women prefer to use atashi instead.

Atakushi あたくし

The pronoun atakushi あたくし would be a polite way of saying "I." Basically, the same thing that happened to watashi in the word atashi is happening to the watakushi this time.
  • 私 (kanji)
  • あたくし (hiragana)
  • アタクシ (katakana)

This word isn't really common and seems to be a way to forcefully mix atashi and watakushi together. It may appear in manga, used by pompous, high-class women. It seems some real-life celebrities also use it.

Ore

The pronoun ore 俺 means "I," too, but it's used mostly by men, and it's also the casual pronoun most young men use.
  • 俺 (kanji)
  • おれ (hiragana)
  • オレ (katakana)

Assertive and Impolite

Generally speaking, ore is a word that implies self-assertion, that is, it implies an air of confidence, superiority, importance. It means you're full of yourself, except just a little bit full of yourself.

In casual contexts, among friends, such nuance doesn't really matter, since everybody is using ore, everybody is self-asserting themselves, so nobody sounds like they're self-asserting more than anyone else.

In contexts that require politeness and formality, however, suddenly ore becomes an impolite word by contrast. That is, in a casual context, nobody cares. In a formal context, people do care. So some guy can very well use watashi while working and ore when hanging with his friends or girlfriend.

Note that there are also a lot of other contexts where politeness may be expected. For example: talking to strangers, writing a letter or business e-mail, giving a speech, talking to your senpai, boss, etc. Ultimately it depends on whether the person you're talking to cares about it or not. But such social standards exist.

Ore Used By Girls

Although ore is normally used by guys, there are some girls that use it too. Probably because it makes them sound boyish, or because they want to sound different.

Ultimately, there's really no difference between a girl who uses ore and one who doesn't. The only difference is that they use a different pronoun and that's it.

Orekko オレっ娘

In anime, female characters that use the ore pronoun are called orekko オレっ娘.

Ore-Sama 俺様

The word ore-sama 俺様 is an over-the-top way to say "I" in Japanese by combining the self-assertive pronoun ore with the respectful honorific sama. Basically, it's a ridiculous way to imply you're too important and such a big deal.

This word isn't used seriously. It's mostly used in manga and anime as a trope when you have a character that thinks he's the king of the world.

Oira おいら

The pronoun oira おいら means "I," it's a less common variation of ore 俺, and it's used mostly by males.

Example

Mineta saying オイラは Mt.レディ!! from manga: Boku no Hero Academia 僕のヒーローアカデミア
Manga: Boku no Hero Academia 僕のヒーローアカデミア
  • oira wa
    Mt. (maunto) Redhi!!

    オイラは Mt.(マウント)レディ!!
    I'm Mt. Lady!! (No! Wrong!)
    For me, [it's] Mt. Lady!! (correct.)
    • Context: Mineta picked Mt. Lady for a thing.
      What thing it was doesn't matter.
      What matters is: the wa は particle here means "as for."
      For you, X. For me, Y.
      For you, the Flame Hero, Endeavor. For me, the giantess heroine, Mt. Lady.

Origin

The origin of the word oira is the word orera 俺ら, "we," a plural for ore. You can see oira is just orera pronounced slightly differently. (おいら - dictionary.goo.ne.jp)

Note that, although orera means "we," first-person plural, the word oira means "I," first-person singular. The plural orera is merely the origin of oira.

Ora おら

The pronoun ora おら means "I," it's a less common variation of ore 俺, and it's used mostly by males.

(not to be mistaken with ora ora ora ora オラオラオラオラ)

Boku

The pronoun boku 僕 is a complicated one. Generally, you could say it's used mostly by boys, children. Except that it's also used by some old men. And girls, too. It's a mess.
  • 僕 (kanji)
  • ぼく (hiragana)
  • ボク (katakana)

Boku vs. Ore

Broadly speaking, the difference between boku and ore is that ore feels more self-assertive while boku feels more reserved. This can be observed in multiple ways.

Age

First off, boys who grow up using boku, then later realize only children (like them) use boku, and that it sounds rather childish, so they start using ore in their teenager years and continue to do so most likely for the rest of their lives.

Second, guys who enter university or a company and do the opposite: stop using ore and start using boku. Because it gives the impression you're more well-behaved, less assertive, polite.

As you can see, the above creates the awkward situation where a bunch of guys think they've graduated from using the weak, lame boku, to use the ore all cool kids are using, only to backtrack as they progress the career ladder.

Humility

Some presidents of companies and politicians making official statements may choose to use boku as a way to sound humbler than the average person.

In the past, boku was associated with servants, so using boku to refer to yourself was a form of kenjougo 謙譲語, "humble speech." (as you're saying you're but a servant.) Nowadays, this isn't the association make with the pronoun anymore, but the impression remains.

Romance

To women seeking boyfriends and relationships, guys using boku may sound like they lack decisiveness. (implied by the fact they're avoiding using ore on the basis it sounds too self-assertive.)

In some cases, a guy that normally uses boku (or watashi) may switch to ore to imply confidence.

Fight vs. Flight

In manga and anime, the use of boku or ore is part of the design of characters.

Characters who like to start fights almost always use ore, while the timid ones that would rather avoid fighting use boku.

Sometimes, this also denotes the upbringing of the characters: characters from better families tend to use boku.

Rich Boys Using Boku

It's common for a character who is a rich boys, a.k.a. bocchan 坊っちゃん, to use boku 僕 instead of ore 俺 as first-person pronoun.

This reflects the idea that his family wouldn't like him using some non-polite word like ore, and would rather have him use boku and watashi instead, like a proper future heir of a multi-million dollar company.

In some cases, the fact a character is a rich boy is figured out by the fact they use boku. Or, conversely, they try to hide that fact by forcing themselves to use ore instead.

Boku Used by Girls

Although boku is normally used by boys (and men), there are some girls that use it too. Probably because it makes them sound boyish, or because they want to sound different.

Ultimately, there's really no difference between a girl who uses boku and one who doesn't. The only difference is which pronoun they use and that's it.

Bokukko ボクっ娘

In anime, female characters that use the boku pronoun are called bokukko ボクっ娘.

For reference, Hestia from DanMachi and Zero Two from FranXX use boku. They have literally nothing to do in common.

When Boku Means "Boy"

Sometimes the word boku means literally "boy," as in, referring to one random boy, rather than being a first person pronoun. This usage is a lot less common, but it exists.

Geboku 下僕

Vastly unrelated is the word geboku 下僕, which means "manservant." Literally a servant who's male.

In anime, it sometimes happen that some guy is fighting some powerful evil woman and she says she will make him her geboku. Or sometimes a tsundere saying a guy is her geboku. That sort of thing.

Own Name

A way to to say "I" in Japanese that is used by children is to use your own name instead of a pronoun. Though it's common for young children to do this, it's frowned upon in not-so-young children.

Since most anime features characters 10 years old and above, you'll rarely see this way of speaking used.
  • fuuka ga yotsuba kaitekureta! ふーかがよつばかいてくれた!
    Fuuka drew me! (said by Yotsuba)
  • yotsuba mo yaru! よつばもやる!
    I'll do it too! (said by Yotsuba)

Washi わし and Asshi あっし

The word washi in Japanese is used mostly by older males, and asshi is just a variation of it. Neither are common. They just lie on the other side of the spectrum compared to boku, which is used mostly by children.

Ware

The word ware 我 is a more formal way of saying "I." Unlike other personal pronouns, it tends to be used not toward yourself but toward the people you represent.

  • 我 (kanji)
    Note: because it's formal, it tends to be always written with kanji.
  • われ (hiragana)
  • ワレ (katakana)

Ware Nagara 我ながら

The pronoun ware often appears in the set phrase ware nagara 我ながら, which means "even if it's according to myself," although more literally it would mean "while [it's] myself." For example:
  • ware nagara yoku yatta 我ながらよくやった
    Did well, even if I say so myself.
  • ware nagara yoku toreta shashin 我ながらよく撮れた写真
    Took that photo well, even if I say so myself.

Wareware 我々

The term wareware 我々 is the plural form of ware 我. That is, you don't say ware-tachi 我達, for example, you say wareware 我々.

This word is often used to speak about people you represent, like your company, or country.
  • wareware ningen wa nani wo sureba ii? 我々人間は何をすればいい?
    What should us humans do?

Waga 我が

The pronoun waga 我が is the possessive form of ware 我. That is, unlike other pronouns that get the no の particle to make their possessive forms (boku no, etc.), the word ware becomes waga 我が instead.

This happens because in the past ga が had the same possessive function no の has today. (see the article on for examples.)

In anime, it's generally used my characters of grandeur.
  • waga kuni 我が国
    My country.
    Our country.
  • waga tomo 我が友
    My friend.

Uchi うち

The pronoun uchi うち also means "I." As a first person pronoun, it's often used by women, like atashi, but it has certain uses which are used by both genders equally.
  • This word can be written with two different kanji.
    家 when it refers to one's home or family.
    内 when it refers to "inside" of one's group.
    But it's often written without kanji instead.
  • うち (hiragana)
  • ウチ (katakana)

Our Family, Our Business

One particular thing of uchi is that it sometimes refers to your home, family or business instead of yourself, so it gets translated to English as a plural.

This is similar to how waga 我が is used, except uchi isn't formal.
  • uchi no musuko うちの息子
    Our son.
  • uchi niwa terebi ga nai うちにはテレビがない
    In our home, there's no TV.

Jibun 自分 and Onore

Another two words which I think are interesting to talk about are jibun and onore. In Japanese, they don't exactly mean "I" but "oneself," so, besides being used to talk about yourself you can use to talk about other people other selves.
  • jibun ga nanimo dekinai kuseni 自分が何も出来ないくせに
    Even though I can't do anything myself.
    Even though you can't do anything yourself.
  • onore no chikara wo shiri 己の力を知り
    To know your own power.

Another way to think about these is just as "self" and not "yourself" or "myself." Who exactly you're talking about is usually hidden in the context of the conversation.

Plural, We

To say "we" in Japanese you can use the two pluralizing suffixes used to pluralize people. These are tachi 達 and ra 等.
  • watashi-tachi 私達
    We.
  • ore-tachi 俺達
    We.
  • boku-tachi 僕達
    We.
  • kimi-tachi 君達
    You.
  • kare-tachi 彼達
    They.
  • jibun-tachi 自分たち
    Oneselves.

Though they mean the same thing, the ra suffix shows up in some words tachi does not and vice-versa.
  • boku-ra 僕等
    We.
  • ore-ra 俺等
    We.
  • kare-ra 彼等
    They.
  • aitsu-ra あいつら
    They.

Neither pluralizing suffix is used for things. Only for people or things treated like people, like pets for example. In Japanese, the same word often works in both singular and plural. For example, hon wo yomu 本を読む could mean either "read the book" or "read the books."

Another way, for ware 我, it has its own plural which is wareware 我々.
  • ware no teki de aru 我の敵である
    [It] is my enemy.
  • wareware no teki de aru 我々の敵である
    [It] is our enemy.

There are other words which have plural variants like this. The word hitobito 人々, for example, means "the people," while just hito 人 means "person" or "people." The difference is that hitobito always talks about multiple people.

Possessive, My

Since we are here anyway, the way to say something is mine is Japanese is using the grammatical particle no の. It works with any word which means "I."
  • watashi no ie desu 私の家です
    It is my house.
  • boku no inu da 僕の犬だ
    It is my dog.
  • ore no gakkou da 俺の学校だ
    It is my school
  • watashi-tachi no yume 私達の夢
    Our dream
  • jibun no kibou 自分の希望
    One's hope.

One exception is ware 我. With ware 我 the possessive is waga 我が, not ware no 我の. The ga が in waga is a particle like no, and has the same possessive function, however, this usage of ga が is mostly literally. Normally the ga が particle is not used to make possessives.

The no の also works with any other nouns and pronouns, but then the owner of the thing won't be "I."
  • kare no ie desu 彼の家です
    His house.

Names of Animes

The words for "I" can also be found in many names of anime. Here are some of those names and their translations to English.
  • watashi ga motenai no wa dou kangaetemo omaera ga warui 私がモテないのはどう考えてもお前らが悪い!
    No matter how you think about it, it's you guys fault I'm not popular.
  • jitsu wa watashi wa 実は私は
    The truth is I... (something)
  • maji de watashi ni koi shinasai! 真剣で私に恋しなさい!
    Love me for real!
  • watashi ga motete dou sunda 私がモテてどうすんだ
    What am I gonna do if I am popular
  • boku dake ga inai machi 僕だけがいない街
    The city only I am missing.
  • boku no hiiroo akademia 僕のヒーローアカデミア
    My hero academia
  • bokurano ぼくらの
    Ours
  • boku wa tomodachi ga sukunai 僕は友達が少ない
    I have few friends
  • ore monogatari!! 俺物語!!
    I story. My story. The story of "I". (something like that)
  • ore no imouto ga konna ni kawaii wake ga nai 俺の妹がこんなに可愛いわけがない
    My little sister can't be this cute.
  • yahari ore no seishun rabukome wa machigatteiru やはり俺の青春ラブコメはまちがっている
    As I thought, my teenager love comedy is wrong.
  • ore, twintail ni narimasu 俺、ツインテールになります。
    I'll become twintail.
  • kyou kara ore wa!! 今日から俺は!!
    From today on I...

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