Monday, April 19, 2010

Let's enjoy Japanese: Me, myself, and I, and I, and me...

In English, when you want to refer to yourself, you don't have my choices. It's usually "I" or "me," depending on the word's grammatical function and whether or not you are an intellectually-challenged cartoon character (If me is a dumb enough character, me cannot use "I." Me also inclined to SMASH!). Not so in Japanese, which is just a thread in the tapestry that is a picture of why Japanese is a difficult language for native English-speakers.

In Japanese, there are a number of options depending on one's gender and desired level of politeness: わたくし、わたし、あたし、僕 (ぼく)、俺(おれ)、わし、うち、and more. Figuring out when to use what isn't too difficult, but understanding the nuance of each word can take some time. I'm still working on it.

For a while now I've been a 僕 (ぼく) guy. 俺(おれ) has always struck me as a little too rough/"trying to be cool" and isn't appropriate for more formal situations. 私 (わたし in this case) is a too stiff for a guy to use in casual situations. 僕 is a good medium, so I've become accustomed to using it.

Recently I was talking to my friend Ben (who has lived in Japan and is currently dating a nice Japanese grad student in the States) and he suggested I try using 俺 with my girlfriend. So I did. The next time I texted her I used it, and her response was 「男らしくていいね」 - something like "Nice, it's pretty masculine." She liked it? Should I have been using it all along? The seeds of doubt were sown, so I decided to do some investigating.

The next time I spoke to her on the phone, I asked her about the difference between 僕 and 俺. I've learned that different people seem to have different takes on this. Her feelings are that おれ is perhaps more adolescent but can also be masculine, and is a (friendly?) familiar way of speaking with friends or girlfriend (or family, I suppose). ぼく can sound kind of childish, but is also a bit more polite, and perhaps...refined? I asked her which she thought I should use and she didn't really have a preference.

I also asked one of the English teachers I work with. She's in her mid-twenties, so her perspective should be comparable. She answered similarly. ぼく is usable when trying to be more polite, like when speaking with coworkers or (sometimes) superiors, though you should probably switch to the more formal わたし or わたくし if you're really trying to be polite. おれ is indeed more casual and more masculine, but Teacher also said it can sound a bit adolescent, like a teenage boy or something. She also said she doesn't care which one her boyfriend uses (I bet he uses おれ, though).

My friend Dylan has also been using ぼく for quite a while. He used to use おれ, but had trouble remembering to switch in polite settings, so he made the permanent change. He asked a couple of our female friends, who said that ぼく is 絶対いい (absolutely the way to go). According to them, ぼく seems to carry an air of sensitivity and perhaps intelligence. Plus it doesn't seem to be used as often among guys, so it can set one apart. Indeed, my girlfriend did mention that many 先生(doctors/teachers?) she knows tend to use ぼく.

Joe's girlfriend also prefers him to use 僕. I guess the 僕's have it?

For now I think I'll stick with 僕, but what do you think? If you're a guy in Japan, what do you use? If you're a gal, what do you prefer? And please vote in the little poll in the right sidebar!

英語で名乗ることがぜんぜん難しくない。自分のことの言葉が二つしかないから。"I" と "me"だね。でも日本語はいろいろあるので、英語の母語話者としてちょっと分かりにくいんです。






  1. First of all, go with what you girlfriend recommends! Always a solid bet in any situation.

    Also, I think it really depends on your personality to some degree- and perhaps your girlfriend who I assume is Japanese, is the best judge, than rather someone else's unknown partner.

    The response you have cited might well be a subtle suggestion of something she was thinking all along!

    Personally, I would never use 僕. If I am in a casual situation I will use 俺, if it is more formal,私.

    That said, I know plenty of guys who use 僕 and it seems to work for them.

    As long as it is not 俺様... or あたし which I have heard some guys use who have learnt their J-go from girlfriends or anime - then you will be fine.

  2. Yeah, I agree on both points - depends on the person, and I did point blank as my girlfriend. Pretty unJapanese, but she's pretty straightforward and frank, and she said either one is fine with her, so...guess it doesn't matter much there.

    And yeah, learning all your Japanese from girls can be a problem like that. Guys calling themselves あたし...=\

  3. This is my totally personal experience and comment on today's topic. My brother usually uses 俺 and 私 in a formal situation. He has never used 僕. And most of my male friends use 俺, it's because I think we are friends; don't have to be polite. But I might be laughing if I hear they say 僕 even in a polite situation because I know their キャラ doesn't go with 僕. Probably they will use 自分 or 私 instead of 俺 in a formal situation. For example when talk to your boss at work "自分が責任をもってその仕事を引き受けますので、お任せください。"
    something like that.... so which "I" do you want to use?

  4. Hmmm, I see. For now I think 僕 works ok for me, but I would still like to better understand the nuances that 俺 and 僕 carry.

    In your mind, what kind of character goes with each one, Taeko? If I might ask. =)

  5. Specifically my girlfriend said 僕 is cuter. ぼく brings all the girls to the yard.

  6. 「拙者」とか「おいら」を使ってみればいかがでしょうか?

    I'm joking of course. I use either 俺 with friends and 私 or 自分 in more formal situations. I rarely use 僕... although I find myself using it when talking to people who I've just met or don't know very well.

    I think if you use 私 in formal situations it will make you sound a little more confident and 'adult' than 僕 will. Middle-aged men who call themselves 僕 kind of creep my out.

    自分 is pretty convenient. It doesn't really carry any strong connotations (in my opinion).

  7. I can definitely see you using 俺, Bryce. Walking around Peace Park calling people お前. Good times. Heh heh...

  8. More than worrying about which personal pronoun to use, I'd focus on your written Japanese, it's appalling.

  9. More than worrying about which personal pronoun to use, I'd focus on your written Japanese, it's appalling.