Fallacious Knowledge

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Was thinking about titling this one “I am not me.” Sometimes I find myself learning that what is written in books is false. We are conditioned to think of books, in particular reference books, and especially language textbooks, as being sources of well-researched knowledge. Sadly, that is not always true.

My false impression that was hanging over my head was that personal pronouns were almost never used in Japanese. This is partly true; we do try to avoid using personal pronouns for second or third person. Politeness dictates that we should refer to others by their name or position and some formal address. When the other party is above you, it is even more important to follow this guideline. The catch comes with the I/me issue.

Some books suggest that a person named Erik should talk about themselves in third person. Erik enjoys eating natto. Erik will go to America next year. Erik had fun at teacher’s party. To reinforce this idea, I have heard people speak this way. I was riding my bike without using my hands one day, a student (who I’ll call Shizuka) rode along beside me and said, “Shizuka can do that too.” For a moment I was wondering who Shizuka was, but seeing my student riding with no hands helped me recall her name. The fact that she attached no formal title to the name also should have made it clear she was speaking of herself.

During Japanese class I would often refer to myself in third person and the teacher would scold me, saying it sounded awkward and I should just say ‘I’. I would let it rest for awhile and then try again. Once I noticed that she always corrected it, I decided to ask for clarification. Apparently, it is OK for small children to refer to themselves by name, but adults should not do it.

Watashi (私) and boku (僕) are the most common ways to refer to oneself. Young people like to use uchi (内) and ore (俺), but they are not considered very polite words. Furthermore, we often omit ourselves from sentences when we are speaking because it can be reasonably inferred by the listener. Japanese has a lot more flexibility than English for leaving out topics, subjects, objects, and sometimes verbs. For example, “I eat salmon everyday.”, might come out in conversation as, “Eat salmon.” This depends on the listener recognizing that I was talking about a daily activity and that it is my habitual activities that are up for discussion.

Anyhow I realized that I was talking like a kid from time to time. Nobody other than my teacher mentioned anything about it. I am glad that I pay her to point out my flaws, because everyone else is too polite to do it.

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8 Responses to “Fallacious Knowledge”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    Huh. So they have four first person pronouns but rarely use them? That makes me wonder if the cultural practice is much newer than the language.

  2. びっくり Says:

    I think the practice of not using first person pronouns probably started around the 1860s, during the Meiji Restoration. Before that time, a large percentage of the population was essentially nameless. Daimyo and Samurai used names in the old days, but many others were just bodies working the fields.

    In the book “I am a cat”, the cat introduces himself using the first person pronoun ‘wagahai’ (我輩). It was written in 1905 by a man born to a samurai and a concubine.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    You like that book, don’t you?

  4. ACGalaga Says:

    I guess I sound like to village idiot when I speak.

    冷蔵庫ははしっていますか。

  5. verbivore Says:

    I remember struggling with this as well and how I felt a certain pressure to say ‘atashi’ instead of ‘watashi’ as a woman. I never quite resolved that – is it too self-effacing or is it just common practice.

  6. びっくり Says:

    Sylvia – I do like the book, but I have to confess I haven’t read it through. Mostly I like the author. Up until about two years ago, he graced the 1000 yen bills. They replaced him with Doctor Noguchi, who sacrificed much in life to help those in need, so I can’t complain too much about Soseki disappearing. I mentioned the book before because of its political commentary and this time because of its word usage. I guess I need to hit the library and read it through this time.

    Alan – you don’t sound like the village idiot. However, the joke isn’t funny in Japanese… actually, it is only mildly amusing in English. 😉

    Verbivore – I don’t hear atashi much. I think it is used by very, very polite women in service roles. Junior high girls like to use uchi a lot now, but just doesn’t feel polite at all. In normal speech we don’t need to refer to ourselves much: “Today I will eat smoked ham.” can just be, “Today, smoked ham eating.” Likewise, addressing the other party isn’t so important; if we are requesting something, it becomes clear that the speaker means ‘you’.

  7. verbivore Says:

    I suspect it was the overabundance of older women that I spent so much time with when I lived in Japan – my 茶道先生 or 教頭先生の奥さんwho lived next door and took such great care of me – that used so much atashi. Very old fashioned. My students would never have done that. I remember the high school boys with their 俺, very often shouted in indignation when I called on them to produce some homework in class.

  8. びっくり Says:

    Very nice description, I am picturing your tea ceremony teacher and the vice-principal’s wife: bowing and scraping, striving to perceive your every need. I can hear them slipping out atashis in gentle, sweet, pleasing tones. OK, I think I need to take a short trip into the neighboring countryside to see my friend’s widowed mother and hundred-year-old grandmother.

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