Sorry, Portugal

Considering a post about arigatou [gozaimasu] came from, I decided to first google to make sure I wasn't duplicating anyone else's work. Unfortunately I didn't get very far into the search results, because most of them were about the folk etymology: that it's from Portuguese obrigado. This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Arigatou is the Western Japanese way of saying arigataku, the adverbial form (more or less) of arigatai. The basic rule is replacing ku with u, but in this case that produced au, which becomes ou (→ a lengthened o) through the magic of sound change. This also happened to omedetou (← (o)medetai) and ohayou (← (o)hayai). (It is not a coincidence that despite the Tokyo version getting "Standard Japanese" status, the standard politeness terms were imported from the old Imperial capital!)

Another common example of kuu is in tou ni, which coexists with toku ni and means "already" or "long ago". (Both of them come from toshi (疾し), an OJ adjective meaning "vigorous" or "fast" or "early".) You can hear a tou ni at the end of every chorus in KAJI Meiko's song The Flower of Carnage on the Kill Bill soundtrack.

So, given that gozaimasu is a Sino-hoity-toity form of aru, arigatou gozaimasu breaks down to arigataku aru: "to exist arigatai-ly". Arigatai is ari-gatai: to be, to exist (ari) + to be difficult to do (-gatai, probably related to katai, to be (physically) hard).

But using this to mean "I thank you", i.e. "It is difficult/rare for [such kindness as yours] to exist", is a relatively recent development. The form ari + gatai has been around (as arigatashi, of course) since Manyoushuu times, which in Japanese linguistics means "forever". In that poem it just means "unlikely to be". It can also be found sprinkled throughout Heian literature meaning "rare" or "difficult" without any special connection to the idea of gratitude.

The generally accepted theory about the "thank you" usage is that it derives from the Buddhist community, sometime in the middle of the second millennium, and in fact the Lotus Sutra is often mentioned as a source of the phrase itself (specifically, the part in the parable of the burning house where the father says "汝等所可玩好希有難得..."). I have no idea whether this is true or not, though. (UPDATE: It probably ain't. See comments.)

Oh, and knowing this makes the doumo seem a lot more sensible. "No matter what, it is difficult for [such kindness] to exist..."

Bonus information: omedetai comes from o (politeness prefix) + mede (from medu, which became modern mederu, "to like, to adore") + itashi ("extremely", possibly related to modern itai, to hurt).

Bonus link: "Cool, I get drunk!"

Popularity factor: 6


I would only add that the Kansai consonant dropping phenomenon didn't just bring these few words into Standard Japanese, it created a whole politeness register for potentially all adjective forms that usually only appears now in arigatou, omedetou, and a few others. It's the only way to get a "gozaimasu" level out of adjectives. "ureshuu gozaimasu"(which I've heard in a number of speeches), "wakou gozaimasu", etc.

Here's a page I found: http://home.alc.co.jp/db/owa/jpn_npa?stage=2&sn=170.


Addendum: After some googling, I find:

tanoshii -> tanoshuu gozaimasuookii -> ookyuu gozaimasuchiisai -> chiisou gozaimasusukunai -> sukunou gozaimasusamui -> samou gozaimasuaoi -> aou gozaimasuii (yoi ) --> you gozaimasuyaritai --> yaritou gozaimasu

And my favorites: mottai nai --> mottai nou gozaimasunasake nai --> nasake nou gozaimasu

You can also find the non-onbin forms, like ookiku gozaimasu, but for each of the examples above, the onbin form was the clear winner. I imagine keeping the "ku" probably sounds like "I goeth" to the educated ear.


Thanks, that's a good point! "-ku zonjimasu" is a possible alternative form close in meaning for stubborn Standard speakers, but it only works for a few adjectives.

Forming polite forms of adjectives seems like a bit of a sore point for Japanese prescriptivists... a couple of teachers at my school absolutely HATED -i desu (tanoshii desu, etc.) on strict old-school grammatical grounds, but of course in the real world that battle was lost long, long ago.

Any idea why samui → samou? Does "uu" → "ou" out west?


I admit I can understand the irritation with "ii desu". After all, noone would ever say "ii da to omou". But, as you said, that ship has sailed. I think it does explain what seems to me a stronger preference for adjective sentences ending in "-kute", than for the verbal equivalent.

It's interesting to compare with Korean on this point. In Korean, they have a -masu equivalent that shares the limitations of the Japanese (though it can be used on adjectives), but they've also come up with a more free-moving honorific, "yo", which can attach to nouns and adverbs as easily as verbs and adjectives. Wouldn't it be nice to have one of those in Japan?

And I think I have that wrong. A hiragana search finds a whole crop of samuu gozaimasu, and only a handful of samou. The first time I searched for 寒う. phonetically ambiguous.


Matt: The attribution to the Lotus Sutra is surely wrong or based on a misreading. I think that should be parsed as 希有 then 難得, "rare" and "difficult to obtain." A nice trick for Chinese is things often come in balanced couplets so you can try to parse that way. This reading gives a nice 2:2, whereas "希 有難 得" gives you 1:2:1.

難得 is a pretty common word even today (and in modern Chinese I am more comfortable referring to it as a "word" rather than a compound).

Didn't know that the aku->au->ou thing derived from Kansai, cool!

By the way, don't Japanese people ever say that the Portuguese got "obrigado" from them?


Azuma: my ignorance of Korean remains shamefully far-reaching, but that is interesting. Did the "yo" evolve from some more specific politeness morpheme or what?

Amida: D'oh! Thanks for the correction (and tip). I'm sure glad I didn't try to provide a translation of that now.

I've never heard a Japanese person claim paternity over the word "obrigado", but then, neither have I specifically asked...

Comment season is closed.