I want to talk about you

Nanji is a Japanese pronoun (yeah, they totally exist) that means what "thou" does in modern English: "you [+archaic]". If you call someone nanji, you are speaking in the voice of either an ancient religious text, a venerable Chinese poet, or a long-dead Japanese nobleman*.

The na- part is an OJ second-person demonstrative, as seen in the Man'yoshu:

石室戸尓 立在松樹 乎見者 昔人乎 相見如之

ihayato ni/ tateru matu no ki/ na wo mireba/ mukasi no hito wo/ ahimiru gotosi

Pine that stands by the mouth of the cave
I look at you; it is like coming face-to-face
with somebody from long ago

(Fun fact: Author Hakutsū Hōshi is talking about the Mio caves in Wakayama.)

And of course it had a -re form like kore, ware, etc:

朝井代尓 来鳴杲鳥 谷文 君丹戀八 時不終鳴

asa wide ni/ ki naku kahodori/ nare dani mo/ kimi ni kohure ya/ toki ohezu naku

Kaho-birds that come and cry at the dam at dawn
Can you be in love with them too?
Ceaseless in your cries

Note use of kimi to mean "my lover" in a third-person rather than second-person way. Also note that the kaho in kaho-tori might be onomatopoeic (which might in turn make it the cuckoo).

The -nji comes from muti (that is, nanji was originally namuti), which Bjarke Frellesvig explains as meaning "'esteemed person; honorific suffix in names and titles', cf. mutu- hon. prefix)." Ōno agrees, citing sumemutsu kamuroki as an example. (I think that particular phrase was used to for the emperor's grandfather.) This is the mutu- that survives in modern Japanese as mutsumajii, "harmonious".

Unfortunately there aren't any good examples of namuti in the Man'yoshu—the sound appears a few times, but only in ohonamuti, which was another name for Ōkuninushi and elsewhere appears in enough variant forms like ohonamoti ("possessor of the great name") and ohoanamoti ("possessor of the great hole") to make any direct relationship with namuti seem unlikely.

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The Japanese Lord's Prayer still ends 限りなく汝のものなればなり。"Thou" is not merely an archaic form of "you", however; it's a 2nd person singular where "ye" was 2nd person plural, a hangover from our German inheritance. (And, of course "Ye Olde..." is a problem with orthography, not grammar.)

Incidentally, Bjarke Frellesvig used to be my tutor. Which, scarily, suggests that I used to know all this at some point in the past. Lost in time, like tears in the rain.


The Japanese Orthodox Church uses 汝 extensively in the liturgical texts, since they were mostly translated in the late Meiji, early Taishō. They also use a lot of funky verb endings. "汝の国は来たり" for "Your Kingdom come," etc. From a linguistic point of view, they're much more interesting than the Protestants, at least.

Leonardo Boiko:

Like most Japanese-Brazilian issei immigrants, my tea ceremony teacher spoke “bachanese” —prewar Japanese with Portuguese influences, often taught to young children by their grandmas (thus the name). She always addressed me as “otaku”, and I’d always think she was calling me a manga nerd.


Yeah, was thinking of that church talk when I said "the voice [...] of an ancient religious text". I believe it is remarkably similar in nuance and function to saying "For thine is the power..." or "Thou shalt not" in English: the archaism takes you outside the everyday and reinforces the idea of unbroken transmission from the past. ("nareba nari" and "kitari" are not even Meiji/Taisho Japanese, if we define that as what people spoke at the time; they're classical written Japanese maintained intact from centuries before.)

Re "thou": That's why I said _modern_ English! I'm pretty sure that nobody but us nerds and pedants knows or cares about the singular/plural thing any more; in the popular imagination it's just an old-timey "you".


"Thou" is not just an old-timey "you"--people read it as *more* formal than "you." Or at least, that's my impression from introductory linguistics classes and Shakespeare at the high school level.

Possibly thanks to King James' versioners, who were just cozying up to the guy up there. (Not everyone refers to the deity in familiar pronouns, after all.)

I'd also like to note that 汝 is very, so very persistent in video games. I'd suspect it's in that Lord of the Rings translation that got so much press lo these few years ago, as well. (Supporting the archaicism point.)


I think average Japanese know nanji only in the bibles. I have a question. In any Japanese book, is nanji used to address the second person normally? I don't remember a book. I wonder when it began to be used. Matt, you say it's used in ancient religious text. What book is it?


MMS: Don't you think that the formality is a side-effect of the archaicism? (And oh man, I forgot video games.)

Naoki: To be honest, I didn't even have Japanese religious texts in mind when I wrote that--I was thinking solely of the (Christian) Bible in Japanese. But let's see...

If you consider the Nihonshoki a religious text, Ono gives an example from book 20: "咨。爾軽皇子", in which the 爾 is read "namuchi".

If you want Buddhism, this appears in the very first chapter of the Shobogenzo Zuimonki:


汝ヂ! Although 13th century isn't that ancient I suppose.


Thanks, Matt. That was my impression. Not "nanji" in kojiki or nihonshoki. And even later, nanji is not a usual second person word on the equal level. This word is intriguing. I wonder how it's born. "Thou" was used between equal people in former times but "nanji" not namuchi seems used from the beginning by someone to an inferior person. I don't hit on another such an example.


I've vaguely recalled in Ujishuui "nanji" is used by bonzes sometimes. (Sorry if I'm wrong).
Then, it must be in Konjyaku as well. So it probably dates back at latest to the 12th century


I only had to look it up in Iwanami kogo jiten. It seems that in Taketori, that usage with that sense already appears. In Nihonshoki, it appears as "namuchi" and is used in an endearing or respectful address. This is the original sense. As usual, the meaning descended over time on the ladder of the degree of respect. Now my puzzle has gone!


I note that I have often heard thee and thou in modern English conversation. I have a lot of Amish relatives.


I have lost all faith in my understanding of "thou".


In the North of England, at least, 'thou' was the informal, not the formal. So even if, as MMS says, most people nowadays assume 'thou' is formal cos it's used towards God and such, there are pockets where it's the informal 2nd person singular pronoun. Or there were when my mother was growing up: she still uses it sometimes.

Leonardo Boiko:

cee: The exact same thing you described happen in Brazil. “Tu” and “vós” are archaic and informal, but because they’re in the Bible people think they’re more formal than modern-day “você”. “Tu” is still used informally in certain places of the country (although with “você” verb conjugations), but “vós” is pretty much dead.


Since thou was singular and ye was plural, thou was consider informal and ye formal, since the French tu/vous are technically singular-informal and plural-formal. Then thou more or less died out, since everyone wanted to be formal all the time. Then people started feeling like thou was formal, since it is now only used in the Bible and such. Crazy world.

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