Pronoun abuse is a common failing of Indo-Europophones in the early stages of learning Japanese. Japanese is a pro-drop language; you gotta drop your (pragmatically inferable) pros. On the other hand, because Japanese pronouns are also tied into the honorific speech system, they have uses beyond simply pinch-hitting for antecedents, and this is where it gets interesting.

For example, instead of just saying korosu zo ("I'll kill you!"), you might add the so-familiar-it's-contemptuous second-person singular pronoun temee to get korosu zo temee ("I'll kill you, asshole!"). That is, the pronoun is used not for its meaning but for its implication: it conveys how you feel about your interlocutor, socially speaking.

In this week's episode of Sasurai Afro Tanaka さすらいアフロ田中 ("Wandering Afro Tanaka"), a manga serial by Noritsuke Masaharu, I found this example of use of the familiar (but not necessarily offensive) second-person singular pronoun omae. Here it is with rough English equivalent (not really a "translation" as such).

(Quick context: Tanaka works with a small team of other men in the construction industry. Today was the first day on the job for new team member Kazama, so everyone is out for celebratory drinks. Tanaka and his co-workers suggest going to a hostess club afterwards, but Kazama is not interested. Why pay women to talk to you, he asks, when women are all over the place anyway? You could just strike up a conversation with one anytime if you wanted to. Tanaka and his co-workers are stunned, not least by the fact that Kazama seems to find it inconceivable that one could be as bad at meeting new women as they are. This is what Tanaka thinks to himself.)

O-... omae... / Sonna... / Dare demo shitteru koto wo / samo tokuige ni... / Omae... // Sonna koto wa / omae ni iwareru made mo naku/ omae ... // Omae omae omae...

O... omae... / That's... / Of course we all know that, / you don't have to be so smug.../ Omae... // We didn't need / you to tell us that / omae...// Omae omae omae...

Only one instance of omae in the original is really translatable as a pronoun:
ni iwareru made mo naku
, "we didn't need you to tell us". The rest are all what you might call "vocative-familiar". Like the temee above, this omae doesn't clear up any ambiguity. Its function, like (say) "mate" in Australian English, is to convey two things: (1) "This sentence is directed at you! Pay attention to it!" (2) "We are equals (or you are my subordinate) and I feel no need to be especially polite."

Note that this last part doesn't necessarily mean actively rude. (Even allowing for the fact that our interior dialogue is often a lot franker than what we say out loud.) But it does contrast with other options Tanaka has for performing this function.

For example, earlier in the story he says Yatto kōhai-rashii tokoro ga, kimi..., "Finally, something kōhai-like about you [has become visible], kimi", where kimi has the same vocative function as the omae above but an entirely different set of social implications: "You are my subordinate and I am favorably disposed towards you."

The move from kimi to omae symbolizes what the shock of Kazama's words does to Tanaka's state of mind. What was an indulgent, almost patronizing stance is shattered, leaving only extreme and unstructured informality and heightened urgency in the vocative function. It is really the final Omae omae omae that does it for me. Without any actual content to attach to, these represent pure flailing, an imagined grabbing by the lapels and vigorous shake. Kazama's casual failure to even conceive of Tanaka's position as a possibile one has driven Tanaka beyond the limits of language.

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This Indo-Europophone likes your new word!

Leonardo Boiko:

Hey, I’m an Indo-Europophone and my language is perfectly pro-drop, so that I never got what the buzz is all about. Of <i>course</i> you don’t have to sprinkle pronouns all over the place, duh. English stuff like “it rains” is much harder.

(Ok, ok, we’re not as <i>perfectly</i> pro-drop as Japanese, and we cheat with verbal agreement—though the Japanese honorifics system often doubles for the same purpose.)


Okay, okay... "non-Irano-Indic and (to a lesser extent) non-Portugueic -Italic Indo-Europophobes, and also Francophones". (What's pseudo-Ancient Greek for "languages with verbs exhibiting only limited inflection for person and number"?)


Er, phones not phobes.


"though the Japanese honorifics system often doubles for the same purpose"

To me, this is the key to the whole thing. It doesn't come up when you're a low level speaker but as you grind EXP, you realize that the honorifics serve as much to disambiguating things as to show politeness. It's almost worth explaining it as "ageru" = "I/my buddies do" and "kureru" = "you/your friends do," just like "miro" is "I see" but "miras" is "you my friend see" in Spanish (don't know Portuguese).


'That is, the pronoun is used not for its meaning but for its implication: it conveys how you feel about your interlocutor, socially speaking.'

Isn't the use here rather one of intensity (on a sort of sliding scale)? Meaning and Implication seem to too close in, well, meaning, to catch the distinction. Hence 'temee, omae etc' are YOU, IDIOT/SWINE etc as opposed to just you (understood)(implied by the invisible but present pronoun in 'korosu zo')


Some of this applied linguistics jargon is over my head, but interesting stuff nonetheless! I never really thought about it like that, though it makes sense. I'm sure there're a lot of things in many languages that are difficult or impossible to translate exactly or literally.

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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