Friday, December 11, 2009

About I

Because Rebb made a comment on the absent of “I” in Japanese, I hope to write better response than what I wrote in the past.

According to “Kotoba to Bunka,” I summarized what Suzuki Takao wrote as follows.

The first person singular is “I” in English, “ich” in German, and “ik” in Dutch. They look different, but they are not. In the early modern time, English “I” was written in small letter as “i,” and the pronunciation was not “ai” but “i:”. (I can’t spell the consonant here, sorry.) In the medieval period, it was pronounced with a consonant at the end. And the oldest English document shows the word as “ic” and the pronunciation is considered to be close to “ik.” So, all the first person singulars among the Germanic languages are considered to come from the same source.

And for the Romance Languages, the first person is “je” in French, “yo” in Spanish, and “io” in Italian. They are known to come from “ego” in Latin. So, “ego” in Latin, “ego” in Greek, and “ik” in the old Germanic languages, and also considering other Indo European languages, the very old type of the first person in the Indo European language must be close to “ego.”

Further, Suzuki Takao writes that this is a tremendously amazing fact. The fact is that in the Indo European languages, people spoke for many thousand years with the first person singular and consistently. In comparison, the Japanese language differs totally. I checked other quite different languages like Finnish, Hungarian, and Indonesian, but they all have the Subject- Verb-Object form.

I think it’s best to say, “The Japanese language does not have the same type of the first person singulars of the Indo European languages.” Probably last 70 or 80 years or so western-influenced authors have been increasingly using the following first person singulars, “watashi” or “boku.” Watashi(私) also means private, and boku(僕), servant.

“Watashi” is used by both males and females, and “Boku” is usually used by males. There are more details about this, but I stop for now. So we have only about 100 year history of Japanese first person singulars. And I think this fact probably is giving non-Japanese illusion. I think knowing the difference is as important as knowing the similarities. So I couldn’t help it, but wrote it again, folks!


Vincent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vincent said...

Though Latin has the pronoun "ego", it is not much used.


Cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I exist. (Descartes' famous dictum) There is no need for a pronoun because the verb is declined through the various persons, as in my second example.

amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant: I love, thou lovest, he or she loves, we love, you love, they love.

"Quis?" "Ego!" Who (wants this)? I (do). (At my prep. school if a boy wanted to give away some possession, he would hold it up and call out Quis. The first boy to call back Ego would win it. Because the verb was implicit, not stated, the person (I, thou etc) had to be made explicit with the use of a pronoun.)

Is Japanese like this?

Rebb said...

Keiko, This is very interesting. I went to read your other blog as well and in total what I think of is how in Spanish the word for love is Amor and I love you is “Te Amo.” However, I do not ever recall my grandmother saying “Te Amo” to me. She only showed me her love through her actions. Same with my mother. I do not recall her saying “I love you” but then we had a strained sort-of relationship, so she had a whole different way of showing it. I had never thought about LOVE from a language perspective before. I know that love is one of those abstract words that can mean different degrees to many, but when I think of it in terms of “I,” it takes on a new level. I must say, that when I first uttered the words, “I love you,” they didn’t sound so natural. There is something odd about them, but of course I got used to them and hearing them was nice.

Also, in the Red Room post you refer to, you showed the character for heart and I saw that one recently in a book and learned that it is also used for the number four. I thought to myself, why would heart and four share the same character. When I read your Red Room “Subject Object,” I thought…oh, could heart and four share the same character because the heart has four chambers? Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I hadn’t thought about that until I read your piece.

p.s. That must be you in a dance pose…is that the end of your routine? What a beautiful and striking photo of you!

keiko amano said...


Because originally in our ancient time we didn’t use personal pronouns, verbs do not conjugate. Japanese verbs do not change, so it’s much easier to learn. But we add a suffix or affix to verbs according to time, place, occasions, and older/younger people, but that’s different issues.

About "Quis?" "Ego!" Who (wants this)? I (do).
Yes, we can have that kind of very casual conversation with close friends today. But again, it’s because of our western influenced words and conversation in a western life style.

About possession, I wrote about it before. I’ll let you know if I find that blog or comment. Often, Japanese hesitate to possess anything offered by someone in the conversation like that. Most people turn and go away.

About “who,” “tare” is an ancient word that refers to an unspecified person or the person/s whose name or names are unknown. According to my dictionary, “tare” became “dare” in the Edo period. Today we use it often as “who?”

Thank you for your comments. I really enjoy this exchange because if I can explain to you in the way you understand, them probably I'll be successful in explaining to others. And most Japanese would probably respond differently. They don't think much about the usages and origin and western influence and other complex issues.

keiko amano said...


Heart and four? I have to think about that. 心 and 四。 They are not the same, but maybe something I don't know.
I'll write more tonight. So please wait.

keiko amano said...


I still cannot figure out about heart and four, but I want to let you know that a linguist wrote a book from the point of view of animals and insects. He is either a son or grandson of Kindaichi Haruhiko who was also a linguist. He said, “For instance, crabs wouldn’t say, “I think facing forward (in Japanese, it means I think positively)” because Crabs walks sideway.

About love, most Japanese mothers show their love through cooking and other chores. But I’d like to say “I love you” to my children once in a while.

Thank you for your compliment on my photo. It was taken in a 1973 or 74 performance at California State University, Los Angeles.

keiko amano said...


Although we tend to omit subject and even object, our ordinary conversation is not like "Quis?" "Ego!" Of course, it depends on the situation and person, but most likely our language sounds polite and soft, not bold.

Vincent said...

the "Quis?" and "Ego!" was something of the tribal folklore of ten-year-old boys at boarding school. I have not heard it since.

But the modern translation, that adults might use, would be "Anyone?" "Me!" For examnple at some social gathering, handing out food or drink, perhaps a second helping.

I do guess that your language would sound soft and gentle, because over here we know about "face". You must not allow a Japanese to lose face. Same thing in our culture of course, but it involves euphemisms, often ambiguous. So a boss doesn't say you are fired. He says, in a reluctant tone, "I am going to have to let you go."

But I owuld like to understand more about the differences between our cultures.

Rebb said...

Sorry, Keiko...I was wrong. Thank your for correcting me. I'm glad I saved the website on my portable computer. When I looked at a website on Chinese characters, I was looking at a chart on strokes and when I saw one, two, three, my mind filled in four, etc. But four and beyond referred to stroke count only, not the actual number. Anyway, I just got confused. Here is a link. You scroll down until you get to the chart. I'm glad I'm clear now. I stumbled upon this when I was trying to see the similarities to Japanese. It's interesting how some characters have stayed the same and some have changed.

The book written from the animals point of view sounds good. I like the crab example you use.

keiko amano said...


I appreciate your interest in what I write. I don’t know when, but I hope that later on I can come up with some good examples about the way we address ourselves and others. It’s a bit complex to non-Japanese, but you’ll probably see why we say or do things differently.

About the use of euphemisms, the example you’ve given seems to be a diplomatic way. It is certainly better than “you’re fired!” But I still prefer straight talks. To me, using euphemisms often seem cowardice and disrespectful. It can end in confusion and regret.

keiko amano said...


The Japanese language must be confusing to you. I noticed that the link you gave me was the Chinese language. Japanese Kanji differs from Chinese’s. On the site, I found the tile of 64 strokes shows four dragons, two on bottom and two on top. It means verbose. That character is one of Japanese invented kanji characters. Chinese imported back from Japan. Most Chinese probably do not know it. Isn’t it funny?

So, in creating the Japanese language, the scholars used many techniques, simplification, addition, visualization, and so forth. We call this “playing.” And playing games with spoken and written words is a long tradition. Later on, I’d like to show you one of the ways some ancient people wrote letters. You’ll see artists are rule breakers, and followers love rules.

Rebb said...


The reason I was looking at the Chinese characters is because I read that Japanese language borrowed from the Chinese (which you have also taught us) keeping some characters the same and changing others. So, I was interested to have a look at what Chinese characters looked like. Heart is a character that is the same (except as I look closer the Japanese character has straighter lines) in both, but with one, two, and three, Japanese characters are straight without that little tip at the end. That is funny about the character for Verbose and how the Chinese imported it back from Japanese. That is an amazing character, looks hard to write.

“And playing games with spoken and written words is a long tradition.” I find this fascinating. This makes me think of how when I see some pictures of older Japanese men and women, they have this childlike look to them, almost mischievous.

I came across a book from the Red Room book suggestions called “Crazy for Kanji” by Eve Kushner (RR author). She seems to bring that “playing” aspect to it. I have to admit, even though this book is supposed to make learning Kanji fun, I feel overwhelmed with it and have not gotten past the introduction.

Also, this weekend I went to a used bookstore and came across an older book called, “Read Japanese Today” by Len Walsh. This book makes it sink into my brain better because it explains how the characters came about. The author also concedes that there is debate among linguists about which explanations are correct, but his goal is to select the one that best helps the reader/learner remember. This is in synch with my learning style. I don’t learn well by pure memorization. I need to be able to relate to something or recognize something. I will only be exposed to 300 characters, but it’s really interesting to read this simple, slender book. Another interesting bit is that the author says that Japanese scholars say there was no written language at all until the third century A.D. He also talks a little about how the Japanese could use the imported Chinese characters to write the basic roots of words, but they could not use them to write the grammatical endings because in Chinese there were no grammatical endings to show parts of speech. And then he says that, “At first the Japanese tried to use the Chinese characters to write both the word root and the grammatical ending, but after a few hundred years decided to abbreviate some of the characters into a phonetic system, similar to our alphabet, which they could then use to write the grammatical endings. They succeeded in this and called the phonetic system Kana (17).” This really helps me to understand just a little bit more of what goes into the Japanese language. It’s so complex and multi layered!

“You’ll see artists are rule breakers, and followers love rules.” I love this statement. It says so much about the free spirit of an artist, to dare to explore and break new ground.

Luciana said...

Beautiful photo, Keiko! Are there more of that or of other performances?
In Portuguese the first person singular is "Eu" - more similar to Ego. And we use it much less than in English, due to the conjugations of verbs - ex.: instead of saying "I want"/"Eu quero" , we simply say "Quero", because the ending "ro" already indicates that it is "I". That doesn´t mean we´re not a selfish culture, though. Egocentrism and extreme individualism are very present in every day life, unfortunately. Our culture just knows how to conceal that to look good, that´s all...
Do you think the absence or the little use of "I" in Japanese and other languages could translate into a more group-oriented sort of culture?

keiko amano said...


Ego to Eu, and Eu to You. That makes sense. If we study the history of English and other languages on “I,” we probably find similar trend. We’re more and more using it. Pretty soon, young Japanese generation cannot speak without it. I don’t know what that mean. Most likely, there is good and bad as usual, but I’d like to know more about it. A while ago, I randomly picked more than a few Chauser’s sentences and compared with current English sentences. As the result, I felt the number of “The” appear much less in Chaucer’s.

All these phenomena, I think, come from partly from our life style. We probably have strong needs of saying “the” and “I” psychologically. More needs to be exact. But no matter how many “I” or “the” we use, words always fail. I’ll write more later on. I’m at the Narita air port.

keiko amano said...


I understand it now. But in a way, you’re comparing American alphabets to English alphabets in different fonts. There is more to it because Japanese simplified Kanji in the last century, and also, Chinese did it not too long ago probably like 1970 or so, I’m unsure, so depending on when to cut the data to compare, the result can be quite different.

I don’t know Chinese enough to tell you, but I understand they have letters or symbols to show pronunciations that look like Japanese kana. I don’t know when they made that. I’ve never seen Chinese people using it though. They don’t appear on any Chinese books or newspapers I checked.

About the book you described, the author seems to applying the Indo European language system onto Japanese. As I said or intended to say, it wouldn’t work. Once a friend of mine, an IBMer who managed a translation project in Japan, said, “I tried to learn Japanese by finding patterns.” I don’t think she was successful in learning the language. I told her, “No, it doesn’t work that way. It’s faster to just memorize it.” But today, you can count on effective and kind instructions by experts.

Also, we have symbols called okoto-ten. I think I talked about it when I wrote about Yusenkutsu (Cavern of Disporting Fairies) . I wonder if the author was talking about it. Because Chinese grammar is similar to English--Japanese call it upside down or opposite—okoto-ten was used to help read the Chinese texts. I didn’t need okoto-ten to read old Chinese poems the last time I tried to read Yusenkutsu. That’s because I’m now used to English, and I can read upside-down to make sense?!

By the way, Murasaki Shikibu wrote Genji-monogatari in kana 1000 years ago. I’m sure more people were using it before then. So I don’t know what documents the author is talking about that was made in the third century.

Rebb said...

Thank you, Keiko, for clarification. It doesn't help that the little book I bought was originally written in 1969.

I thank you too, Keiko, because if not for you, I wouldn't even have looked inside any Japanese language books. I know I'll never learn the language, but I'm glad to at least have a better understanding of some of the history and nuances, etc., from your blogs. And now I can also look at the characters and try to remember some of them just for the pleasure of it. I still feel similar to how I described it before: The Japanese language is absolutely mind boggling in the best of ways.

Read upside-down?! I'm dizzy! :)

keiko amano said...


Thank you for your compliment on my photo. I have very few photos during my performances. I have just one more photo by myself during the same performance. I appreciate whoever took the photo.

About other similar language like Japanese, I don't know any. I was hoping Finnish or Hungarian or Indonesian are similar to Japanese, but I checked and found that they are not.

I'll let you know when I find more info. about it and about the group-oriented quality.

keiko amano said...


In my previous message, I mixed up about the third century document. That's right. Japanese didn't have written language, so they were eager to learn Chinese and adopt it and created kana out of it. During 600s, Japanese sent many students to Zui(I don't know spelling) and Tang.