Language details: How to say “I” in Japanese?

"I" in Japanese

We had a lively discussion at my YouTube channel about how to say “I” in Japanese. In my recent video Learn Japanese an Introduction, I used the following sentence to illustrate how the Japanese language works. 私はカナダ人です.  (I am Canadian) . I pronounced ”私” わたくし rather thanわたし。A  number of people who follow my YouTube channel, all of them non-native speakers, expressed surprise. Some had never heard this pronunciation before. One told me that my use of this pronunciation was “NOT appropriate”, or typical of female speech.

To get some answers, I started a thread on our LingQ Japanese language forum. The replies were very interesting. If you read Japanese I suggest you go there and have a look. It appears that わたくし is much less common than I thought. However it is both appropriate in the context where I used it, and certainly not typical of female speech. It is just a little more formal, and much less common.

However, there are a number of things about this that I find very interesting. First of all, I have been using Japanese with Japanese people, quite successfully, for over 40 years. No one has ever commented on my use of わたくし. Of course, in more familiar circumstances I probably say わたし or 僕, an even more informal way of saying me or I, but in business discussions or more formal encounters I probably use わたくし and it has never ever been brought to my attention. As a result I was left with the understanding that it was the most standard way to say “I”. Apparently it isn’t.

It is interesting, though,  that non-native students of Japanese will comment on, or express surprise at, or even pass judgment on my usage of Japanese whereas for 40 years no native speaker was bothered by it, or at least commented on it.

My reaction to this is that many language details are relatively unimportant. Language is mostly about communicating. Through our exposure to the language, reading, listening and speaking, we will form our own personal way of expressing ourselves. There may be certain non-standard usages that creep in for any number of reasons. These reasons could be an early influence in our language learning, the kind of people we associate with, or the influence of our native language.

I think the fact that so many non-native speakers commented is an indication that many learners of languages are too concerned about these details, these minutiae. I think it is more important to focus on our ability to understand and to communicate.


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1 comment on “Language details: How to say “I” in Japanese?

Well said. It may be that the only reason for people fixating on such minutiae (form) is an inability to understand what you’re actually talking about (message). Probably understandable for beginners given the frequency of the word in question.

I encountered this in amateur musicians on jazz summer schools who can talk you under the table about fancy scales, but when it comes to actually playing them in an improvisation – nothing!

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