Why you don’t need a personal pronoun in Japanese

I, you, he, she, they – those are called personal pronouns. European languages generally have an equivalent for each, but that’s not the case for Japanese.

You may question: “what about those words like whatashi and boku?” Those are just nouns. In a sense, you could call them pronouns because the meanings are similar to English pronouns. 

If you closely observe the actual conversations, not fictional works like anime or whatever,  you may be surprised how little people use them.

How are they so different from English pronouns?

English pronouns are essential grammatical equipments of the language. You definitely need them just to make a simple expression like, “he’ll go there”  or “I’ll go there.” In those sentences, ‘he’ and ‘I’ are markers that indicate the verb pertains to a certain party of the conversation. Without those, the sentence becomes vague, and you’ll rely on the context to determine the meaning. Who’ll go there?

However, in Japanese, it’s not pronouns that indicate the body that ‘will go.’ Let’s take the examples below:

  1. 行くって。(Iku tte.)
  2. いらっしゃるって。(Irassharu tte.)
  3. 行く。(Iku.)

Those doesn’t have a single personal pronoun, but you can tell who’ll go, and pick the associated English pronoun for each. Take a few seconds and think about it.

  1. 行くって。(Iku tte.)  – she/he/they will go.
  2. いらっしゃるって。(Irassharu tte) – she/he/they (somebody above the speaker) will go.
  3. 行く。(Iku.) – I’ll go.

How can you tell? First, the sentence number 1 has the ending particle って(tte), which indicates the information stated is secondhand –– provided by somebody not in the conversation. If ‘will go’ was provided by somebody not in the conversation, it’s logically deluded that the subject is neither ‘I’ or ‘you,’ so it must be ‘she,’ ‘he,’ or ‘they.’

For the second one, it also has tte, so you can tell the subject is /she/he/they. For this one, the verb is in the form of honorific, so you can tell that the subject is somebody above the speaker. Whereas English cares of the gender, Japanese cares of the relative position to the speaker.

The third one doesn’t have any ending particle, and the verb is in it’s dictionary form. In Japanese, a sentence with only a bare verb and nothing else means the information provided is available directly to the speaker. If somebody says ‘iku‘ and shut their mouth you can tell that they’re saying “I will go” because that’s the only way the information ‘will go’ can be directly available to them. There is no way to directly know somebody else will go because if they tell you, you’ll know it indirectly. Given that the verb is in its dictionary form, and that the expression doesn’t have anything else, you can tell the subject of the verb is ‘I.’

In English, the subject of the verb is indicated by a pronoun. In Japanese, it’s indicated by multiple parts of the expression. 

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