I don’t like to start sentences with the word “I.” In fact, I often go out of my way to avoid it. Even when I delve deep into my own personal history — fairly new territory for me as a writer — I always try to emphasize the bigger picture.
Given the debate over third-person pronouns, particularly as they relate to gender identity (thanks, Dr. Peterson!), I’ve begun to wonder why nobody questions our societal conventions around first-person pronouns. I’ve never liked the English pronoun “I.” Why the hell do we capitalize our own pronouns but not others’? It’s as though we care more about how others view us than how we view ourselves.
But while I’ve never loved “I,” I more or less took it for granted until I began studying Japanese. The language contains a delightful abundance of first-person pronouns, each replete with its own subtleties and cultural connotations. In English we really only have two: I and we. Japanese, by contrast, has:
- Watashi (私): The most common among non-native Japanese speakers. It’s the standard “I” and, though gender-neutral, it’s used much more commonly by women. The plural is watashitachi (私達), and the more formal, stodgy pronunciation is watakushi.
- Boku (僕): I tend to use this one in conversation with my Japanese friends. Usually used by boys and men, it has a humble, self-deprecating “bro” vibe. (The character 僕 also reads as shimobe, meaning “servant.”) It’s also increasingly common among girls and young women, where it conveys a slightly butch, tomboyish vibe. It pluralizes as bokutachi (僕達).
- Ore (俺): Ore is almost exclusively used by men to convey macho swagger. Always borderline rude, ore is the pronoun of choice of domineering business executives, yakuza bosses, and trash-talking MMA fighters. It’s often said in Japan that very few men possess the testicular fortitude to pull off a good ore. Ore only works, as far as I know, in the singular, and is typically paired with the aggressive second-person pronoun omae (お前). It’s definitely not the epitome of political correctness, and should be used with caution by non-natives, and definitely never to one’s elders.
- Jibun (自分): Literally translates to “oneself” and can also be used as a second-person pronoun. The ubiquity of this word in Japanese is a frequent source of awkwardness in English, as it’s common to hear Japanese people employ the phrase “oneself” in inappropriately informal contexts when speaking English.
- Atashi (あたし): A highly feminine-sounding informal variation on watashi. One also occasionally hears the even more casual but still exclusively feminine atai (あたい).
- Uchi (うち): This can be used either in a singular or plural context when referring to oneself in relation to a household, as in “Uchi no inu” (My/our dog). Implies a sense of belonging to a larger family unit.
- Waga (我が): This is a formal equivalent to “my” or “our” (watashi no) used in contexts like “our country” (waga kuni, 我が国). It’s also common in literary contexts, like Mishima Yukio’s 1968 play Waga Tomo Hittora (我が友ヒットラー), or My Friend Hitler.
- Shosei (小生): A formal address used among academic colleagues, which literally translates to “your pupil.”
And these are just the first-person pronouns that are still relatively common among modern Japanese. Previous generations used even more, including:
- Maro (麻呂): An archaic equivalent to watashi, maro was once a universal first-person pronoun that today is strictly the domain of period films and TV shows. Using maro in conversation in modern Japan would be the equivalent of using thou and thee in 21st century England.
- Sessha (拙者): Literally “clumsy person,” this self-deprecating first-person pronoun was commonly used by samurai during the Edo period. A relic of period speech.
- Wagahai (吾輩): Another arcane male first-person pronoun, but with an air of pomposity. Eccentric old man speech, in a nutshell. Famously employed in the title of the classic 1906 novel 『吾輩は猫である 』(Wagahai wa neko de aru / I Am A Cat).
- Warawa (妾): Literally “child,” employed by women of the samurai class.
- Onore (己): The feudal period equivalent of jibun, onore could be used as both a humble, self-deprecating first-person pronoun or as a vaguely threatening, bullying second-person pronoun.
- Sessou (拙僧): A first-person pronoun used exclusively by Buddhist monks.
- Chin (朕): Basically obsolete since the end of World War II, it was used exclusively by the emperor. It comes from the Chinese pronoun zhen, which was used by Chinese emperors dating back to the Qin Dynasty. Suffice it to say, any reigning emperor who employed this pronoun today would raise a great many eyebrows — much in the way Chancellor Merkel would if she were to suddenly insist on being addressed as Mein Führer. (Although prior to Hirohito’s August 1945 surrender broadcast over the radio, very few Japanese people outside the Imperial household had ever heard the emperor speak.)
Few languages (that I know of) can match the complexity of Japanese first-person pronouns. But many others — notably in Asia — have a more diverse array than English. The quantity of first-person pronouns seems to reflect the complexity of social hierarchies. Thai, for instance, has the standard polite pŏm (ผม) for men and chăn (ฉัน) for women; the informal gender-neutral rao (เรา), the increasingly popular English loanword ai (ไอ — literally pronounced “I”) and similarly casual káo (เค้า); the rather crass goo (กู); and the uber-formal grà-pŏm (กระผม) for men, dì-chăn (ดิฉัน) for women, and ultra-formal gender-neutral kâa-pá-jâo (ข้าพเจ้า) which is very rarely spoken but frequently seen on official documents (like immigration paperwork). (Note: My knowledge of the Thai language is rudimentary. If any native Thai speakers have bones to pick with my interpretation of these terms, please let me know.)
Of course, there’s a dark side to having so many synonyms for “I.” Most Japanese and Thai first-person pronouns imply strict gender binaries and betray a deeply hierarchical worldview. Indeed, particularly in Japanese, the decreased popularity of these arcane pronouns coincides with growing social and gender equality (case in point: the regal chin has been relegated to the dustbin of history). Linguistic richness is great, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect our evolving social values.
Still, we need more nuanced ways to talk about ourselves. It’s tempting to wonder if the diverse array of personal pronouns in languages like Thai and Japanese reflects the influence of Buddhist teachings about the illusory nature of the self. In Buddhist scripture, the Pali term anattā (Sanskrit: anātman) refers to the “non-self”: namely, the illusion that there exists an unchanging, permanent self, soul, or essence that defines us from birth to death. This illusion, the Buddha asserted, is not only the primary source of human unhappiness (dukkha) but can also be neutralized — or even permanently extinguished — through meditation.
Given the centrality of Buddhism in Thai and Japanese culture, it makes sense that their languages refer to the self differently than we tend to in the west.
Is “I” a linguistic straightjacket?
In recent years, I’ve made my own modest attempts at incorporating Buddhist meditation techniques into my own life. “Mindfulness” is appealing — and rapidly assuming cultural dominance — but it’s still tethered to narrow goals of stress reduction and workplace productivity. It also assumes conventional conceptions of “selves” that exist unchanged from one moment to the next.
And yet, when you really go deep with this stuff, either through meditation or medication (e.g. psychedelics), the self is an illusion, and who we are at any given moment can completely jump the tracks — that is, if we’re paying attention. The English language, and probably most languages, are decidedly ill-equipped to navigate such terrain. Even under the influence of psilocybin or LSD, in the midst of feeling total ego-free communion with friends or even plants or wildlife, we’re still stuck with the pronoun “I” to describe ourselves. It’s a linguistic shortcoming that blinkers our senses and truncates our spiritual epiphanies.
The answer? Maybe we do away with personal pronouns completely. Truth be told, they’re not necessary (given the appropriate amount of context). Not all languages use them, either. The irony of Japanese’s rich personal pronoun inventory is that, in casual speech, first-person pronouns are typically omitted completely. Context communicates who’s being referred to and when. The same is true in a number of other Asian languages, including Thai and Vietnamese, where the first-person pronoun is generally omitted in speech. In many Iroquoian languages like Mohawk and Uralic languages such as Finnish, personal pronouns exist but are used largely for emphasis, and are not necessary to impart meaning.
Clearly, each of us has a physical and psychological reality that requires some sort of identifier. Clearly, I need to be able to communicate that I am the person writing this column, as opposed to some completely different writer with whom I share no sense of identification. But in what sense am I the same person I was five years ago, on my 18th birthday, or at the moment of my birth? Physically, I am merely a descendent of the cells that constituted the bodies of those younger men, while my personality changes by the minute. How are they all “me” in any real way? And yet, the “I” is unchanging, reinforcing a notion of our “selves” as beings that ride around in our heads for years.
We’ll probably never abolish the word “I.” Diversifying our first-person pronouns is also (probably) out of the question. So long as I continue to use the English language as a communication tool, I’ll have to exist within its confines, capitalization and all. But I think we could all benefit from looking beyond the linguistic limitations of “I.” The experience of being a self, whatever that means, is far more complex than a single letter. We very different people depending on social context and state of mind, and English barely captures that. And maybe I should be thankful, as that limitation keeps writers like me busy experimenting with the tools we do have. You need rules in order to break them.
But if there were ever a time to re-evaluate our reflexive reliance on the personal pronoun, it’s now. Ego is paramount in today’s world. Consumer culture urges us to be a new “you” and to take more “me” time (in the form of a commercialized experience). Identity politics overwhelms public discourse on both the left and the right. Even our third-person pronoun debates (as well as the Petersonite backlash) reflect society’s fixation on defining one’s identity as a self, be that in a quest for individuality or tribal belonging. Amid all this, the “I” itself is the elephant in the room, an assumed axiom of human existence that we never needed at all.
What exactly are we referring to with the words “I” and “me”? And why are we more preoccupied with what other people call us than with what we call ourselves? If nothing else, being more creative in how we refer to ourselves is considerably easier than trying to cajole others into using our preferred second-person pronouns. This is not to say that our second-person nomenclature doesn’t matter. It’s just not the only part of speech we ought to be revisiting.
In the meantime, I think I’m going to start referring to myself as sessha, the clumsy samurai. I think it suits me.