Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I was reading danah boyd's paper, "Faceted Id/entity: Managing Representation in a Digital World" again and in it she says:
danah boyd
Adam Smith (1976/1790) separates identity into the object versus acting self, while Mead (1934) refers to me versus I.
This reminded me of something that I've always wondered if anyone had studied academically. In Japan, we have many pronouns for "I". I personally use several of them. I use ore when I want to be casual and assertive. I use boku when I am casual and humble. I use watakushi when I am formal and assertive, and I use watashi when I am formal but less assertive. There are others. Each one has a different set of memories and social situations where I assert myself. It's a different "I" even though the "me" may be different. My theory is that Japanese can more easily navigate and deal with the multi-faceted identity that danah talks about in her paper because we have so many names for ourselves. Does this make sense? Are there other languages that have a plethora of "I" pronouns? Does anyone know of any academic work in this area?


I use "oira"... That said, you do make a good point there. Using Japanese self-pronouns you can manifest yourself in different ways depending on the situation, the community you are in, and the person you are talking to. I'm sure there must have been research in this area in the field of linguistic anthropology. I guess I should go google...

Korean has this too, with four different "I" (one being a "we" that is also used as "I"). There are academic studies on that stuff (Japanese and Korean, at least), some of which have been forced down my brain in my younger years. Will look up my bibliographic index cards (yes, I said younger years)...

There are apparently a few articles in learned journals about "honorific", most of them related to Japanese. I suspect widening the search would yield more. I'll poke my company's mainframe (beats leafing through index cards) for more, if you want. I'll send you a list of what I've found.

Thanks dda!

Hi Joi, we briefly met in NY on your last visit here, some comments on Mead:

Mead argues that "all selves are constituted by or in terms of the social process", (201) and looks at superiority and laughing at another to draw a distinction between "me" and "I", where the "me" is the socially constructed form of self. I believe Mead argues that superiority (even if not malicious) is necessary to preserve a sense of self, and this applies to groups (207) as well (e.g, patriotism). (This relates to one of my social/ethical concerns best addressed by Singer's Expanding Circle (a term borrowed from W. H. Lecky), that as our social sphere grows, so do our moral sympathies.) Consequently, I'm not so fond of his conceptualization...

Mead, George Herbert. 1934/1972. Mind, Self, and Society, passim, and especially the section, "The Realization of the Self in the Social Situation," pp. 200-209 in Charles W. Morris (ed.) edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Oh, you bet it's been studied. That's what linguists do all day. ;-)

Japanese is not unusual in this regard. Southeast Asian languages are known for having complex pronominal systems: Thai has "over a dozen" words that translate as "I". Vietnamese also has many pronouns.

In the first person plural, many languages, such as Tagalog , distinguish between so-called "inclusive" and "exclusive" forms -- roughly translating as "all of us, including you," and "all of us, but not you."

I just mention these three languages off the top of my head; I'm sure there are more examples from Africa and the Americas. All the European languages I'm aware of have a single form in the first person; the second person is where you find more complicated systems. (vous vs. tu being one instance).

I've not read the thesis you link to, so I can't comment on that.

Thanks Joseph. Does Singer's Expanding Circle mean that as "we" get bigger, "we" care an sympathize with more people? Is there something online? I can't seem to find the book online from someone who ships internationally...

Thanks for the links Patrick. EXACTLY what I was looking for. ;-)

I just got back from her birthday beach bonfire party i'm sure she'd answer you but right now she's in the happy place so you'll have to wait till tomorrow :)

ps: were your ears burning? we were talking about you :)

The happy place? I won't ask. ;-)

Interestingly enough, in Spanish we have only one pronoun for "I", which is "yo", but we have two forms for "you", one formal, "usted", and one informal, "tu"...

A simple Google search on "Japanese personal pronoun research" (no quotes in the search string) yields a lot of hits. Some interesting stuff under "Japanese personal pronoun identity research, as well.

The latter search led me to a citation to a book entitled Pronouns and People: The Linguistic Construction of Social and Personal Identity, which is out of print, but probably available via a local university library.

There may be some relevant things in the works of Hajime Hoji, who's at USC...maybe your sister could chat with him about it? :)

And finally, here's a cite-with-abstract (from a bibliography at The Int'l Society for Self and Identity)that looks quite relevant:

Kashima, E. S., & Kashima, Y. (1998).
Culture and language: The case of cultural dimensions and personal pronoun use. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29, 461-486.

Abstract. The relationship between culture and language was examined across 39 languages spoken in 71 cultures. Correlations were computed across languages and cultures between the use of first- and second-person singular pronouns (e.g., I and You) and global cultural dimensions such as Individualism, which were previously extracted in large-scale cross-cultural surveys (Chinese Culture Connection, 1987; Hofstede, 1980; Schwartz, 1994; Smith, Dugan, and Trompenaar, 1996). The personal pronouns were analyzed in terms of the number of first- and second-person singular pronouns and whether the pronouns can be dropped when used as the subject of a sentence in speech. Cultures with pronoun drop languages tended to be less Individualistic than those with non-pronoun drop languages. The number of personal pronouns correlated with some cultural dimensions that reflected different conceptions of the person. Personal deixis may provide a window through which cultural practices can be investigated.

(Disclaimer: bibliographic research performed with insufficient coffee early in the morning has no warranty, express or implied, as to suitability or comprehensivenes...)

A more ethnographic academic treatment of the multiple "selves" made possible in the Japanese language (and Japanese society) can be found in Dorinne Kondo's book, Crafting Selves (University of Chicago Press: 1990). In the introduction she has a chart listing the various ways of referring to oneself (similar to what you listed), but the entire book is an examination of the shifting nature of identity and the multiple selves an individual enacts as a member of Japanese society. It's also an interesting account of her experience as an anthropologist in Japan.

It makes sense.

It's more practical.

And I'll bet it makes it easier to be less egocentric.

Actually, i'm just as much interested in this conversation as Joi. That sentence from my thesis is just a framework one that is not discussed deeply. I'm now having fun questioning my framework, expanding it and otherwise figuring out what works/doesn't work cross-culturally.

So thanks everyone for your references!!

[And PS the happy place was under my warm covers with my little kitty curled up next to me.]

gnome-girl, check out this (hopefully) simply explaination with another reference to Singer:

Arlie Hochschild (prominent sociologist) also mentions the Japanese pronoun thing in one of her essays when she is do a comparative study of American versus Japanese self-help books in her collection of essays: Commercialization of Intimate Life

This is a really interesting (and timely) post for me because I was at an educational blogging conference yesterday that ended up really banging on an aspect of this. The basic idea is that bloggers (and students/teachers/administrators) who write need to really think closely about who they are writing for. They will also likely modify the style or substance of their postings based on that audience.

It seems like simply another way in which people create facets of themselves.

Funny, occasionally there's a subject that Joi and I both wonder about!

There are hundreds of ways to refer to yourself in Japan. I've always thought it was because of the excruciating importance of your status versus others (which has tons of permutations depending on who, what, and when you are and who the "other" or "others" are.

Children in Japan often refer to themselves by their own names. Girls sometimes/often retain this habit into adulthood. (Joi, I noticed at least two women we know do this.) Women (having their own language in Japan, practically, often refer to themselves as "atashi" or "atai"(slang).

In the Edo period, Daimyo referred to themselves as "yo" (not "yoh!" by the way). The Empereror may still refer to himself as "chin" in the court.

Some people refer to themselves as "jibun" (i.e. "myself"). A more formal, humble way of referring to yourself is "shousei".

Although culture is worth preserving, it would make many people's lives easier if Japan abolished honorifics and the differential between men and women's speech. I'd vote for that!

While we're on the topic of honorifics in Japanese, there's an interesting post at Languagehat about where you can read excerpts of a NYT article about the apparent decline in their use.

I'm sure someone somewhere has observed that the many forms of "I" and "you" may be related to the fact that Japan was/is a class based society.

Coming from Holland I can comment only from a European, and specifically, Dutch perspective. As mentioned above, there is only one word to refer to yourself: "Ik" (I). There are two main ways, though, to refer to another person, like Enrique Dans mentioned in his post, a formal form "U" and an informal form "jij". There is however a whole range of 'intentions' of which you can refer to yourself, using the word "ik". You can add emphasis by adding "mijzelf" (myself), by emphasizing the word itself, and not in the last place by the placement of the word in the sentence. These subtle uses of one word can induce very different sorts of sentiment in the listener, depending on your formulation of your sentence.
So, instead of having multiple words for describing various meanings of "I", the dutch language uses more subtle (?) ways of addressing people and referring to a certain 'self'. Much of it is dependant on intonation and placement in the sentence. A disaster for people with Asperger Syndrome, I might add ;-)

By extension, I think you might have to suggest that masculine and feminine words (in languages that have them) affect people's perception of their own and others' genders.

I am learning Spanish now, and "table" in Spanish, "mesa", is feminine. Do native Spanish speaking women see themselves as being table-like in any way?

I don't think you can look at pronouns alone when considering how language might affect or reflect perceptions.

I think, altogether, language expresses a lot of nuance about ideas of self and other. I don't know, but maybe that is *all* language is, in some sense.

In English, the way I speak about myself and others expresses different "facets" of my identity, even simply by the context in which I say thing (i.e., not simply the specific words I use)--and even more so considering "voice" in terms of vocal inflection and tone.

I wonder if the thing about a language like Japanese vs a language like English is that English is or has become mostly an egalitarian form of expression. Most everything is expressed in familiar (and also even neuter or common) terms.

In other languages like Japanese, there are a lot of ways to express hierarchies and nuances of social relationship / position.

In other words, I wonder if the ways pronouns are used in Japanese are a reflection of the "Japanese identity" more in a social sense than in one that reflects a fundamentally different concept of self. Of course, how you see yourself in that social sense DOES affect your concept of self too!

Well, since I'm just learning Japanese, it's all I can do to keep all of the particles straight, let alone the pronouns and ways to refer to oneself. I'm still getting the hang of the casual conversational structure, having learned the polite style first.

But it's so difficult to tell when it's "okay" to be more casual, it's almost better to be too polite than not polite enough. It's easier just to say "watashi" all the time, although some people do look at me strangely for being overly polite.

Plus, my book gave the alternate versions of "I" for a man to use, but not for a woman to use. What's up with that?