Table of Contents
- The Basics
- Beyond The Basics
Second-person pronouns are personal pronouns that a speaker uses to refer to the person they're talking to. In writing, they can also be used to refer to the reader, just like "you" in English. Let's see how this works in action!
- Do you like bacon?
So instead of using a first-person pronoun like 私, we just switch to あなた and now the sentence is about you. Simple enough! However, there is a dark side to second-person pronouns in Japanese. If used in the wrong context, they can sound pretty rude. But don't worry! We'll explain everything in the sections that follow.
あなた is the standard second-person pronoun, and although even this one doesn't come up all the time in real-life conversation, you'll definitely spot it sometimes.
あなた is also the most neutral of all the second-person pronouns. For this reason, it is often used in writing and speaking aimed at a general audience, like textbooks and ads.
- Is there a Japanese restaurant in your city?
(an example from a Japanese textbook GENKI I)
- We'll buy your car for a high price!
(an example of a car dealer ad)
Being the most "plain" second-person pronoun, あなた can take on various nuances depending on how it's used. For example, it can often acquire a condescending tone. Let's say you forgot to lock the door at the office when you left last night, and your boss is pretty upset. You and your boss are close and she usually calls you by your name in a friendly way, but she might suddenly switch to あなた and say:
- You're the one who forgot to lock the door — am I right?
Since she normally uses your name when talking to you, switching to あなた would create a different tone. It might feel more serious, or at least out of the ordinary. The use of あなた may come from your boss wanting to stay calm and professional to hide her anger, but it can result in sounding even more upset, or even aggressive, by creating distance and therefore a standoffish feel.
- What do you want to eat for lunch?
あなた is also sometimes used to refer to loved ones. Although it's gotten less common — even rare — in real-life, it's still recognized as an old-timey, stereotypical term of endearment that married women might use with their husbands, and as such is often used for character development in storytelling.
君 is a second-person pronoun with various nuances. Some dictionaries define 君 as a pronoun you can use in a friendly way towards someone of equal or lower status. These days, however, the way 君 is perceived varies quite a bit from person to person.
Since it's often associated nowadays with the way older male supervisors address their subordinates, it could result in sounding condescending or snobbish, for example.
- Can you get this done for me?
You never know how others might take it, so it's best to play it safe and not risk getting reported to HR!
Outside of hierarchical situations like the workplace, 君 is used a lot to sound literary or poetic. Often paired up with the first-person pronoun 僕, it was used in the Meiji era as a sign of camaraderie amongst cultured folks like academics and writers. You can still find both used in creative writing, like novels, lyrics, or titles.
- Your Name.
This is the title of the 2016 hit anime movie. See how the original title uses 君? Even though you may not hear 君 used in real-life all the time, in creative writing it has the effect of adding a poetic vibe.
お前 is a second-person pronoun that's masculine and rough, it's often in combination with vulgar language!
Although it's associated with masculinity, that doesn't mean it's a pronoun only for men. Even if you don't use お前 regularly, it's a great way of expressing your anger. Regardless of gender, when tempers fray you may well hear people using お前.
- Are you kidding me?
お前 can also be a way to show affection in a very casual way towards close friends, partners, and family. In this case, the above example would be playful, rather than showing genuine anger.
Beyond The Basics
Second-Person Pronouns and Politeness
Some resources might teach you not to use second-person pronouns as they can be rude. While this is true, it's also important to know why they could come across as rude.
Historically, Japanese second-person pronouns have always tended to lose politeness over time. Words that had an honorific feel in the past accumulated a feeling of directness from the moment they started to be used as second-person pronouns. And since being direct is generally considered impolite in Japanese culture, this increase in directness meant a reduction in politeness.
For example, 貴様 is a derogatory second-person pronoun that's seen as "very rude" nowadays. However, the kanji 貴 (noble) and 様 (honorific title/name ender) show that it used to be a polite way to refer to others. Losing politeness like this is inevitable due to the nature of second-person pronouns, in that they are used to refer directly to the person you're talking to.
These days, there is no second-person pronoun that is guaranteed to give a respectful impression. That's why their use is often discouraged in conversation, especially when talking to your teacher or your boss, or other people to whom society expects you to be polite.
So how would you refer to them when you need to? Instead of using second-person pronouns, it's common to use their names, or social or family roles, like お母さん (mom) or sensei. This adds another layer of impoliteness that comes from choosing a second person pronoun over using names or other terms of address. It's sort of similar to referring to someone as "he," "she" or "they," even though they're taking part in the conversation.
Plural Forms of Second-Person Pronouns
We've introduced some different ways to say "you" in the singular in Japanese. In English, "you" can be plural, but that's not the case for Japanese second-person pronouns. To pluralize, you attach suffixes like 〜達 (たち), 〜等 (ら), 〜方 (がた) and 〜供 (ども) to the end of the pronoun.
The plural suffixes carry different nuances, mainly the level of formality. Both second-person pronouns and plural suffixes express different kinds and levels of politeness. So some combinations are more common than others. For example, 〜方 is generally considered to be a polite way to refer to others, so it doesn't go well with a derogatory pronoun like お前. Sometimes it's also about how they sound together when they're paired up.
To give you a clearer picture, below is a mix-and-match chart of common pronouns and suffixes! ✖️ shows that the combination is rarely used.
Possessive Form of Second-Person Pronouns
In English, "you" becomes "your" when used to talk about possession, but Japanese pronouns stay the same. The reason is that Japanese pronouns are basically no different from regular nouns, and it's the job of the particles to assign grammatical roles to the pronouns.
For example, to say "your" in Japanese, you use a second-person pronoun plus the particle の, because の shows that the noun immediately before it is in the possessive form.
Second-Person Pronoun + の
So if you use あなた to say "your," it's going to look like:
It's exactly the same for other pronouns, so 君の and お前の also mean "your."
Second-Person Pronouns Can Be Omitted
Keep in mind that pronouns (or rather, subjects and objects in general) can be omitted in Japanese. This is unlike English, where they are more essential elements in sentences.
- Do (you) like bacon?
The above example works fine without the second person pronoun part — あなたは.
If someone says ベーコンが好きですか？, it's natural to assume that it's about you, the listener, as in "Do you like bacon?" unless this was in the flow of conversation about someone else or something else. Because of this, second-person pronouns can often be omitted in Japanese, unless you want to clarify that what you're saying is about the person you're talking to, or you want to change topics. Even when you do refer to the person, it's still a lot more common to use their name, or their family or social role, for example by calling your teacher sensei.