An LA Times story, “To Know You Is to Love You” by K. Connie Kang [archived], discusses the Korean-born reporter’s love affair with the English pronoun you (and the difficulties others have with it):

You was an ally that empowered me.
It freed me from the encumbrances of my mother tongue, which is one of the world’s most complicated and nuanced languages, laden with honorifics. You pushed me out of the confines of Confucian-steeped, hierarchal Korean language into a world of egalitarian impulses…
Korean has no fewer than six speech levels — each with a unique set of verb endings to indicate the degree of formality, ranging from extremely polite to actively impolite — and many gradations in between…
You represents the essence of democracy,” said attorney Tong S. Suhr, a community leader. “You liberates us from that [Korean] caste system, and it makes life so much easier.”
Korean-born Kay S. Duncan, director of production with Jarrow Formulas in West Hollywood, says you helped transform her from a shy Asian woman who preferred to sit in the back of the room to an assertive executive equal to those around her.
“You can say, ‘You did this, or you did that,’ even if you’re addressing the CEO of your company,” Duncan said.
By contrast, Ho-min Sohn, professor of Korean linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, says he has never felt at home with this three-letter word.
Sohn, who came to the U.S. in 1965 from South Korea to work on a doctorate in linguistics, managed to get his degree without once using you when addressing his professors. It seemed so out of place for a student to claim equality with his professor.

There’s further discussion of Korean and its pronouns, and a pleasing anecdote about a mixed couple’s solution to the problem (“Dangshin sounded cold and distant” to him, while Honey gives her shivers). Thanks for the link, Eric!


  1. I wonder how she’d feel about tu/vous if she learned French.

  2. “Sohn, who came to the U.S. in 1965 from South Korea to work on a doctorate in linguistics, managed to get his degree without once using you when addressing his professors. It seemed so out of place for a student to claim equality with his professor.”
    Things can get weirder than that. This American finds it hard to get used to calling professors in Finland by their first names.

  3. James Crippen says

    Hah, I go to UHM. I’ll have to come up with a reason to visit him.
    I still have problems with English titles, much less the honorifics in Japanese (which is not *as* bad as Korean, they say). When I talk to a professor who hasn’t otherwise indicated his title, should I call him “Mr./Ms.”, “Prof.”, or even “Dr.”? And what do I do when he’s only an assistant professor?

  4. … and from a Swedish point of view, the American society (and language) is somewhat too hierarchal.

  5. Koreans seem to err terribly on the side of politeness. In medical schools, residents and fellows are normally rather badly treated, and one Korean MD-PhD fellow was given a desk in a storeroom I used. Whenever I barged in to get something, she would stand up and greet me with a little bow.
    I thought it was funny, but I tried to convince her to be more relaxed. I felt quite embarassed really. (I should note that, while fellows rank low in the MD pecking order, as a non-MD I ranked significantly lower than she did.
    And yes, a “fellow” shouldn’t be a “she”, and sounds old-fashioned besides. I told them that the male fellows should be “dudes”, and the females “babes”, but no go.
    “Susan here is our new pediatric cardiology babe”.

  6. The thing is, I’m pretty sure Korean doesn’t have actual pronouns. I know Japanese doesn’t.
    Saying “you” hasn’t liberated anybody. Koreans and Japanese are free to ignore honorifics as they desire. Those who want to express the nuances of their social relationships are able to do so. English speakers can also be polite and deferential, we just don’t do it with pronouns, so foreigners have more difficulty mastering this aspect and think they’re “freed” from having to be polite or formal.

  7. I’m an American who didn’t feel comfortable calling my American dissertation advisor by his first name until after I’d completed my Ph.D. For most of my dissertation-writing years, I didn’t address him by any name or title at all. Of course, the pronoun ‘you’ was okay in English.
    I also had an undergraduate schoolmate from Japan who was somewhat of a dependent academically and linguistically. Even when speaking Japanese, he would use the English pronoun ‘you’ (You wa dou suru?) so as to avoid all the various implications of its several Japanese translations.

  8. michael farris says

    “The thing is, I’m pretty sure Korean doesn’t have actual pronouns. I know Japanese doesn’t.”
    I’m actually looking into this now as I’ve been asked to do a (necessarily superficial and prelimary) paper on the subject in the very near future. So far, I’d say Korean does have a few real honest to goodness personal pronouns (the jury’s still out on Japanese).
    Using modified Yale transcription, I’d say least na, je (first singular) and probably ne (second singular) as well as uri (first plural) fit the bill (within the framework I’m using). I’m not completely convinced about dangsin and/or janey (yet).
    I’m also getting the impression that second and third person are often weakly distinguished (if at all). But the first / non-first person distinction seems clear enough.

  9. michael farris says

    FWIW I’ve read (here?) that the popularity of ‘my’ in Japanese (and other languages of the region?) has to do with the fact that it conveys a semantic idea without any connotations. Any of the various ways of saying ‘my’ in Japanese (watasi no, boku no etc) tend to carry connotations of selfishness or possessiveness.

  10. By what criterion does Japanese not have pronouns? This oft-repeated statement always puzzles me. The main difference I can see between nouns and pronouns is that pronouns are NPs, so can’t take specifiers. So if you can say kono watasi and sono anata then I’ll admit that the pronouns are really nouns.

  11. elessorn says

    I think that’s correct about “my”, at least in Japanese, but in a different sense. The whole idea of pronouns, as in strictly referential from only the speaker’s point of view, is absent in Japanese. The few pronoun-like words can as easily be used with reference from the addressee’s point of view, or even that of someone absent. One can say quite naturally, “Hiroshi got my first bike yesterday”, when the “my” is clearly the boy, not the speaker. I would say my is closer to “own” than any individual pronoun in English, “my”, “your”, “his” etc. –all deducible from context.

  12. Simply put, “You” is avoided in Korean and Japanese a lot of the time, partly because it may be impolite to use, but also because the word “You” is rarely necessary. And when it is used it seems to me more like a vocative than an English-style pronoun. I have been speaking with Koreans for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever been addresssed as “You”. Almost always it’s my name followed by -ssi (like Japanese “-san”). I watch Korean TV and rarely hear any “You” word, except maybe Tangshin said by the wife in a drama (like Japanese “Anata”–an interesting parallel, although my Japanese wife calls me informal “kimi”, and indication of how younger generations are getting more informal in Japanese). Instead, as in Japanese, one uses the other person’s name as a vocative when it is necessary to indicate who the subject is. If the name is not known, you can use the handy honorific infix in verbs. In formal settings like a company, one can use the person’s title (Kim Kija-nim, Kyosu-nim, etc.). In school one can call one’s elders (Japanese senpai) seonpae-nim.
    The “-nim” ending is an honorific ending like Japanese “-sama”, but it can be used more broadly (e.g., as a vocative, in K: Kim Kacang-nim, in J: Kachou (no “-sama” ending), in English: Section Chief). In Korean, you would add the -nim ending to form a vocative when addressing the Section Chief; in Japanese, you can just call him Kachou (like calling him “Boss” as a vocative in English). You can’t say Kachou-sama without it being a joke because it’s too over-the-top. A lot of Korean is like this–if you translate it directly into Japanese, it sounds hyper-polite. On the other hand, in Korean if you were to call your boss, the Section Chief, simply Kacang without the honorific -nim ending, I’m pretty sure that would be highly impolite.
    I think Japanese has more options for conveying politeness, but in Korean the available options are used more. There is a simple infix (“shi)” which can be added to just about any verb to make it an honorific, similar to the way verbs can be passivized in Japanese for easy-access honorifics. You can get a lot of mileage out of this honorific infix in Korean, in combination with the occasional honorific vocative (Kim Kyosu-nim [Professor Kim]), and calling yourself ceo instead of na.
    In general, polite language in casual circles seems to be used a lot more in Korean than in Japanese. People I’ve known a long time still use the “shi” infix and “yo” verb ending (polite informal, like J. desu/masu) when speaking to me, whereas similar situations in Japanese would have long ago settled into the casual language. To some extent this may have to do with my being a “foreigner” (Koreans living in America call the natives wegukin, just as Japanese call them gaijin), but I still think Koreans are more formal than Japanese are.
    Koreans are big on Confucianism and respecting the elderly. When you are speaking of an older third party, such as parents, you need to use the honorific infix. This applies whether you are talking about your own parents or somebody else’s (in contrast to Japanese, where you don’t use polite language when talking to somebody else about your own family/peeps).

  13. In Japanese you can actually say “Kono watashi, sono anata”.
    They are not pronouns, they are rank nouns. As a rule there’s not supposed to be more than one pronoun per person, but in Japanese you can call people, even yourself differently according to how you feel yourself in that moment. I use often “ore”, “boku” and “watashi”, all three, depending on the moment.
    “anata” means “that person”, “kimi” means “lord”,etc. They are nouns.

  14. One of the stranger examples of pseudo-pronouns in Japanese has to be “Jibun”–“oneself”. The most general meaning is “one” when used as a possessive “Jibun no…” where the person signified by Jibun can be first, second, or third person.
    On the other hand, when used as a subject with wa (“Jibun wa”) it means “I” and is used in lieu of watashi.
    However, I have heard there are some other dialects (maybe Kyoto?) where “Jibun wa…” means “You”. I was told by a native speaker that this gets confusing because when somebody says “Jibun wa…” they could be talking about themself or about you, depending on where they are from.
    re: my earlier post, Korean kacang-nim should be “kwacang-nim”.

  15. I strongly doubt that the American deferential language is either hard for Japanese / Koreasn to learn, or anywhere near as complicated as the J/K systems.
    I had a Japanese-American friend who came to the US after WWII as a war bride. In 1980 or so she made friends with an American woman and they had a lot of fun. After some time she found out that the American woman was 10 years older than her. The Japanese woman was mortified; she hadn’t been showing respect.
    The American woman was upper-middle-class black, complicating the matter a bit further. She hadn’t noticed a problem — Japanese disrespect is actually quite a bit nicer than ordinary American manners.

  16. I don’t speak Korean, but I understand what she’s saying. If I’m speaking Japanese with someone, I’m fully aware that I cannot say “you.” But then when we switch to English, the expected use of “you” is liberating!

  17. I think that part of the difficulty is that the respect-forms of Korean and Japanese depend especially on complicated systems of euphemism and avoidance (i.e., prohibitions on naming certain things, which are often the main topic of discussion). It’s not just the elaborateness of the system, but the fact that it’s a system of masks and erasures.
    To a degree I am extrapolating from Chinese, since I don’t know Japanese or Korean.

  18. I’ll probably take some heat for this one, but I’m under the impression that topic-comment prominence is a primary factor in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pronoun styles.
    See, Indo-European languages are mostly based on the subject-object opposition. So for any sentence one would naturally assume a subject, even for pro-drop languages like Latin. In Latin, for instance, subjects are encoded in the verbs, and so the pronouns are used for emphasis. In English, because the verb structure has been simplified, pronouns are introduced to replace the verb endings. In the end, the subject-object opposition is preserved. In these languages the idea of persons, whether be it as verb endings or as pronouns is encoded in the grammar.
    In topic-prominent languages, such as classical Chinese, not only are verbs not required to take subjects, but usually sentences acquire meaning based on the topic, rather than the subject. So instead of saying “John did this, then he did this, and he did this,” all the time having the pronoun giving sense to the verb, we have sentences like “speaking of John, verb1, verb2, verb3.” So now since the verb acquires meaning always based on the introduced topic, the need to refer frequently to pronouns disappears.
    Imagine this, “John, verb1, verb2, he, verb1, verb2, verb3…” The audience would be like, “hey, who’s he?” Instead you can have “John, verb1, verb2, honourable lord, verb1, verb2…” Then “honourable lord” would be gleaned from context.
    Now of course I’m aware that modern Mandarin has pronouns, but then again modern Mandarin is much less topic-prominent than classical Chinese. I’m also aware that in classical Chinese there were sets of pronouns. But then they filled specific niches, such as “I am a man, you are a man, why should I fear you?” 彼丈夫也,我丈夫也,我何畏彼哉? emphasizing the you/me distinction. Notice that in classical Chinese while there were the first person/second person pronoun series, there wasn’t really a set third person pronoun. Instead people used words like 彼 which traversed the second/third person boundary, as well as the animate, inanimate categories. In other cases people used 寡人,君,不榖, which again are obviously noun derived.
    Now I’m no expert on Japanese and Korean, but it’s my contention that pronouns result from a need to refer regularly to unspecified subjects. This need resulted from subject-prominence, in which verbs and sentences don’t make sense without subjects. Because Japanese, Korean, and classical Chinese are highly topic-prominent, this need did not exist.
    Now even the imperative in classical Chinese didn’t really exist in the way imperatives do in Indo-European languages (e.g. specifically referring to a implicit second person.) In classical Chinese you have 無/毋, as in 無友不如己者, but also in a jussive/subjunctive sense such as 爾無我虞,我無爾詐.

  19. Is the claim that Japanese (and perhaps Korean) has no pronouns, or no personal pronouns? What would ‘nani’ be?

  20. Is the claim that Japanese (and perhaps Korean) has no pronouns, or no personal pronouns? What would ‘nani’ be?

  21. Michael Farris says

    The idea that Japanese doesn’t have pronouns, is wrong.
    It’s an abbreviation of the idea that Japanese doesn’t have personal pronouns. This means that the words used to refer to the speaker or addressee don’t differ enough structurally from other nominals to separate them into a distinct nominal sub-class. Semantic grounds alone are not generally seen as sufficient for calling a group of words ‘personal pronouns’. Personal pronouns in many languages co-index with personal endings on verbs (as in Spanish, absent in Japanese) mark case differently from nouns (as in English she/her – again absent in Japanese), form small closed classes as in Chinese (again, not in Japanese) or differ in other ways, none of which seems to be true in Japanese.
    No one doubts that Japanese has demonstrative and interrogative pronouns. IIRC nani is an interrogative pronoun meaning ‘what’.
    Korean seems a little different here as in first person singular reference is (largely) limited to a small closed class (na, je) both of which have irregular case forms (and some other anomolies). I’m sure things are more complicated but I’d say that na and je are real personal pronouns. Ne (you singular, limited to very close relationships) also looks an awful lot like a real pronoun for similar reasons.

  22. Sorry, late in the game here, but from reading all this it sounds as if the use of “anata” is considered rude in most cases? Which is confusing to me, as when I was studying Japanese we used “anata” all the time. (Side note: the many dizzying levels of formality in Japanese were part of why I dropped the language and took up Spanish. How soothing to just have “tu” and “usted.” And, um, “vosotros.” And “vos.” All of which I have wound up using incorrectly at various points in my travels. Sigh.)

  23. michael farris says

    IIRC not so much rude as inappropriate (it is or was fairly standard for wives to use anata with their husbands). I once read it was more or less consciously chosen as a heuristic for foreigners.
    It also might be like Korean dangsin, okay in print not aimed at anyone in particular but awkward in speech.

  24. Interesting. I just saw an old ’70s samurai film and plenty of guys used it to talk to other men, but it’s not like John Wayne used perfect English, either, so I guess I shouldn’t look to Zatoichi to improve my Japanese skills. Thanks for the information.

  25. michael farris says

    Bambo, that’s another thing. The range of acceptable usage for individual words used to refer to the speaker or addressee in Japanese tends to cahnge a lot over time. It could have been appropriate for Samurai in the Samurai era but that says little about its use in more recent years decades. Again this is very different from European languages, in which pronoun use usually is very stable over the decades (and centuries).
    The standard usage curve is for polite words in Japanese to lose politeness over time (the more it’s used, the less polite it becomes). Some of the most insulting epithets in Japanese began as deferential expressions.

  26. Some of the most insulting epithets in Japanese began as deferential expressions.
    Really! That’s very interesting — can you give an example or two?

  27. michael farris says

    A quick google based example from:
    “貴様 【きさま】 things don’t get much ruder than kisama. it’s equivalent (in terms of vulgarity) to calling someone a motherf****r in english. [Note from Koala: Funny thing is, if you look at the kanji, in Chinese characters it means: ‘valued and esteemed person!!]”
    Takao Suzuki translates kisama as ‘noble person’ and notes that it originally expressed politeness toward the addressee (words in context, 120-122)

  28. Thanks. I love stuff like that.

  29. That’s similar to ethnic terms in American English – they start as polite euphemisms, become neutral with wide use, and eventually sink to be stigmatized as newer terms are coined.

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