Gender in the Japanese Language

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Jan 29, 2010 12:32 gender male female woman girl Roomy
Recently, one of my friends on Lang-8 asked me (she was a basic learner of Japanese) how to differentiate between girls and guys when they speak. She added that she sometimes heard girls used masculine (i.e. boyish) words and boys used feminine (i.e. girlish) words on popular songs, animation films, etc.

You have probably learned that female speech is sometimes different from male speech in Japanese. To some extent, this is true, but you shouldn't push this assumption too far, because such differences are not based upon grammatical gender (1).

The most apparent difference is seen in the first person pronouns (strictly speaking, they are "pronominal nouns" though): "僕 (ぼく boku)" and "俺 (おれ ore)" are the first person singular pronouns used by males in informal speech. In principle, they are never used by girls and women, because they use "私 (わたし watashi)" or "あたし atashi" instead.

"私" is also pronounced as "わたくし watakushi," which is the most formal first person singular pronoun of contemporary Japanese and sounds very stiff (2). Along with it, "私 (わたし watashi)" can be used by male adults in formal speech, but females of every age use "私 (わたし watashi)" in informal speech as well as in formal speech (its corrupt form "あたし atashi" is only used informally among friends and family members) (3).

As observed above, the difference of the first person pronouns between men and women depends on politeness rather than on gender. In other words, it represents that women's language tends to be more polite than that of men. This assumption is strengthened by the following characteristics.

Women and girls have a tendency toward adding the prefix "お o-" to the beginning of a certain range of words to express more politely:
お買い物 (おかいもの 'okaimono: shopping'); お友達 (おともだち 'otomodachi: friend(s)'); お人形 (おにんぎょう oningyou 'puppet'); お花 (おはな 'ohana: flower'); お部屋 (おへや 'oheya: room'); お洋服 (おようふく 'oyoufuku: clothes'); お料理 (おりょうり 'oryouri: cooking or dish').
Although such words prefixed with "お o-" can be also used by men when they need to express very politely, women use them much more habitually.

Some words have more polite synonyms that are preferred by women even when they speak among closest friends or family members (on the examples below, the synonym of a word is placed on its right):
おやじ ('oyaji: papa') => おとうさん ('otoosan')
おふくろ ('ofukuro: mama') => おかあさん ('okaasan')
食う (くう 'kuu: to eat') => 食べる (たべる 'taberu')
けつ ('ketsu: hips, ass') => お尻 (おしり 'oshiri')
腹 (はら 'hara: belly, stomach') => お腹 (おなか 'onaka')
屁 (へ 'he: fart') => おなら ('onara')
飯 (めし 'meshi: rice or food in general')) =>ご飯 (ごはん 'gohan')

Since the basic imperative forms of verbs sound very rough, women usually use the different forms that have softer sound. For example, "行って ('itte: go!')," "来て ('kite: come!')," "取って ('totte: take!')," "見て ('mite: look!')" and "読んで ('yonde: read!')" are used instead of "行け ('ike')," "来い ('koi')," "取れ ('tore')," "見ろ ('miro')" and "読め ('yome')." These might be viewed as shortened from their polite forms ending with "ください" (e.g. 行ってください。)

Traditionally, it is said in Japan that women are meant to be more polite than men, and this is why they more often use polite expressions than men do. But I think it's more convincing to say that Japanese women want to be more careful and courteous in their language.

Other notable features are seen in 終助詞 (shuujoshi), the sentence ending particles. The particles わ (or わね, わよ) and よ (or のよ) placed at the end of sentences are often explained as characteristic of female speech, as in: ステキだわ。('Suteki da wa.: It's wonderful!'); そうよ。('Soo yo.: Yes.')

These "かわいくて色っぽい言い方 (pretty and coquettish expressions)" are, however, seldom used by females in their real life. They are often used in dramas and novels
(as well as in anime and manga), but I think they are misleading as if Japanese women were usually speaking that way. In fact, such pseudo-feminine ways of speaking are in heavy usage among sister boys.

The differences of wording between males and females are hardly seen in courteous language. On the contrary, they are sometimes remarkable when used among friends and family members. (The example below shows how a boy and a girl can speak differently, though somewhat exaggerated.)

The boy: 腹へった 飯食いてえ おふくろ、頼む 何かうまいもの作ってくれ 俺、風呂沸かすから

The girl: お腹すいた ごはん食べたい おかあさん、お願い 何かおいしいもの作って わたし、お風呂沸かすから

(English: I'm hungry. I wanna take a meal. Mom, please! Cook something yummy for me! I'm gonna heat the bath.)

゚・*:.。. .。.:・

I hope this article can help you understand Japanese.
If you have any questions about this topic, please write them in your comment.

1. In Arabic, for example, the feminine form of the second person singular pronoun ʼanti(أنت) is distinguished from its masculine counterpart anta (أنت). But the Japanese language has never had grammatical gender systems of this kind. "彼" and "彼女" are modern coinages by the influence of Western languages, and their main usages in spoken Japanese are as nouns meaning "a boyfriend" and "a girlfriend" respectively rather than as pronouns.
2. This is why I prefer the use of "わたし" to that of "私."
3. I seldom use "あたし" in a public place because it sounds somewhat flippant.