How many forms of “you” do you think Japanese has?

onmae

In a sense, there are so many words that can refer to the second person (あなた、お前、貴様、君、そちら、御社、お宅…), but none of them is a pronoun in the same sense as in most European languages.

When Japanese people need to directly address somebody, they usually use the person’s name with the appropriate suffix (if they know their name), or the noun that describes them, such as “mom お母さん/ママ”, “customer お客様”, or “doctor/teacher 先生”, to name a few.

However, the subject/object of the sentence is totally omitted when the reference is obvious, so those nouns are generally not even used.

Pointing

For example

Mother:

Your father will take you to the zoo today.

お父さんが1  動物園2  に3  連れてってくれるよ4

(Your) father1  zoo2  to3  take4  (you).

Child:

Are you coming, too?

お母さん1  も一緒に2  行くの3

Mom(=you)1  too2   go3?

The first word found in the English-Japanese dictionary for “you” would be あなた (pronounced ah-nah-tah). While everyone in Japan understands it as the second person pronoun, it is barely used in regular conversation (both written and oral).

One reason is that, as noted above, the obvious subject or object (I/you) is usually omitted. Hence, if you do use this term, it will sound awkward, or can even be rude, depending on whom you are addressing.

Example.

Standard translation:

I love you.

愛してる。 

Love (verb).

Literal translation (awkward):

I love you.

わたしは1  あなたを2  愛してる3

I1  you2  love3.

This word あなた derives from the pronoun referring to a far place, almost like “over there.” It used to refer to “someone who is in that (far) place,” which was third person, but, over time, became to refer to the second person instead.

Back then, respect to the addressed person was attached to this term. An indirect reference to the person in front of you was an honorific form of address. However, as time passed, usage of this term has changed and its “value” has come down, to the point that it can no longer be used to address someone “superior” (in terms of age/social status etc.). 

Teacher

Likewise, another term for “you,” おまえ, will be offending if your child says this directly to you, although it once meant “in front of honorable person.” Here, also in the same mentality of not referring the person in front but rather “me in front of you”, this word was used with humbleness. However, this word sounds very condescending today.

Japanese people choose the appropriate “ second person pronoun” according to the context – to use or not to use, if to use, which one?  This decision is acquired by learning, practice, trial and error.

you

If you are not sure of the form to use, just skip referring to the person in front of you. It’s the easiest way to avoid conflict!