Nexus of language and culture: A study of second person reference terms in Japanese with special focus on anata ‘you’

CAP School of Culture, History & Languages Event


Yoko Yonezawa PhD Candidate, CAP CHL


Room W3.03, Baldessin Precinct Building (110), Ellery Crescent, ANU


Thursday, 10 November, 2016 - 15:00 to 16:30

In this thesis, I explore the use of the second person pronoun anata ‘you’ in Modern Japanese.


Japanese has a complex system of personal reference terms (PRTs). Their use is primarily determined by the social characteristics of the interlocutors as well as the level of formality of the conversational setting. Among these PRTs, the second person pronoun anata ‘you’ is unique. While other PRTs inevitably display the interlocutor’s social elements (e.g. gender, age, kin relations, social position) even without contextual information, anata does not possess this feature.


The socially inert nature of anata was intuited at one time by language policy makers during the post war egalitarian trend. Anata was defined as a ‘standard’ address term suitable for a new democratic society and its use was nationally encouraged. However, this was never widely    accepted. From a survey undertaken for this study, present-day native speaker’s perceptual data shows that users of Japanese regard anata as a touchy and difficult address term and hence tend to avoid it. This is also the main reason for the apparent disagreement in previous literature when defining anata as formal/polite or impolite.


This study reveals anata’s nature and its pragmatic effects, empirically clarified through discourse analysis. I reveal that anata’s core property is its ability to absolutely specify the second person entity. This makes it possible for anata to occur impersonally in reported speech and to refer to a general audience. At the same time, this property creates strong expressive effects in socially typified relationships. I show how this inherent property of anata interacts with established socio-cultural rules in the PRT system in Japanese and creates expressive effects which cause users to attach social meanings (e.g. polite, impolite, distant or intimate) to this word. In so doing, the study sheds light on aspects of the nexus between language and culture.




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