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Grammatically speaking it shouldn't be an issue, but I have heard from some people that a non-japanese using 僕{ぼく} sounds really weird. Has anyone else heard this? And if so, is there a reason?

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僕 is not appropriate in formal situations, and it is much less common than 私 for female speakers. But I find nothing wrong with non-native speakers using 僕 if the situation is appropriate. If the only reason for the weirdness is the speaker being non-native, that sounds like a prejudice that foreign speakers should only know 私. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 5 '11 at 22:30
    
Yeah that was what I was getting at thanx Ito. –  Mark Hosang Jun 6 '11 at 0:38
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I don't think I'll ever fully understand the intricacies of the various forms of "I". And I tend to avoid the decision by dropping any form of the first-person pronoun when I speak. It depends on the context of the conversation, but in many cases the subject of conversation is understood and there's no need to repeat it. I think native english speakers learning japanese tend to say "I" more than necessary. –  monkut Jun 13 '11 at 8:58
    
@TsuyoshiIto: It seems a bit silly to call it "prejudice" to me. Non-native speakers will start off learning a neutral, perhaps verging on formal variant of the language. The fact that 僕 sounds weird is perhaps just because non-native speakers have enough trouble grasping formal language without also trying to throw casual language into the same mix. (There are many entire books and reams of research papers dedicated to the subtleties involved in mixing polite and plain verb forms in conversation, for example.) –  Billy Sep 28 '11 at 0:38
    
(And perhaps bear in mind that many non-native speakers think real Japanese is like anime Japanese...) –  Billy Sep 28 '11 at 0:39

3 Answers 3

up vote 23 down vote accepted

This question frequently comes up among foreigners in Japan, especially men, as it seems there's a feeling that sticking with 私{わたし} is somehow too "textbook". It's as if using 私{わたし} is an indication of still learning, or perhaps not yet having been integrated into Japanese language and culture enough.

Men often wonder if they should use 僕{ぼく}, or 俺{おれ} instead, with the sense that 僕{ぼく} is more friendly and verges on kind of boyish and cute (where cute is a good thing in Japan). 俺{おれ} is seen as being rough and manly, but possibly too rude to use in most situations. I've even heard men boast of their ability to use 俺{おれ}, as if it were an indication of their bold nature.

Which is partly true, but I've often found when talking with foreign men about this, they focus entirely on the word and how it represents them, and not on the grammatical construct around the word when they use it.

For a somewhat extreme example, saying:

「俺{おれ}も行{い}って頂{いただ}いてませんか?」

"Could I not also go?"

... would sound weird, regardless of who you were, because it mixes polite and and casual.

It's like, in English, saying something like "Excuse me, dude, would you mind terribly telling me the time?" Mixing "would you mind terribly" and "dude" is an awkward mix of slang and old-timey politeness, which in the end just conveys one doesn't have mastery of English (assuming the speaker isn't in an ironic context.)

If you want to use 俺{おれ} in the example above, you would say something more like:

「俺{おれ}も行{い}けねぇか?」

"Yo, can I hang with you?"

僕{ぼく} is safe for a wide variety of contexts, except for very rigid keigo. If you are able to use rigid keigo, though, you most likely know not to use 僕{ぼく}, so it's not really an issue.

Bottom line is, as a non-native Japanese speaker, 僕{ぼく} is perfectly acceptable in most situations, as Japanese will give you some slack on context since you're non-native, and it carries no connotations that make it rude. Use 俺{おれ} if you are sure that the rest of what you are saying matches. And don't be afraid of 私{わたし} when it's called for. Japanese don't have the same stigma against it that foreigners do.

It's far more important to learn when to not use a personal pronoun at all. Usually, when Japanese find 私{わたし} out of place, it's not because 僕{ぼく} or 俺{おれ} would have been better, it's more likely the case that the personal pronoun should have been dropped completely.

On a side note regarding あたし versus わたし for women, Japanese women seem perfectly comfortable with it so it is commonly used. Foreign women, however, often don't like it as they feel it smacks of a sexist construct. The argument is that it doesn't convey any more friendliness or character the way 僕{ぼく} or 俺{おれ} can. It merely conveys femininity, which some foreign women feel is unneeded in most contexts.

Hope that helps.

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"Yo, can I hang with you?" –  Ignacio Vazquez-Abrams Jun 13 '11 at 5:20
    
Very nice overview! +1 on 私 being seen as a stigmata of textbook-learning and ++1 on the importance of surrounding grammar and tone rather than just the pronoun... –  Dave Jun 13 '11 at 10:01
    
@Ignacio: Thanks! That's a better translation than what I had. I've updated the answer with your version. –  Dave M G Jul 9 '11 at 7:52
    
私、僕、俺 can use for boy but only 私 can use for girl?? –  ZarNge Aug 26 '11 at 7:26
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@ZarNge: In some cases, girls can use 僕, but it is a little difficult to explain, and is best discovered through experience. But for the most part, yes, you are right. –  Dave M G Aug 26 '11 at 7:28

It should be okay, at least I used it mainly more than 私 and 俺. But, sometimes when everyone in the conversation is a guy, I use 俺.

But Japanese guys only use 俺 most of the time within conversation, so may be using 僕 or 私 would be kind of obvious if speaker is non-Japanese, and of course that will depends on their pronunciations/intonations too.

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The choice of first-person pronoun depends on the level of formality in the current context. During (formal) interviews I have heard わたし about 90% of the time, わたくし occasionally, and ぼく only rarely. However, during informal conversations, it is quite common to hear ぼく or おれ. I prefer おれ personally, but anecdotally, I have had a native Japanese tell me he prefers ぼく because it sounds "softer" than おれ. I can't think of why it would be inappropriate for a foreigner to use whichever he prefers unless the situation calls for something more formal than ぼく.

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