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In this answer, the kanji was defined as "mistress".

I'm not so familiar with this kanji, so I looked it up, and it seems to have about four readings and two definitions. Although I think some of these readings might be archaic, there's めかけ, そばめ, and おんなめ which all mean "mistress" or "kept woman".

But then there's also the reading わらわ which seems to be a humble feminine form of saying "I" or "me", similar to あたし.

Most of the examples I saw, were related to the "mistress" meaning, so I wondered:

Is the feminine "I" meaning still in use? If so, when would it be used? Given the other definition, it seems like that would be a very unpopular way for a woman to refer to herself...

Also, with regards to the "mistress" meaning, which of the readings are still in use?

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I think I've heard princesses in Japanese 時代劇 (such as 水戸黄門) say わらわ to refer to themselves... –  Choko Jul 15 '12 at 13:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I don't think that anyone alive still refers to themselves as /warawa/, which is the first-person pronoun* denoted by 妾. You might find it (or some cognate) in use by the very old or those speaking non-standard dialects (or other Japonic languages), but I think you can safely call it extinct in "Standard Japanese".

In a modern context I would be surprised to see 妾 used at all, but I guess /mekake/ "mistress" seems more likely than the other readings, if only because /mekake/ remained in common use longer (to judge from my non-rigorous sampling of Japanese literature).

You don't specifically ask this, but if you were also wondering why 妾 came into use at all to write a first-person pronoun... I don't know all the details, but here's what I do know. /warawa/ is a very old (Man'yoshu old) native Japanese word meaning "child". I forget the specifics, but I recall that it was used for children who were old enough to walk around, talk, etc., but still not yet adults mentally or physically. I guess "late elementary school" is about the right image. This was the meaning that was borrowed for the first person pronoun, so the meaning is very humble.

The "standard" character for /warawa/ "child" was 童. I would imagine that 妾 was used for the female first-person pronoun because 妾 is the "definitely female" version of 童. I doubt that the "mistress" meaning was a factor; it might not even have been current in Japan then (I don't know much about the history of the character).

You probably know this already, but /boku/ 僕 is kind of similar: depending on how extreme you want to be, you could argue that it also means "servant" or even "slave". They took humbleness seriously in pre-modern Japan!

* Let's just stipulate that Japanese pronouns actually exist.
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+1 for a good answer and a likely candidate to be marked correct. Just out of curiousity, is there a reason you write all the readings in romaji between forward slashes instead of using hiragana or furigana? –  Questioner Jul 17 '12 at 8:06
    
No particular reason, I just didn't see much point in using kana to indicate the sounds, so I figured I may as well leave it in romaji. If someone wants to edit it to a different style, I won't roll it back. –  Matt Jul 17 '12 at 8:12
    
I don't like to edit other people's posts when it's only a matter of style. It's just that for me, I find that kana makes more sense because then you don't get into any of that ambiguity with romaji when writing multiple mora. Like is ロー "rou", "roo", "roh", or "rō"? –  Questioner Jul 17 '12 at 8:24
    
Yeah, that could cause confusion. In that case I would probably use /ro:/ because the slashes are a sort of rough phonemic transcription, but that would be even less clearer to non-specialists than ろう, probably. –  Matt Jul 18 '12 at 0:43
    
The last time I heard the word めかけ used in a "modern" context was in the TV drama 華麗なる一族 o(^▽^)o –  Tomei Ningen Jul 20 '12 at 21:09

I am just guessing wildly. In Chinese TV dramas, married women would refer to themselves as 妾身, especially to her husband. This would cover dramas depicting all time period up to maybe 1900.

So maybe わらわ is written as 妾 due to Chinese influences?

You can do a search of 妾身 in google to find more info. Of course, the ability to read Chinese would help.

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Um, the very fact that we use kanji letters is due to influences of Chinese in the first place…. In some cases, they have different meanings in Japanese from Chinese, but in most cases, the meanings are at least related. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jul 20 '12 at 22:49

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