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I've always had trouble choosing which first person pronoun to use - 私 (watashi), 僕 (boku), or 俺 (おれ). What kind of factors should I keep in mind when choosing between these? Is it common to vary one's choice by the social context, or do people tend to select one and stick with it all the time?

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Are you male or female? –  Wahnfrieden May 31 '11 at 21:16
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@Wahnfrieden good that someone thought to ask that! The only woman I ever met who used 俺 was an aging hostess with a voice like gravel too many late nights of whiskey and karaoke. –  Ali May 31 '11 at 21:26
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@Ali - WHERE IS THAT, I MUST GO –  makdad Jun 1 '11 at 0:26
    
I guess you never watched Oshin then. –  RoboKaren Jul 16 at 6:42
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参考までに Wiki日本語の一人称代名詞 –  Choko Jul 22 at 9:42

6 Answers 6

up vote 13 down vote accepted

It depends a lot on the situation. I try to keep it simple and only use three most practical forms of the pronoun:

僕 (boku) :: I use it whenever I am not at work

俺 (ore) :: Almost never use 俺 unless most people around me are already using 俺, too informal.

私 (watashi) :: What I always use at work. Never ever use boku at work, or in an email, since somebody could consider that you are being rude and not too formal. (Happened to me a couple of times when I was a new graduate at a Japanese company).

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+1 for an answer from someone with practical experience with this question! –  Amanda S May 31 '11 at 21:52
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+1 great answer. That said, I do use 僕 with coworkers. You've just got to find your groove, whatever works for you :) –  makdad Jun 1 '11 at 0:26
    
(Re-read your comment - I probably got away with 僕 because I was at a gaishi, not a Japanese company) –  makdad Jun 2 '11 at 12:49
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@Wallqs, 僕 in the workplace is dependent on your position. All of the executive level staff (Managers up), including Myself all use 僕 when talking to our juniors. –  Jeremy Jun 10 '11 at 12:18
  • 私- canonical, formal form.
  • わたくし more formal and stiff than わたし
  • 僕- most for young men, but older men sometimes use it (it still has the young man feeling to it) as well as some middle schoolish girls (still has young man feeling... Just imagine the middle school girls you know)
  • 俺- use if you're a guy, and only among friends or when you feel like not being polite.
  • 俺様- overly dramatic egotist. Listen to some dragonball Z and you'll find it.
  • わし- old people, male and female. The stereotype is that as they get older men and women start to sound the same.
  • 拙者- for samurais. Listen to some conversations in Rurouni Kenshin to hear this one.
  • (なし)- in many cases, the best option is to simply leave out the "I", implied and unsaid.
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In general... use "私"(わたし)... it's what the Japanese expect from foreigners. Switch to "僕" if you're male, and none of your male social-equals have used anything except 僕 for a few conversations. Stay away from using the others until you can ask for the ins and outs of this question to a native speaker, in japanese. –  jkerian May 31 '11 at 21:27
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Because わたし and わたくし are two different pronunciations of the same kanji 私 (and they are different in formality as you said), if you discuss the difference between the two, it is better to write them in hiragana. –  Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 2 '11 at 2:06
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For samurai, don't forget 不肖 (ふしょう) and 某 (それがし). –  istrasci Jun 2 '11 at 2:23

The social context is absolutely the deciding factor, but your personality affords you some additional flexibility. Just like deciding whether to use 〜さん or not, your choice of pronoun depends on how familiar you are with the people in your audience, and relative social status.

That said, I personally still gravitate towards 僕 over 私 even amongst new people since I'm a relatively young man and I feel like I can get away with it. :)

Also don't forget that not using the first-person pronoun is usually an option as well, which can nicely sidestep this issue.

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I presume I will make this comment a lot but be careful. Politeness is subtle and important, and using even 僕 over 私 may come across as arrogant in a given social context. I can absolutely imagine a Japanese manager using 僕 to refer to himself when addressing subordinates. –  Ali May 31 '11 at 21:22
    
Definitely. I still use 私 on occasion, especially when listing myself amongst respected peers. –  sartak May 31 '11 at 21:24

Are you a man? Are you a manly man? Use ore (俺). Are you a girly man? Use boku (僕). Are you being formal, unwilling to commit to 俺 or 僕, or just starting to learn Japanese? Use watashi (私).

Are you a girl? Are you a girly girl? Use atashi (あたし). (This rule isn't as fixed as the male rule). Are you a tomboy? Use boku (僕). Otherwise use watashi.

Are you speaking to a crowd, or being highly polite? Use watakushi (私, confusingly).

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This is a pretty good summary! One nitpick, though--male users of 僕 are usually not "girly." They just tend to be less hypermasculine than users of 俺. 僕 is still a pretty masculine personal pronoun. –  Amanda S May 31 '11 at 21:46
    
@Amanda it's true, but if you are a girly man, you almost always use 僕, but that doesn't mean that all 僕 users are girly. It's somewhat fluid, and even committed 俺 users will revert to 僕 in polite social situations. –  nevan king May 31 '11 at 21:54
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Just for anyone who doesn't know the reference: secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Girlie_men –  nevan king Jun 4 '11 at 16:25
    
僕 has a nuance of being immature, not fully grown up. It amuses many Japanese people, and they will think less of a politician or a CEO using 僕 to refer to himself. In situations where one can't use 俺, or a regional equivalent, I'd go all the way to 私(わた[く]し). –  jbcreix Jun 26 '11 at 1:57

わたし (私) - Typical, everyday, formal/informal "I." Err to this whenever possible.

あたし (私) - Same kanji, used only for females. Same feel as watashi.

わたくし (私) - Hyperformalized version of watashi. No, this does not mean to use this in all formal situations! It is to express extreme politeness.

[僕]{ぼく} - Masculine (though not exlusively) "I" used to give informal atmosphere. Do not use this if you are trying to be polite.

[俺]{おれ} - In terms of masculinity, it runs along the lines of 僕. I will go as far to say this is a rude expression. Unless you are sure that it is acceptable in any given situation, I would not use it, unless you're trying to be mean or rude. However, when used acceptably, it is excellent to portray a very informal mood.

Keep in mind there are many more ways to say "I," and these are only some of the most common.

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until recently, the kanji 私 was formally reserved for わたくし, so I've reversed the order on your top 3 in terms of kana and kanji. –  virmaior Jul 16 at 3:35
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Separately, I wouldn't say I 俺 is per se rude. And 僕 does have uses in formal contexts. –  virmaior Jul 16 at 3:36
    
Thank you @virmaior. Perhaps it does, but in everyday life I don't think 僕 is used to speak to higher authority/be deliberately polite. Maybe a better word is "rowdy" rather than rude. All of my descriptions are subjective based on what I have seen. –  SoulReturns Jul 16 at 3:39
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Actually, 僕 is specifically used when speaking to authorities or higher ups. Easiest event to recall is when a Japanese colleague called the 入国管理局 to complain about how they responded to a visa application, he immediately switched to 僕 –  virmaior Jul 16 at 4:19
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選挙演説0:10, 0:14, 1:12などで「僕」を使う人も結構いますね。 国会答弁3:30 で「俺」を使う人は珍しいと思いますが。 –  Choko Jul 16 at 6:05

Some others that people are missing:

  • うち: Very informal, but relatively gender-free. Great for otaku.
  • あたえ/あたい: Colloquial female, related to わたし
  • [Name or Title] - You can use your own name or title as a pronoun: マリはあのおもちゃが欲しいの! 先生はおこっていますよ。
  • おら - Regional male (or regional, colloquial female).

Some pedants won't want to admit use of these informal pronouns, but you should know that they exist and that people use them (even in 2014!).

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There are some issues here with these suggestions. うち can be used where an English-speaker might use a personal pronoun, but the meaning is significantly broader. It's not actually a personal pronoun per-se. It is certainly not "informal", and it is also not entirely "gender-free" (although that depends on context). Do you perhaps mean 'あたい'. おら sounds decidedly masculine and somewhat provincial. –  jkerian Jul 18 at 6:36
    
1. 「うち」は、関西や西日本の女性で、使う人がいますね。(京都の舞妓さんも。) 2. 「あたえ」は、聞いた事がないのですが、「あたい」のtypoではなかったのですか? jkerianさんが言うとおり、「あたし」の崩れた形です。 3.「おら」は、「‌​俺(おれ)」の、東日本の田舎っぽい感じ(jkerianさんが言うとおり)、というイメージがあります。(東北地方とか。。。) –  Choko Jul 18 at 8:28
    
@jkerian: >おら sounds decidedly masculine and somewhat provincial FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF NEW TOKYO DIALECT SPEAKERS. In those provincial dialects per se, it's gender-free. –  user4092 Jul 18 at 13:01
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This doesn't seem to answer the question (the question asks how to choose between 私, 僕 and 俺 and whether to stick to one once you choose one), but seems to be a comment on the other answers. –  Earthliŋ Jul 18 at 20:35
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@user4092 1. そうでしたか、男性も使う地域があるとは知りませんでした。Wikiうち によると男女関係なく使用されるのは九州の一部だそうで、全国的には男性による使用は一般的ではないようですので、回答の中で地域性について述べずに"gender-fr‌​ee"と言ってしまうのは無理があるかと思います。 3. 確かに「おれ」の起源は東日本でしょう。しかし由来はともかく、現在の標準日本語において、東日本の田舎以外の場所でおらWikiなんて‌​言ったら、まず田舎者と見られて恥ずかしい思いをするでしょう。これも回答に含めるなら地域性やニュアンスの説明がほしいです –  Choko Jul 21 at 15:40

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