I'm wondering if anyone can provide the origins of the honorific "-ちゃん". It's a diminutive, and German has "-chen" as a diminutive suffix. Is that a coincidence?

What is the first recorded use of "-ちゃん"?

  • 1
    The usual Japanese rendering of German -chen is ヒェン, as in Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade", 糸をつむぐグレートヒェン – dainichi May 28 '14 at 0:01

Yes, it's most likely a coincidence. We can see this by comparing several titles:

 さま  ちゃま
 さん  ちゃん

The formal さま, which is clearly Japanese, was shortened to さん, which is now the most common and general title, and is more or less unmarked. さん was further reduced to the hypocoristic ちゃん, which is also very common, though not quite as much; and there is also a variant ちゃま reduced from さま in similar fashion at a later date, which is the least common of the four.

The earliest cite for ちゃん in 精選版 日本国語大辞典 is 1813, and for ちゃま it is 1900-01. Although both are after Japan had first been exposed to German, I think the large majority of borrowings from the German language were from the Meiji era and later (1868-), following the opening of the international borders in 1853. To me it seems like the simplest explanation is that given by dictionaries, that ちゃん is derived from さん, and is not related to German chen.

  • Not least for discounting any German connection, -chen in German is pronounced [çən] or [çjən] with a hard top-of-the-mouth "h" sound, or is replaced in some dialects by the variant [kən]. Meanwhile, Japanese -chan is pronounced [t͡ɕʲã̠ɴ] with a hard front-of-the-mouth "ch" sound. There is no way for German /ch/ [ç] to turn into Japanese /ch/ [t͡ɕ] for recent borrowings, and it would also be quite unlikely for German /e/ to turn into Japanese /a/. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 27 '14 at 22:44
  • Thank you! The connection between "さま" and "ちゃま" are obvious to me, but I missed the connection between "さん" and "ちゃん". Sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one. – ProfessionalAmatuer May 28 '14 at 13:28

German and Japanese similarities here are purely coincidental. Japanese -chan derives as likely baby-talk from regular suffix -san. Similarly, we have regular -sama (which itself is the source of -san) and baby-ish -chama. See also most any JA-JA dead-tree dictionary, or the Daijirin entry here (see the third entry down), clearly stating:

(Alteration of san)

As for first recorded use, I couldn't find any listing of citations in my dictionaries. It's clearly been around since at least some time before Natsume Sōseki's 1906 novel Botchan.

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