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I'm taking a beginners Japanese course, and I heard that Japanese Kanji originated from the Chinese writing system, which is the reason for so many similarities. However, the Japanese Kanji for "I" (私) is very different from the Chinese character for "I" (我). In fact, in Chinese 私 seems to mean "private". I would have expected a word so fundamental as 我 to be adopted along with all the other Chinese words, but it seems like that was not so.

So where did 私 come from? And why was 我 not used instead?

  • Note that 私 also has a meaning of "private" in Japanese as well, when read with the on'yomi of shi instead of the kun'yomi of watashi. Compare: 私立【しりつ】学校【がっこう】、公立【こうりつ】学校【がっこう】 -- private school, public school. – Eiríkr Útlendi Oct 5 '15 at 23:07
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    It's actually the more fundamental words that are less likely to be loans. You have to understand the distinction between words and characters to really begin discussing this, though . . . – snailboat Oct 12 '15 at 10:59
  • FYI: 私 was used as a humble form of I at around the same time as the first Japanese mission to Tang China. Quote from Book of Jin: 《晉書・荀勗傳》: “若欲省官,私謂九寺可并於尚書,蘭臺宜省付三府。” – droooze Jan 6 at 12:07
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It looks like itrasci has already addressed the question about 我. Here's some more information about 私.

Where the reading came from -- Derivation

Although we have the history of how watakushi has been used over the years, I cannot find anything definitive on where this term came from. The entry at Gogen Allguide suggests that there may be some connection between the initial wa- in watakushi and the wa reading for 我.

(Note that this wa appears to be a native Japanese term -- although modern Mandarin uses a reading of , which is pretty close to the Japanese, the older Chinese reading was something closer to nga, matching the Japanese on'yomi of ga but not the kun'yomi of wa.)

That said, there are no clear etyma (roots) that would fit. Assuming this initial wa as the first portion, there aren't any likely roots for takushi, or even taku + shi, or ta + kushi, etc. Neither wata nor kushi have anything likely. ("straw" + "comb"? Nope.) Ultimately, the origins for this term remain a mystery.

Update

The reading watakushi seems to predate Genji by at least two and a half centuries. I was poking around in the Man'yōshū and found watakushi used as a reading apparently meaning "private, privately owned" in poem 1275. A modern-Japanese rendering is available on this page.

How the meaning shifted -- Usage

私 with an on'yomi of shi still appears with a meaning of "private" in modern Japanese.

The kun'yomi of watakushi used to have this meaning too as the primary sense. In The Tale of Genji dating to the early 1000s, watakushi was used as an antonym of ohoyake -- modern 公【おおやけ】 "public". Some compounds using watakushi still have a meaning of "private" or "limited", such as 私雨【わたくしあめ】 "a rainfall in a very limited area", or 私金【わたくしがね】 "personal money", or even 私【わたくし】する "to make something private that was formerly public, to take something public for personal or private use".

This sense of "private, not public" developed over time to mean one's own personal, private affairs or thoughts, and from there, to oneself. Shogakukan's 国語大辞典 gives a citation for this use from 1632.

The various alternative readings -- watashi, atashi, atai, wasshi, etc. -- are all just phonetic variations of the older form watakushi (now regarded as the hyperpolite version of everyday watashi).

How pronouns move around in Japanese

Personal pronouns in Japanese work differently than pronouns in many other languages. "I" in English can be traced back to an ancient Proto-Indo-European root with cognates in umpteen other languages, and pretty much all of them share a similar meaning of "I" (first-person pronoun). Even Chinese's has been incredibly stable through the millenia, tracing back at least 2,500 years and possibly further back.

In Japanese, however, pronouns move and change in a much more fluid fashion. Historically, a term that may have started out as a humble indirect reference, such as 僕【ぼく】 (apparently originally meaning "servant", much like the super-polite English expression "[I am] your servant, madam"), degrades in meaning to become a very everyday, informal, and even rude term when used in the wrong contexts. 俺【おれ】 is now a term for "I" that is almost exclusively male, and is considered very informal and rude, but before the Edo period, it was broadly used by both genders regardless of social class or context.

There has been a lot of research into politeness in Japanese, and how indirection results in changes in pronoun usage over time. It's a very deep subject, and there's tons to read if you're interested. Here are some relevant links for starters.

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    While you and @istrasci both answered different parts of my question, I think this answer was more in line with what I was looking for, so I'm accepting this one :) – woojoo666 Oct 12 '15 at 9:21
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(Only answering your second half)

[我]{われ} is used in Japanese, but is seen as more archaic and/or somewhat boastful.

  • [我々]{われ・われ} → We/us
  • 「我は[拳]{こぶし}を[極]{きわ}めし者」 → I am the supreme master of the fist (Gouki/Akuma from the Street Fighter series says this).
  • 我思うゆえに我あり → I think, therefore I am.

When read as , 我 is used to mean the ego, or the abstract self.

  • 我の強い人 → A stubborn/self-assertive person
  • 我を通す → Have your own way; refuse to change your opinion(s)

See also What exactly is 我, and how is it used?.

  • @woojoo666 Perhaps you could split out the first half of your question into a new question now that you have this answer for the second half here? – Darius Jahandarie Oct 6 '15 at 3:18
  • good point, I really liked the information he posted in the link and lost sight of what my question was asking. If you don't mind, I'll un-accept this answer but leave the upvotes cause its good info for other users – woojoo666 Oct 6 '15 at 18:27
  • While you and @eirikr both answered different parts of my question, I think eirikr's answer was more in line with what I was looking for, so I'm accepting his one :) – woojoo666 Oct 12 '15 at 9:23

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