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After reading this answer about the pronoun あちし, I became curious about how certain pronouns came to be associated with older people. As I see it, there are four main possibilities:

  1. People just decide at some point in their life to start using a pronoun that matches their old age. Seems unlikely.

  2. The standard pronunciation of 私 becomes difficult to pronounce as you age, leading to the variant pronunciations. However, most men don't use 私 to refer to themselves in casual speech, and these pronouns don't seem to be associated with women...

  3. Pronouns such as わし were common and fairly neutral, like 僕, about sixty years ago.

  4. It's all a lie invented by Japanese media to easily characterize old coot characters.

Which of these holds the most true, if any?

(For what it's worth, I've never heard a real person call himself わし yet.)

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    I've never heard a real person call himself わし yet. → うちの近所(京都)には「わし」を使うおじいちゃんいっぱいいはります ^ ^
    – chocolate
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 0:41
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    I've heard, at least, that at one point there was mass migration from Kyoto to Edo; while the older people continued to speak their Kyoto dialects, the younger people adopted Edo dialects, and thus was born a tradition in plays of giving Kyoto dialects to older characters. Of course, this is just hearsay.
    – Angelos
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 1:21

3 Answers 3

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In English, we know how to talk like a pirate, even those classical pirates are no more around (aye, pirates still exist, but they tend to speak Somali or whatever...). What is a stereotypical accent today often did originally have the speakers, but its real-world use gradually faded away with the lapse of time only to remain in people's memory.

So-called Standard Japanese was established in the Meiji era based on Tokyo dialect, which is a well-known fact. That means, the word usage more or less reflects what Tokyoites at that time thought people should talk like.

What you mentioned was the stereotypical "old (wise) man" talk such as 「わしは~~じゃ」 is, in fact, a living dialect in some Western Japan areas. As Kyoto has been Japan's traditional capital, the most prestigious dialect was that of Kansai until the end of the Edo period. After the Meiji Restoration, Kansai nobles and VIPs migrated from Kyoto to Tokyo in crowds, giving people the impression that their way of talking was how typical respectable men talk. EDIT: After rechecking 金水 (2003), turns out that the educated upper class in Edo was speaking Kansai dialect while commoners used native Edo dialect throughout the 19th century, which led to the perpetuation of this stereotype after Meiji. (Thanks to @user4092 for correcting.)

A bit off on a tangent: today, words such as おい and こら are used to scold somebody in Standard Japanese. They are actually "you" and "hey" in Satsuma dialect, respectively. The majority of police officers in Meiji Japan were from Satsuma Domain, as they had been one of the main factions that overthrew the Shogunate. As a result, their accent had been recognized as oppressive talk characteristic of a police officer.

People just decide at some point in their life to start using a pronoun that matches their old age. Seems unlikely.

It's not that unlikely, as almost every person in Japan uses two or more first-person pronouns depending on the situation (technically they're not even pronouns in Japanese, so, I guess two or more "ways to address oneself"?). I daren't say the shift to わし is common, but people can easily change their normal "pronoun" as a result of influence from those around them.

Totally unrelated but I have an acquaintance who uses わし in casual settings (in Tokyo dialect) for some unknown reason.

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While I'm not an old Japanese man, I disagree with your first point. People do choose how to refer to themselves. I've gone through quite a few stages myself, and so do most people around me. Some men stick to 私, others use 僕, おれ, おら, or some other personal pronouns.

I think two things are at play:

  1. Whether it's appropriate to use a given pronoun.
  2. Whether you're willing to use a given pronoun.

The first one is mostly defined by social norms. Girls can say あたし while straight men usually do not; kids say ぼく but alpha males would say おれ, etc. And in that norm, older men can say わし. You can say it if you're 20, but most likely it will sound/appear strange.

The second one is a personal choice. You have to want to use a given pronoun, as it's going to convey a message to those around you. This is a statement you make, and the underlying motivations might be personal. Perhaps you were impressed by someone, and want to be seen the same way. Perhaps a friend speaks like that and you picked it up.

To conclude, I'd say that elder men use わし because it's accepted, and because they want to. It's the same reason a 20-something anime-watching Japanese-learning western lad says おれ (to use a stereotype that most people on this site must be familiar with).

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  • In addition, I find that it's the stereotype of the 博士, ie the knowledgeable Doctor/Savant/Researcher, more than of the old man. Perhaps people want to sound smarter?
    – Axioplase
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 1:46
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    ^ うちの近所のおじいちゃんたちは、全然賢そうじゃなくて庶民的でベタベタの関西弁でどちらかというと粗雑な感じですが、あれは多分、純粋に方言なんでしょうね。。
    – chocolate
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 5:14
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  1. People just decide at some point in their life to start using a pronoun that matches their old age. Seems unlikely.

--> This is apparently more common than I thought:

detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp > 2010 - 「わし」っていつから? 一人称の変化について質問です。 最近、父親の一人称が変化しだした気がします。 現在父親は50歳です。 今までの父親の一人称は「俺」でした。 しかし最近「わし」に変わりつつある気がします。 私の中のイメージでは、.....


Also relevant: -- from Wikipedia 日本語の一人称代名詞

 儂、私(わし)

共通語ではフィクションの世界での老人男性と武士の一人称とされることが多いが、愛知県・岐阜県・北陸地方以西の西日本各地の方言では、高齢層以外でも男性が用いる。そうした地域では子供や若者でも使うことが多いが、近年はメディアの影響から、若い人を中心に「俺」も使われるようになってきた。一部地域では(主に高齢層で)女性が使う場合もあり、例えば愛知県の一部では「わたし」の「た」の音が抜けたような「わっし」に近い発音で女性が用いる。常用している著名人としては小林よしのり、井脇ノブ子の他、達川光男、石崎信弘、木村和司ら広島県人が有名。そのほか、力士にも常用者が多い。

I agree that it's common in 関西 or 広島 ...

Maybe 笠智衆's use of わし was influencial.

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