Is there any relation to "anatta", the Buddhist concept of non-self? I've heard that Japanese has some slight Pali/Sanskrit influences due to the arrival of Buddhism in Japan. Could these words be related or are their phonetic and semantic similarities only a coincidence?

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    I think you should accept Eirikr Útlendi's answer rather than mine.
    – Angelos
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 19:16
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    Related: japanese.stackexchange.com/a/4021/9831 (referring to a person ... by the locational demonstratives こなた (obsolete), そなた (obsolete), あなた, どなた, or directional demonstratives こちら, そちら, あちら, どちら, as if that person is not a person... )
    – chocolate
    Commented Feb 26, 2020 at 0:55

2 Answers 2


Adding on to Aeon Akechi's post.

Derivation of あなた

This breaks down to three distinct parts.

Distal: Distal marker, in other words, indicates things that are distant from both speaker and listener. This is the same あ that we see in other common terms like あそこ, あちら, あの, あれ, etc.

This あ appears to have derived from older か, as we see with the ancient "that thing over there" meaning for かれ (now in modern Japanese, this means "he"), which later shifted to あれ (which still means "that thing over there"). Indeed, we even see かなた as an older synonym for あなた.

Possessive: this appears to be a shifted form of possessive particle の.

Locative: Ancient term meaning "direction, side, place". Not found as a productive element in the modern language, although it remains in a few fixed terms.

Sense development

This is based on details gleaned from Shogakukan's 国語大辞典【こくごだいじてん】 entry here.

Late 800s, early 900s: "yonder" (place)

At its oldest, we see precursor form かなた, with quotes starting from 883. That initial //k-// starts to drop out not too much later in the early 900s, yielding the first quotes of あなた. The meanings for both かなた and あなた were "that direction way over there", roughly similar to English term "yonder".

Late 900s: "yonder" (time in the past)

A time-related sense of "way back when" appears in the late 900s, as an extension of the "yonder" meaning.

Late 900s: "yon person"

This is where we start to see specific development of a pronoun usage pattern. When this sense referring to a person first appears in texts (first quote in the Ochikubo Monogatari), it's used as a third-person pronoun for "yon person, that person way over there".

Early 1000s: "yonder" (time in the future)

There's a quote from The Tale of Genji where あなた is purportedly used to refer to a future time.

Mid-1700s: "you" (polite)

Finally, in the 1750s, we start to get quotes where あなた is used to mean "you" -- that is, the speaker is referring to the listener.

Usage patterns

Much like これ・それ・あれ・どれ, the word あなた also exists in a cluster, as こなた・そなた・あなた・どなた. And the usage patterns were also broadly similar:

  • こ~: referred to things closer to the speaker
  • そ~: referred to things that were farther from the speaker but closer to the listener
  • あ~: referred to things far from both speaker and listener
  • ど~: referred to the indefinite, the question word

こなた and そなた have mostly fallen out of use, outside of deliberately archaic contexts like manga or historical dramas.

  • こなた literally meant "this way", was extended to mean "this person", and in that sense, it could be used to loosely refer to "I" / "we" ("this person [who is speaking to you]") or "you" / "you all" ("this person [to whom I'm speaking]"), depending on context.
  • そなた literally meant "that way nearby", was extended to mean "that person close to the listener", and in that sense, it was also used to mean "you, the listener". This "you" sense is already found as far back as the mid-700s in the Man'yōshū poetry compilation.
  • あなた shifted as above from "that person" to "you".
  • どなた persists as the polite way of saying "who".

Derivation of Pali term anattā "non-self"

The Pali term anattā comes from two components:


Prefix indicating "not, un-" This is ultimately the same component we see in numerous modern languages that derive from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), including English.


From older Sanskrit ātman, this meant "soul", but also "self", as well as a few other things (see the related entries at the Spoken Sansrkit dictionary, where the long-a ā is input as capital-A).


Is there any relation to "anatta", the Buddhist concept of non-self?

No. The two terms have very different roots and different senses through recorded history. The resemblance is pure chance. This is due in part to the simple fact that human mouths can only make so many intelligible sounds, making "collisions" in the data inevitable -- cases where word X in language Y just happens to have a similar pronunciation and meaning to a word A in language B.

If you're interested in this side of linguistics, I can highly recommend the Zompist essay How likely are chance resemblances between languages? The author explains the statistics behind this phenomenon, right down to equations that calculate the likelihood of similarities.

Please comment with any questions about the above.

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    – Angelos
    Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 1:56
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    Wow, this was way more than I could've asked for. Thank you so much! And I will definitely check out that book. Sounds extremely interesting.
    – iluvfugu
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 20:19

No, it originally meant roughly the same thing as あちら, and formed a pattern with こなた, そなた, and どなた.

  • Any clues as to why we're left with あなた as opposed to そなた for "you"? My understanding is that the former (without modern connotations) would imply a person separated from both the speaker and the listener. Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 16:58
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    @Indigenuity Not really sure, but it may be that indirectness often correlates to politeness in Japanese. あなた isn't particularly respectful now, but it used to be. As a side note そなた did used to mean 'you', and if you like fantasy fiction you may still encounter it a fair bit (for example, the king at the end of Dragon Quest III says 「そなたにこの国に伝わるまことの勇者の証、ロトの称号を与えよう!」
    – Angelos
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 17:13
  • @Indigenuity, it's definitely the indirection that Aeon Akechi mentions. This is a common mechanism for indicating politeness, and not just in Japanese. Consider also the difference in English, "don't do that!" versus "one would be better off not engaging in that." Commented Feb 25, 2020 at 0:45

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