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It is often said that Japanese doesn't really have a pronoun word class, such as in the Wikipedia article on Japanese Grammar:

Although many grammars and textbooks mention pronouns (代名詞 daimeishi), Japanese lacks true pronouns. (Daimeishi can be considered a subset of nouns.) Strictly speaking, pronouns do not take modifiers, but Japanese daimeishi do: 背の高い彼 se no takai kare (lit. tall he) is valid in Japanese. Also, unlike true pronouns, Japanese daimeishi are not closed-class: new daimeishi are introduced and old ones go out of use relatively quickly.

Of course, it is also often said that Japanese does have pronouns.

What arguments are used to answer this question? Does it stem from a lack of agreement over how to define a pronoun? If so, under which definitions does Japanese have and not have pronouns?

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    There's a lot of different things one might want to call a "pronoun". Like the -o suffix in Te amo, as well as the cliticized te, or the cliticized t' in Je t'aime as well as the je, and maybe the silent E in aime. Since pronouns are variegated in all sorts of ways, there is simply no single test which defines all and only pronouns. This is to be expected with most grammatical terms; they're invented by people seeing patterns, and there are lots of patterns to see, some of which may be relevant. But lots of them won't. So we hafta give examples instead of defining terms.
    – jlawler
    Sep 17 '14 at 18:44
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    no idea where you got the idea pronouns cannot get modified, but then, "poor me". think again. you're right in that Japanese pronouns do not fulfill most things westerners think of as pronounish. for one thing, it's not a small, closed class of words, but rather an open ended collection of appellations in Japanese. thatsaid, Roy Andrew Miller says modern Japanese grammar is rubbish cause all they do is copy western concepts and apply them to the language. happens a lot, it's how we've got, at some point, cases in English.
    – flow
    Sep 18 '14 at 6:04
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    I agree with the comments above that it largely depends on the definition of "pronoun" and that Japanese pronouns essentially differ from those of european langauges in that they lack many features the pronouns of european languages have (like agreement). Japanese speakers hardly use pronouns in daily conversations. The translations for the example sentences used in English textbooks for Japanese people often sound off because of their overuse of pronouns (which Japanese people often make fun of by mimicking).
    – Sindry
    Sep 19 '14 at 18:14
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    Historically, in some languages at least, pronouns come from nouns. That's certainly true in Malay, which has a clitic system, but also allows any noun that denotes a human being to be used as a human pronoun in any person -- first, second, or third. That is, Pronoun is an open class in Malay; and personal relations have sufficient importance in Malay culture (as in Japanese) that the safest and threfore by far the most common allomorph of all pronouns -- first, second, and third persons -- is Zero; i.e, you figure it out from context. This leaves the lexical pronouns as special cases.
    – jlawler
    May 5 '15 at 17:24
  • Well, are there any (distributional) tests that distinguish English pronouns as a category separate from nouns? Or is it just case and person? Jul 7 '15 at 1:33
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The OP focused on one peculiarity of Japanese pronouns: they can be qualified. One can note that in English 'me' rather than 'I' would be qualified and if there is any conjugation it will be in the 3rd person, whereas in Japanese the qualification would not thus disrupt the sentence. ('Mini me' and '20-years-old me' refer to another version of me, especially in time, which is truly a 3rd person.) 'I, who am turning 65, will retire.' could be in Japanese 'Turning-65-I will retire.'.

Here are more characteristics:

  • Pronouns replace nouns when the antecedent is clear (otherwise use of pronoun would create confusion). But Japanese decides that if the subject or object is clear it can be done away with altogether. In "The man bought an apple. He ate it.", the second sentence stands for "The man ate the apple." and since subject and object are clear the Japanese would just say "ate."

  • Pronouns can be long in Japanese: 私供 (watakushidomo) and 私達 (watakushitachi) have six syllables. In English, French and German (and certainly many more) they are single-syllable words.

  • Words which are not pronouns can be used as pronouns. For instance, 自分 (jibun) which means 'oneself' and uchi which means 'house'.

  • In Japanese pronouns do not change based on case: they take particles as nouns do -- 'I', 'me', 'my' would be 私が, 私を, 私の.

  • First-person pronouns can be different for men and women. Pronouns also change based on politeness (like tu/vous or du/Sie but for all persons). atakushi and ore both mean 'I', but the former is polite and used by a woman and the latter is colloquial and used by a man.

  • Pronouns have variants which become more casual as syllables are dropped: watakushi -> watashi, watakushi -> atakushi -> atashi -> atai (used by women), anata -> anta.

  • Plural pronouns are based on singular ones with a suffix: watashi ('I') gives watashitachi ('we'). There are several such suffixes, with different levels of politeness: domo (1st person), gata (2nd), tachi, ra. Likewise, 'she' is 彼女 (kanojo), which comes from 彼 ('he', kare) and 女 ('woman').

  • The class of pronouns is open.

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    Poor me got hit in the face works just fine for me (SAE speaker). Also common little ole me Apr 7 '19 at 0:21
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    In my experience, English is kind of the exception in not allowing qualified first-person pronouns. You can do them in Latin and Swahili and probably others I'm not thinking of rn.
    – Draconis
    Apr 7 '19 at 17:11
  • I occasionally run across new pronouns in Japanese. That is not a common thing to happen in most languages. Jan 14 at 20:44
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One argument against the "Japanese does not have pronouns" thesis.

Usually, the definition of "pronoun" refers to the function of the pronoun as a substitute for nouns and NPs, but it doesn't define its combinatorial possibilities.

Some online dictionaries definitions:

  • The Online Dictionary of Language Terminology (odlt.com): A word that can be used as a substitute for either a noun or a noun phrase.

  • Orbilat.com: any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context.

  • Glossary of Grammatical Terms: a word that is used as a substitute for a noun or noun equivalent, takes noun constructions, and refers to persons or things named or understood in the context.

I'd say the main characteristic of pronouns and other pro-forms is their capacity for anaphoric and cataphoric reference, and Japanese pronouns (代 substitute 名詞 nouns) depend for their reference on the reference of words in their context, just like any other pronoun. They don't mean anything by themselves.

So, my question would be, if Japanese pronouns are not pronouns, what are they?

Moreover, I think there are cases of adjectives modifying pronouns in other languages as well. I'm native Spanish and there's one use of the personal pronoun that is something something like "silly you", which I believe is also possible in English?

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  • The Japanese words are usually simply said to be nouns when no separate class of pronouns is recognized. It doesn't make sense to define a linguistic class of words by its function IMO. May 5 '15 at 15:38
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    Trying to define words by function leads to over-complications in analysis such as the English word "while" being classified as a preposition when it precedes an -ing participle, but a conjunction when it precedes a clause. May 5 '15 at 15:41
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    @brasstacks , if not by function, then by what feature should they be classified in your opinion? Is it not that classes exist in order to group words by their functions? And I see not what is wrong with a word fitting in two different classes depending on the specific context in which it is used, feels very right and normal to me. Oct 6 at 12:31
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There is no real linguistic definition of a “pronoun”.

Grammatically, however, words that are often called “pronouns” in Japanese behave in an identical distribution to any other normal noun.

But, there are a couple of words in Japanese, specifically those whose nominal form ends on /-re/, such as /sore/, /ware/, /kare/, which distribute slightly differently from normal nouns, in no small part that the actual stem of /sore/ is /so-/, not /sore-/, and that /-re/ is a suffix used in nominal use, the adnominal form is thus /sono/, not /soreno/, and with /ware/, it is even typically the irregular, archaic /waga/, not /wareno/. In older forms of Japanese normal nouns indeed took /-no/ to form the adnominal form, and these took /-ga/, but this distinction has largely been lost and /-ga/ has been repurposed to form the nominative case, which was unmarked in older Japanese.

Are these pronouns? they are certainly grammatically different from other nouns, which say /watasi/ is not, but there is no linguistic definition of a “pronoun”, and you will find that most linguistic terms are defined on an ad hoc basis from literature to literature with little consistency to them and are often in want of an actual definition.

It should be noted that in English too, noun phrases are often used with semantic pronoun-like function and distribution such as “your honor” or “his highness”. And in terms of “substitution” English too can substitute many phrases such as “the lad” or “said actor” for another phrase to avoid repetition. — are these pronouns?

One thing one can say is that the class called “pronouns” in English in the traditional sense is a clearly defined, unambiguous exhaustive group, just as the class of Japanese stems that take /-re/ to form a nominal are, but what other “nominal phrases” are and aren't “pseudo pronouns” in Japanese is not so clear, as it is in English.

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This is somewhat complicated by the fact that many people who write about this stuff in English are not professional linguists nor professional scholars/historians of the Japanese language: they learned Japanese through their native language (usually English) for the purpose of going on a trip to Japan, communicating with their Japanese girlfriend, etc. One of the first things they learned was that "the Japanese for [she] is [kanojo wa]" as though it made sense that a language as distant from English as Japanese would necessarily have "a word for 'she'" (or "I", "you", or "he"). Maybe their language study continued to the point that they learned that people don't actually going around saying "Kanojo wa [did such-and-such]" every single sentence, and they may have even learned that the word "kanojo" also means "girlfriend", the "word for 'I'" means "private" or perhaps "ownership", the "word for 'you'" means "milord" or perhaps "dear", the "word for 'he'" means "boyfriend", etc. and drawn the conclusion that Japanese doesn't actually have pronouns, and these are all nouns used in place of pronouns (perhaps mostly by non-native speakers).

The gaping hole here, though, is the bogus conflation of "pronouns" with "personal pronouns". Japanese definitely does have words for "here", "there", "this", "that" and so on (albeit that there's a distinction between "near the speaker", "near the listener", and "far away from both speaker and listener"). A slightly more subtle problem is that "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are modern expansions in the meaning of the word "kare" (a true Japanese pronoun, used since at least the 8th century, when the earliest extensive written records of Japan were produced, to mean "he", "she", "it" and sometimes "you", although the most common meaning in the oldest records is "Who is it?" as in what one says when there's a knock on the door, which is a case where a human being is referred to in English as "it") and "kanojo" (coined, as "kano-onna", in the late 19th century to translate European literature that distinguished between "he" and "she", and later becoming "kanojo" in the early 20th century), and that pronouns, by definition, tend only to be used when the referent is known to both the speaker and listener, but in Japanese, such things tend to be left off as unnecessary: the Japanese for "I", "love", and "you" are "watashi wa", "aishiteru", and "anata o", but what Leia says to Han in "The Empire Strikes Back" is not "Watashi wa anata o aishiteru" (Japanese is an SOV language), which sounds TERRIBLE in Japanese as, but simply "Aishiteru". Given this last fact, it makes sense that Japanese would be a bit more "fluid" with the use of foreign loanwords, awkward-sounding calques, and various nouns that actually mean different things, in place of the "basic" pronouns than most European languages.

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