Nouns, Pronouns, and Plurals

Japanese nouns, pronouns, and similar word classes in Japanese work much the way they do in English. We've talked a bit about nouns already, but this time we'll go over nouns, as well as pronouns, in more detail. Then, we'll talk about creating plurals out of each.

Recommended background:

The Structure of a Japanese Sentence

The Copula “Desu”

Nouns and Inflection

Japanese nouns do not inflect, or at least not in the traditional sense. In comparison, English nouns inflect to show singular vs plural, but nothing else. And because Japanese nouns also don't take articles (a(n)/the), any particular Japanese noun could be translated several ways in English:

Hiragana Romaji English
ねこ neko a cat/the cat/the cats/some cats/cats in general

What Japanese does have is a class of demonstratives, words like "this" and "that", which you will learn about very soon.

Also, as I noted in The Topic Marker "Wa", the wa/ga distinction works in Japanese similarly to the articles a/the. (The differences between wa and ga will be the topic of a future lesson.)

But what about plurals? As it turns out, Japanese does have a sort of "plural" suffix, -tachi, which will be discussed below. This suffix isn't a true plural, but instead means something closer to "and company". Japanese also has a class of counters (like sheets of paper), which you will also learn about soon.

Two other common inflections of nouns are gender, usually male/female/neuter, and case, which reflects grammatical function.

In modern English, only pronouns have case. This is the distinction between "I" and "me", "we" and "us", and "he" and "him": the first is the nominative case, used for subjects, and the other is the accusative case, for most other uses. Grammatical gender is found only in the third person pronouns: he/him and she/her.

Japanese nouns, too, have no gender, but particles like ga and o can be considered case markers, since they mark the grammatical role of a noun. But in general, it's better to think of all particles as words rather than inflections.

Either way, languages with case marking tend to have a flexible sentence structure, and this is true of Japanese as well. The problem with this is that other particles, like wa, cause ga and o to disappear, making Japanese case somewhat ambiguous.

In the end, there isn't much to worry about when using Japanese nouns. The difficulty lies in interpreting them, and even this isn't terribly hard in context.

Pronouns

Technically, Japanese does not have any true personal pronouns, but it does have a number of words that are used much like pronouns, in that they substitute for a particular person. For the sake of simplicity, I will still refer to these words as pronouns.

Note: the demonstratives include several actual pronouns.

In general, you can use pronoun in any place you can use a noun or noun phrase. For example:

"He/him" = "the tall guy across the street".

Here are a few Japanese pronouns you might encounter early on:

  English Japanese
1st Person Singular I, me わたし watashi formal, gender neutral
わたくし watakushi humble, neutral
ぼく boku informal, male
あたし atashi informal, female
2nd Person Singular you あなた anata formal
きみ kimi informal/intimate
3rd Person Singular he, she,
him, her
かれ kare male
かのじょ kanojo female
あのひと ano hito "that person"

Note that each word has a literal meaning – the original meaning of the noun. For example, watashi and atashi are both derived from watakushi, which means "private".

There is also a reflexive pronoun in Japanese: じぶん (jibun), which means "oneself", and substitutes for "myself", "yourself", and so on.

All of these words are true nouns – you can say something like "the surprised he" (odoroita kare), which would be ungrammatical in English.

Most of the pronouns also have alternate uses. Kare and kanojo are more frequently used to mean "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" respectively, and anata and kimi are often used to address one's husband or wife, respectively (like English "dear" and "honey").

Otherwise, 2nd person pronouns are rarely used, since addressing others by their name is almost always preferred. Likewise for the 3rd person pronouns. If you're referring to the same topic as the previous sentence, it's more common simply to drop the topic altogether. 1st person pronouns are perhaps the most common, but even these are often unnecessary.

In general, to avoid sounding overly foreign, you should use pronouns as little as possible in Japanese.

The Plural Suffix "Tachi"

The suffix -tachi can be loosely translated as "and company". It can be attached to any noun or pronoun to make a quasi-plural representing a group of people.

きむるさんたち Kimura-san-tachi Kimura and company
わたしたち watashi-tachi we, us (I and company)
あなたたち anata-tachi you, you guys (you and company)
*かれら *karera they, them

*In the case of the third person plural, -ra, another plural suffix, is used instead of -tachi.

Again, watashi-tachi is the most common of the plural pronouns.

You can also make general nouns (living things) explicitly plural with -tachi, with the same meaning: a specific being and others around them.

いぬたち inu-tachi (a specific group of) dogs

To say "dogs" in the sense of "dogs in general", you would simply say inu.

True Plurals

Some nouns do have an explicit plural form, created by reduplicating the base word.

ひとびと hitobito people
やまやま yamayama mountains

But these are the exception rather than the rule.

Notice the added dakuten on second 'hi', making "hitobito"? This added voicing is called rendaku and is common (although somewhat unpredictable) in certain types of compound words.

Words to Remember

Hiragana Romaji Class English
わたし watashi pron. I/me
-たち -tachi suffix "pluralizer"

What Next?

“No”, the Modifying Particle

Questions and Negation

Demonstratives: the Ko-so-a-do Series


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