The here and there of who’s who and what’s what

by Peter Backhaus

Special To The Japan Times

There are some Japanese words that act like little arrows. They are pointing devices that can be used to indicate a specific part of the wider context of what is being said. Some examples in English are “here” and “there,” “this” and “that,” “me” and “you.” But Japanese does this in a more systematic way using what linguists, somewhat grandiloquently, call the ko-so-a-do paradigm. These are four little syllables that can be attached to various suffixes to express all different kinds of spatial and other relationships.

The textbook example is kono, a demonstrative adjective used when something is placed in close proximity to the speaker, as for instance in kono hon (この本, this book). When the thing in question is closer to the hearer, ko is replaced by so, making it sono hon (その本, that book). A third option is ano hon (あの本), which would refer to a book that is not in close proximity to either speaker or hearer, for example the one from the library that I left on the train the other day and that’s surely going to get me into trouble. Finally there is dono hon (どの本, what book?), which you can use when you’re not sure what book is being talked about in the first place.

The same types of relationships can be expressed when the ko-so-a-do atoms take turns with a demonstrative pronoun: koko (ここ, here) and soko (そこ, there), in the sense of closer to you than to me. A place neither at your nor at my side would be asoko (あそこ), which thinking about it is a little irregular in formation, because it contains both a and so together. Anyway, the pattern is completed by doko (どこ), the word used to question where something is.

A more polite version of the same word type can be composed when instead of -ko, the suffix -chira is attached. This gives us kochira (こちら), sochira (そちら), achira (あちら) and dochira (どちら). The former two are also frequently used as polite personal pronouns for the speaker or hearer, respectively. That’s one of the reasons why we find them in standard phrases such as kochira koso (こちらこそ, my pleasure). In this respect, dochira comes in handy when you want to inquire about someone’s whereabouts without being too intrusive. A polite way of asking someone’s name, for instance, is dochira sama deshō ka? (どちら様でしょうか).

If that feels a little too polite, the pattern can be downgraded by abbreviating the suffix -chira into -tchi, so that “I” becomes kotchi (こっち), “you” sotchi (そっち), and “over there” atchi (あっち). But please downgrade carefully, because the loss in politeness is quite substantial. I will never forget what an elderly lady in the neighborhood we had just moved into told me the very first day I was putting out my garbage and, in her view, had chosen the wrong collection point: “Otaku wa atchi!” (「お宅はあっち」, “Yours is down there”). Our relationship never really recovered from this.

Another set of personal pronouns that derives from ko-so-a-do is koitsu, soitsu and aitsu (こいつ、 そいつ、 あいつ). All three refer — in a not entirely polite way — to a well-acquainted third person of either sex. By the way, the most common second-personal pronoun anata is also part of the family, as is the somewhat archaic sonata (そなた) and the polite question word donata (どなた).

Yet another interesting word group can be created by a simple lengthening of each of the four forms. This gives us the demonstrative adverbials (こう), (そう) and ā (ああ), all of which translate as something like “so” or “like this/that,” plus the interrogative (どう), which means “how.” Probably best-known among the former is , as in the fit-all reply desu ne (そうですね), which can mean anything from “you’re right” to “you’re right, but let me tell you why you’re wrong.” Incidentally, all four forms like to team up with the verb iu (言う, literally: say) to form phrases such as ō iu hito dakara (ああいう人だから, That’s just the way he/she is), or, for the easily outraged, iu koto?! (どういうこと?!, What the heck is this?!).

And then of course there are kore (これ), sore (それ), are (あれ) and dore (どれ), which provide another handy set of demonstratives. Apart from their original function of pointing to things nearby or far away, they do a great job when people want to be ambiguous or non-committal. Well-known is the standard phrase sore wa sore wa (それはそれは), which can be used in reply to virtually everything. At least as fascinating is the conditional phrase moshi are dattara (もしあれだったら), which could be translated as something like, “If this or that is the case.” This leaves an interpretative void the approximate size of a sinkhole, to be filled in with just everything the hearer might think feasible.

As these final examples show, ko, so, a and do provide us with an excellent toolkit of linguistic pointing devices, which can be very useful for being specific about who’s who and what’s what in Japanese. And for being just the opposite.

  • Ba Loc Huynh Nguyen

    Interesting article!
    I sometimes make mistakes about these words, but I think it’s no more from now on.