The Japanese language has been characterized as having distinct male and female speech styles. Self-reference terms (i.e., English "I") are one of the centerpieces of these gendered features (Shibamoto Smith 2003). Traditionally, ORE and BOKU are used by male and (W) ATASHI by female in informal speech context. However, use of non-traditional BOKU/ORE exists despite triggering social stigma. Studies in the last three decades show that non-traditional use of BOKU/ORE by young females marks their desire to be competitive with boys (e.g. Jugaku 1979), to create solidarity (Cherry 1985), or to resist school norms (Miyazaki 2002).
Little attention has been paid to the speech of small children. Girls’ use of BOKU/ORE is considered to be an imitation of boys (Ide 1979). When do small children acquire normative use? When do they start becoming sensitive to their own linguistic ideologies and form their own? What is the impact of peers and adults, especially mothers? This study analyzes variable usage of self-reference terms observed in young children’s speech (age 3-7) in order to shed light to our further understanding of this issue.
The data is from children of three families who live in and around Sapporo, Japan. Each family has two children (one with boy and girl twins, one with two girls, and one with two boys), and two families were recorded multiple times. Over 3.5 hours of conversation over dinner and playtime were recorded and transcribed for analysis. The quantitative analysis of this study confirms that children start using socially expected forms around three-year old. Boys shift from BOKU to ORE as they get older but BOKU and WATASHI coexist in older girls’ speech.
Conversation between a seven-year old girl, Haru, and her mother provides the girl’s perspective on her BOKU usage. In contrast to previous studies, Haru wants to use the pronoun simply because it is the first pronoun she acquired as a child. Because of negative evaluation by peers, Haru is giving up BOKU despite her preference for it. However, the mother encourages her daughter to challenge the social norm. For Haru’s mother, talking right involves active self-assertion and taking responsibility, rather than accepting the norm without question. This suggests that adults, perhaps especially mothers, can have a great impact on pre-adolescents’ linguistic choice. Moreover, the support from adult mentors enables BOKU users to be resistant to the hegemonic language ideology.