Thank you or The Derivation from Existence

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Thank you. These words not just simply state my gratitude for you reading this blog and this article but also serve to introduce the main topic of this entry. This is to say that I want to focus on the linguistic derivation of the phrase „thank you“ in Japanese.

I would like to present to you this small linguistic gem from my Introduction to Japanese Linguistics class because it helped me – along with the drawings and musings I did while I was supposed to listen – divert myself from the boredom of the lecture. Apart from that there is no reason why I chose this topic.

Anyway, since this is my first entry in English, this furthermore presents a good opportunity to show off my pretentiousness when it comes to linguistic knowledge in two ways, first, with regard to technical vocabulary and secondly, with regard to the use of the English language in general.

OK, let’s put the self-praise aside and start digging deep linguistically.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Now that we have all remembered this catchy song and feel an inexplicable urge for 1980’s nostalgia (along a weirdly out of place reference to a 1990’s Robin Williams movie) we can turn our attention to the main subject of this entry, ありがとう arigatō or ありがとうございます arigatō gozaimasu in its honorific form.

Most non-Japanese probably know this word and some may as well have seen it in the simplified written form as above (i.e. in hiragana). Advanced learners of Japanese may even have encountered this word written in kanji, 有難う(御座います) arigatō (gozaimasu).

But few, I bet, have ever thought about the literal meaning of these kanji (myself included, until recently). I will present this literal meaning and ponder its significance but before we take a look at that we first need to show how ありがとうございます arigatō gozaimasu is derived in order to appreciate the workings of the Japanese language more fully.

Wörter aller Länder vereinigt Euch!

The basic form to be considered here is 有難い arigatai, meaning ‚thankful‘ (for the literal meaning, see discussion below). It is important to note that the commonly used ありがとう arigatō is just an abbreviation of the longer ありがとうございます arigatō gozaimasu. Thus, we have to look at how the long form is derived.

When looking at the word 有難い arigatai we are presented with two components, 有り ari and 難い kataiございます gozaimasu („to be“) is derived from the two morphemes ござる gozaru („to be“ in a very polite form; 御座る in kanji, as above) and ます masu (honorific verbal ending). We thus have four components in their underlying representation: ari, katai, gozaru and masu.

The derivation takes places in accordance to a process called ウ音便 U-Onbin, Onbin meaning euphonic change and U referring to the sound to be changed.1 It is a morphophonological rule because this change takes only place in the presence of an Onbin-inducing morpheme which in our case is gozarimasu. This change furthermore is only found in a particular conjugational form of Japanese.

There are six verbal and adjectival conjugations in Japanese. While you may want to look up all of these in a textbook, the one of concern for our present discussion is the 連用形 ren’yōkei or continuative form. This form is usually used to link the conjugated word with different endings or auxiliaries. Since in our case gozaru (or, to be more precise, gozari, which is the continuative form) and masu constitute the auxiliaries, we need the continuative form of ari-katai2 which is ari-kata-ku.

We now have a construct that looks like this: ari-kata-ku-gozari-masu.3 The first step is that a process called 連濁 rendaku or sequential voicing takes place. Rendaku refers to the morphophonological change in compounding where the initial voiceless obstruent (a stop, fricative or affricate) of the second member of the compound becomes voiced.4

As a result, we now have arigatakugozarimasu.5

The next step of U-Onbin is the deletion of the velar sound /k/ leading to arigataugozarimasu. Next, the liquid consonant /r/ is deleted, reducing gozarimasu to the common form of gozaimasu so that we have arigataugozaimasu.

Now, the last step is the most important as it also reflects a historical sound and spelling change.

Until 1946, Japanese texts used the so-called historical kana orthography, 歴史的仮名遣 rekishiteki kanazukai. The orthography was changed in order to match the spelling with the modern Japanese pronunciation. One of the changes that were made was that あ a + う u and あ a + ふ fu – which changed their pronunciation from au and afu to ō over the centuries – now were also written in accord with that pronunciation, namely おう ō.6

Considering this, the last step is to change the au of arigataugozaimasu to ō, yielding arigatōgozaimasu. This step is called vowel coalescence and lengthening and as we can now finally see, it has led us to the familiar surface representation of the honorific „thank you“ in Japanese, ありがとうございます arigatō gozaimasu.

The unbearable toughness of being

Now, what was that fuzz all about? Why did I dedicate so much virtual space to expounding this lengthy derivation? As I said, the derivation merely was to shine a light on the workings of the Japanese language.

It gets even more interesting when we now finally look at the literal meaning of the fundamental building block of said derivation, 有難い arigatai.

有り ari, or in its infinitive 有る aru, means „to be“ or „to exist“. 難い katai (for the change in pronunciation, see above) means „difficult“, „hard“ or „tough“.

„Well, that’s not a big deal“, you might say, but think about it. Isn’t it interesting that a phrase expressing gratitude, a phrase you should expect to be connoted positively, literally means „it is tough to be/exist“? So, in a sense, Japanese people reference with one of the most frequently used and colloquial phrases of daily life the unbearable toughness of being.7

This might be because the expression of gratitude necessitates a state of lack (of goods, character traits etc.) or inability to do something on the part of the speaker that made it „tough“ for him/her to be in that state.

For instance, when receiving a certain object you express the toughness of existence without that object and appreciate the kind gesture of your opposite by saying 有難う arigatō. Similarly, if your life gets saved by someone you might be expressing the toughness of existence that led you into that life-threatening situation in the first place.

A related, but subtly different, explanation might be that it refers to the fact that it is tough for the speaker to be in such a situation where he/she must express gratitude. This reading only works with „tough to be“ but not so much with „tough to exist“, in my opinion.

In conclusion, is it tough to exist? What exactly does that mean? Are the above interpretations the only ones? Can’t we – if we allow to distance ourselves from the frame of reference posited by the expression of gratitude – also ask: Is it tough to attain the state of existence? Or is it tough to maintain this state of existence where ever it may come from?

Even if I won’t be able to answer these profound questions I hope that I was able to shed some light on what the origin, meaning and derivation of one of the most common Japanese phrases are.




There are also イ音便 I-Onbin, 撥音便 (hatsuonbin) N-Onbin and 促音便 (sokuonbin) T-Onbin.

We go step by step, thus we start with the underlying representation as indicated by the use of hyphens.

Just to remind you: we use gozari instead of gozaru because gozari is the continuative form of gozaru.

It does not apply, however, when the second member is a non-native word or when the second member already contains a voiced obstruent.

ku in arigata + ku does not get voiced because this is not an instance of compunding but mere conjugation.

This can sometimes also be found written as oo or ou.

Of course you might say that in such a manner-bound society as the Japanese this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

  1 Kommentar für “Thank you or The Derivation from Existence

  1. Ester Saxon
    30.06.2015 um 05:34

    Bornu-san, the above is truly a well rounded presentation of Japanese gratitude. I found your post while actually doing a search on „gozaimasu“. Am curious of the root „goza“. I was hoping to trace it across South Asia. Having encountered it in Sumerian, Malayalam, Myanmar and Hebrew as chair or seat and then the other day flying long hours on ANA I suddenly realised that gozaimasu might be related. The Gu-Za of the Sumerians was a formal seat, the sort that is carried around for royalty. Could there be a similarity between being seated and existing? I would be grateful if you would clarify the kanji for me. Arigatoo Gozaimasu, E.S.

    • Leo Born
      30.06.2015 um 19:21

      Dear Saxon-san,
      thank you very much for your positive comment. I find your hypothesis regarding the distribution of „goza“/“seat“/“chair“ and the relation of the languages you mention very interesting.

      I have to admit that I was at first skeptical whether the Japanese word can be traced like this as well because „goza“ is not a root word in Japanese. „go“ (ご or 御) is a honorific prefix and it can technically be dropped without changing the essential meaning (e.g. „honorable husband“ and „husband“ both denote a husband).

      There happen to be two interesting things, though, that are worth mentioning:
      1) The prefix „go“ is commonly used when prefixing words of Chinese origin
      2) „go“ often indicates that the word it prefixes is related to the listener, not the speaker.

      And here it becomes interesting: the kanji of „za“ (座) indeed means „seat“ or „chair“ in Japanese and it is of Chinese origin. Now, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that a chair is talked about in a polite way only if it belongs to the listener (who is maybe royalty?), not the speaker. It thus seems plausible in such a context to posit a similarity between „being seated“ and „existing“ for the royal seat might have become a symbol and synonym for royal existence (and from there for existence in general).

      But this is just a guess. Because I don’t know for sure why it was that the word „gozaru“ 御座る (coming from the even more archaic „goza aru“ 御座有る, „aru“ 有る meaning „to be“, so „there is an honorable seat“) came to be written like this and mean „to be/exist“ (see hypothesis in preceding paragraph). This is something I’d have to further investigate.

      But from a quick research on the Sumerian „gu-za“ it seems that here both syllables are essential for the meaning of „chair“ which is not the case for Japanese (see above) and the prefix „go“ in Japanese has presumably nothing to do with the Sumerian syllable „gu“. So I think the fact that Sumerian „gu-za“ and Japanese „goza“ are phonetically similar even in the first syllable is just a coincidence.

      Nevertheless, because „za“ is of Chinese origin it might be interesting to look whether and how the Chinese word might be related to Sumerian, Hebrew etc. Because it is still possible that the Chinese 座 (pronounced something like „dzuò“ in Old Chinese) is an assimilation and abbreviation of the Sumerian „gu-za“ or of a similar word in another language (or vice versa).
      Because if there happens to be a relation to the Chinese word, the fact that it got carried over to Japan would connect the Japanese word to your hypothesized „language family“ as well, albeit indirectly. (In this context, it might also be interesting to look if the word „chair“ is a singular exception or if there are any other related words.)

      I hope I was of any help,

    • Leo Born
      08.07.2015 um 09:44

      Quick update
      Today I came upon the following interesting passage regarding the Chinese writing system in Japan:
      „[W]hen literacy came to Japan, it came not as crude symbols that were slowly developed and refined to give halting expression to indigenous ideas but as a sophisticated, internally coherent writing system that arrived in conjunction with an equally sophisticated conceptual system. The writing was not fully separable from its content, and so it was impossible, when Japanese used Chinese writing, not to introduce a great many Chinese concepts into Japan.“ [1]

      So it might indeed be interesting to look at if and how Chinese is related to the languages you mention, because if there already was a concept of „being seated“ relating to existence in Chinese prior to the adoption of the writing system in Japan, chances are high that this concept as such was carried over to Japan as well (as indicated in my last comment). Furthermore, since literacy was at that point (and a long time thereafter) only a matter for aristocracy, it is again likely that the „chair“/“seat“ belonged to a person of importance.


      [1] Totman, Conrad (1981, 2008 reprint). Japan before Perry: A Short History. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2nd edition. p. 21.

  2. 09.07.2015 um 00:22

    Thank you for the fascinating insights, Mumon-san. The importing of concepts together with a writing system happened all over Asia as I discovered when I was learning Samskrt (Sanskrit). Hiragana is from India and as monks arrived from the west, they brought religion and writing along.
    To go back to gu-za and cognates, they are difficult to trace when you talk about a monosyllabic language like Mandarin, especially that tones play such an important role in the meaning. I became apt at recognising words of Chinese origin in Bamar even though the tones were somewhat flattened. But Sumerian we only know from Acadian literature and by then it was not spoken. The links of guza >kusa>kursa>kise and kasera as we go west and south would be straight borrowings. Mesopotamia and ancient China are so far away that borrowing is out of the question. But concepts may spread further than words so I will keep searching for more evidence, E S

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