Are? Yet another use of the word “are” (あれ)

By | December 14, 2020

The Japanese word “are” (あれ) doesn’t really have a great equivalent in English, but it can be explained in terms of how it differs from “kore” (これ) and “sore” (それ). “Kore” refers to something close to the speaker (“this”) whereas “sore” refers to something a little distant from the speaker yet close to the listener (“that”). In comparison, “are” has a feeling of being distant from both the listener and speaker.

In this article I want to focus on a special usage of “are”, but first let’s look at an example of the typical usage that I just described.

  • あのね、あれが嫌いだけど (ano ne, are ga kirai da kedo)
  • You know, I really hate that

This sentence is somewhat vague, but often “あれ” is used to imply something without directly stating it. I’ve used italics in the translation to try and capture the feeling of “are” vs. “sore”.

Another common use (which I alluded to in the title), is when “are” is used as an interjection of surprise or doubt.

  • あれ?そんなに高かったっけ? (are? sonna ni takakatta ke?)
  • Huh? Was it really that expensive?

But the other usage I want to talk about is a bit different, and when I first head this by native speakers I was a bit confused. Here is an example:

  • こんなことをいうのはあれだけど、字が下手だよ (konna koto o iu no wa are dakedo, ji ga heta da yo)

This literally translates to:

  • Saying this type of thing is that, but (your) handwriting is really bad.

So what does the “that” really mean in this case?

It turns out that this expression is used when the speaker is hesitating to say something, perhaps because it is embarrassing or awkward. In this case the speaker is making a harsh criticism of the listener’s writing ability, which fits this nuance.

Let’s try to capture this with more natural English:

  • I’m sorry to say this, but your handwriting is really bad.

In this case I think the above captures it pretty well, but I’ve heard cases where the nuance is a bit softer and it would have to be translated differently.

In case you were curious, this isn’t technically a completely different usage of “are” because the distance referred to above is being leveraged for a nuance of hesitation. But since it is a tricky use that took me some time to get used to, I thought it deserved a post.

By the way, from what I have heard this phrase is used mostly in casual, less-formal speech. For more polite conversations the expression お言葉ですが (okotoba desu ga) comes to mind, which literally means “(the) honorable word(s), but…” and can be translated as “with all due respect”. Both of these phrases show a characteristic indirectness frequently seen in the Japanese language.

Since we are talking about uses of “are”, I might as well go over one final one: it’s the expression “are mo kore mo”, which is used to refer generically to a bunch of things, like the English phrase “this and that”.

  • 友達にあれもこれも買ってくれって言われてさ、迷惑だよ (tomodachi ni are mo kore mo katte kure tte iwarete sa, meiwaku da yo)
  • My friend asks me to buy him/her this and that, it’s really troublesome.
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