An honorific is a word or expression that conveys esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. "Honorific" may refer broadly to the style of language or particular words or grammatical markings used in this way, including words used to express honor to one perceived as a social superior. Sometimes the term is used not quite correctly to refer to a
title of honor(honorary title).
Non-honorific forms, that is forms which explicitly avoid being honorific, are often called "familiar" forms. Thus "Sie" is 'you honorific' in German, while "du" is 'you familiar'. Modern English "you", in contrast, is neither honorific nor familiar, since it can be used in both ways.
Typically honorifics are used for second and third persons; use for first person is less common. Some languages have anti-honorific or despective first person forms (meaning something like "your most humble servant" or "this unworthy person") whose effect is to enhance the relative honor accorded a second or third person.
Modern English honorifics
The most common honorifics in modern English are usually placed immediately before the name of the subject. Honorifics which can be used of any adult of the approriate sex include "
Mr.", " Mrs.", " Miss", and " Ms.". Other honorifics denote the honored person’s occupation, for instance "Doctor", "Coach", Officer, "Father" (for a priest), or "Professor". Abbreviations of academic degrees, used after a person's name, may also be seen as a kind of honorific (e.g. "Jane Doe, Ph.D.")
Some honorifics act as complete replacements for a name, as "sir" or "ma'am", or "your honor". Subordinates will often use honorifics as punctuation before asking a superior a question or after responding to an order: "Yes, sir" or even "Sir, yes sir."
These honorifics are usually limited to formal situations, or when children address adults.
A judge is addressed as "your honor" when on the bench, and may be referred to as "his/her honor"; the plural form would be "your honors". Similarly a monarch (ranking as a king or emperor) and his
consortmay be addressed or referred to as "your/his/her majesty", "their majesties", etc. (but there is no customary honorific accorded to a female monarch's consort, as he is usually granted a specific style). Monarchs below royal rank are addressed a "your/his/her highness", the exact rank being indicated by an appropriate modifier, e.g "his serene highness" for a member of a princely dynasty, or "her grandducal highness" for a member of a family that reigns over a grand duchy. Verbs with these honorifics as subject are conjugated in the third person (e.g. "you are going" vs. "your honor is going" or "her royal highness is going".)
The modern English second person singular form "you" with its uninflected verbs (e.g. "you go") came from plural forms ("ye" for subjects and "you" for objects) which were used for singular as an honorific. Thus "thou goest" meant 'you (non-honorific) go', and 'you go' meant 'you (honorific) go'. Ironically, forms with "thou" and "thee", originally familiar rather than honorific, are now felt by many to be honorific.
Honorifics in other languages and cultures
Ancient Romehad Roman honorificslike that of Augustus which turned into titles over time.
Many European languages (e.g. Spanish as described below) exhibit a split between non-honorific second person forms and honorific ones. This is sometimes referred to as a 'T-V distinction', because the familiar formas are often based on Latin "tu" ('you sg.', later 'you familiar') or its cognates, while the honorific forms are often based on Latin "vos" ('you pl.', later 'you honorific'). Many examples are listed and discussed briefly in the article on
Most varieties of Spanish distinguish between a set of familiar 2nd person pronouns and verbal endings (e.g. "tú sabes" or in some places "vos sabés" 'you singular know'; in some places "vosotros sabéis" 'you plural know') and honorific ones ("usted sabe" 'you singular honorific know'; "ustedes saben" 'you plural (honorific) know'.) "Usted" is a contracted form of "vuestra merced" 'your mercy', and, much like the English "your honor", consistently takes 3rd-person verbal forms even though it designates a 2nd person. Spanish also has a number of forms that may be used with or as substitutes for names, such as "señor" 'Mr., Sir, gentleman', "señora" 'Mrs., Lady, ma'am, lady', "señorita" 'Miss, young lady', "licenciado" 'person with a bachelor's degree', "maestro" 'teacher, master mechanic, person with a master's degree', "doctor" 'doctor', etc.
Italian honorificsare usually limited to formal situations.
Turkish honorifics generally follow the first name, especially if they refer to gender or particular social statuses (e.g. Name Bey (Mr.), Name Hanım (Ms.), Name Hoca (teacher or cleric)). Such honorifics are used both in formal and informal situations. A newer honorific is "Sayın", which precedes the surname or full name, and is not gender-specific. (e.g. Sayın Name Surname, or Sayın Surname). They are generally used in very formal situations.
Indian honorificsabound, covering formal and informal relationships for social, commercial, spiritual and generational links. Honorifics may be prefix, suffix or replacement types. There are many variations across India. In Gujarati, for an uncle who is your mother's brother the replacement honorific "maama" (long "a" then short "a") is used and a male friend will often earn the suffix honorific of "bhai".
Hindi honorificis the suffix "-ji". For example M.K. Gandhi (The Mahatma) was often referred to as Gandhi"-ji".
Telugu honorificis the suffix "Garu". Thus the Dalai Lama would be Dalai Lama "Garu". Chinese honorificsduring the ancient and imperial periods varied greatly based on one's social status, but with the end of Imperial China, many of these distinctions fell out of colloquial use. Some honorifics remain in use today, especially in formal writings for the court and business setting. Korean honorificsvary according to social distinction. The Korean languagealso distinguishes social differences with special noun and verb endings. The relationship between a speaker or writer and his or her subject and audience is paramount in Korean, and the grammar reflects this. The relationship between speaker/writer and subject is reflected in honorifics, while that between speaker/writer and audience is reflected in speech level. Japanese honorificsare similar to English titles like "Mister" and "Miss"; but in Japanese, which has many honorifics, their use is mandatory in many formal and informal social situations. Japanese grammar as a whole tends to function on hierarchy—honorific stems are appended to verbs and some nouns, and in many cases one word may be exchanged for another word entirely with the same verb- or noun-meaning, but with different honorific connotations. The Japanese personal pronouns are a good example of the honorific hierarchy of the Japanese language—there are five or more words that correspond to each of the English words, "I" and "you".
Malay honorifics are the
Malay language's complex system of titles and honorifics which is still extensively used in Malaysiaand Brunei. Singapore, whose Malay royalty was abolished by the British colonial government in 1891, has adopted civic titles for its leaders. Vietnamese honorificsare very similar to Japanese honorificsin their use. Like its Japanese counterparts, Vietnamese honorifics function on hierarchy of social and familial status. And, again similarly, both systems have several terms for "I" and "you". However, there is a striking difference between the Vietnamese honorific system and other systems, in addressing certain family members: For example, suppose your first cousin once removed (son or daughter of your cousin) is older than you. Despite being of greater age, your first cousin once removed would (formally) have to address you as "Anh (your first name)" or just "anh", if the addressed is male, and "Chi (your name)" or just "chi", if the addressed is female. Both terms on their own mean "my elder". Such a situation is an example of how hierarchy in the family takes precedence even over age. Filipino Honorificsetiology and usage is variable. They are most widely deployed in the eponymous national language of the Philippines(which is based almost entirely on Tagalog). One system of honorifics evolved from Chinese terminology. Some of the terms used in this system are: "kuya" ("1st son"), "até" ("1st daughter"), "diko" ("2nd son"), "ditsé" ("2nd daughter"), "sangko" ("3rd son"), and "sansé" ("3rd daughter".) "Kuya" and "Até" are more generally used for anyone who is older or higher in station (although specifically someone is who is not very much older or higher in station.) In other languages such as Cebuanoand Ilocano, the system of honorifics is less hierarchical, and elders of any station are denoted by the term "manang" (feminine) or "manong" (masculine), which are derived from the Spanish words "hermana" and "hermano". Honorific plural forms of personal pronouns are also used when directly addressing superiors and elders, for example, in Filipino (Tagalog), "kayó" (instead of "ka", the absolutive form of "you"), "ninyó" (instead of "mo", the ergative form of "you"), and "inyó" (instead of "iyó", the oblique form of "you".) Peculiar to Filipino (Tagalog), and not present in Cebuanoand Ilocano, are the particles "po" (more formal) and "hô" (less formal), which are used in conjunction with the honorific personal pronouns. Finally, the titles "Ginoong" "Mr.", "Ginang" "Mrs.", and "Binibini" "Miss" are sometimes used, typically in very formal settings.
Some varieties of
Nahuatlhave extensive honorific systems. For instance, in Tetelcingo Nahuatlevery 2nd or 3rd person verb, pronoun, postposition or possessed noun must be marked honorifically if its subject or object, designatum, object or possessor (respectively) is a living adult (other than the speaker's wife or adult child). Extra-honorific forms of several kinds exist for addressing or referring to especially honored persons including Deity. A typical Nahuatl honorific verbal construction involves a reflexive causativeor applicative; e.g. Tetelcingo "ti-niech-neki" (you-me-want) 'you familiar love me' vs. "ti-niech-mo-nekī-tia" (you-me-refl-want-caus) 'you honorific love me', literally 'you cause yourself to want me', or "ti-niech-ijta" (you-me-see) 'you familiar see me' vs. "ti-niech-mo-jti-lia" (you-me-refl-see-applic) 'you honorific see me', literally 'you see me for your own sake'.
People who have a strong sense of
egalitarianism, such as Quakers and certain socialists, eschew honorifics. When addressing or referring to someone, they will use the person's name, an informal pronoun, or some other style implying social equality, such as "brother", "friend", or " comrade".
Culturally specific usage
Honorifics in Judaism
Style (manner of address)
Use of courtesy titles and honorifics in professional writing
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