Honorific speech in Japanese

Honorific speech in Japanese

The Japanese language has many honorifics, parts of speech which show respect, and their use is mandatory in many social situations. Honorifics in Japanese may be used to emphasize social distance or disparity in rank, or to emphasize social intimacy or similarity in rank.

The system of honorifics in Japan is very extensive, including various levels of respectful, humble, and polite speech, and it closely resembles the honorific systems of the Korean language, and in some elements, Chinese.

Types of honorific

Honorifics in Japanese are broadly referred to as keigo (敬語, literally "respectful language"), and fall under three main categories: "sonkeigo" (尊敬語), respectful language; "kensongo" (謙遜語) or "kenjōgo" (謙譲語), humble language; and "teineigo" (丁寧語), polite language. Linguistically, the former two are referent honorifics, used for someone being talked about, and the last is an addressee honorific, used for someone being talked to. Sometimes two more categories are also used: "teichōgo" (丁重語) and "bikago" (美化語), "word beautification". Each type of speech has its own vocabulary and verb endings.

For example, the standard form of the verb "to do" is "suru"(する). This form is appropriate with family members and close friends. The polite form of "suru", the addressee honorific, is "shimasu". This form is appropriate in most daily interactions. When showing respect, such as when talking about a customer or a superior, however, the respectful word "nasaru" and its polite form "nasaimasu" are used, and when referring to one's own actions or the actions of a group member, the humble word "itasu" and its polite form "itashimasu" are used. These respectful and humble words are referent honorifics, and thus can coexist with addressee honorific "-masu".

Polite language

Polite language, "teineigo", is characterized by the use of the sentence ending "desu" and the verb ending "masu" and the use of prefixes such as "o" and "go" towards neutral objects. Television presenters invariably use polite language, and it is the form of the language first taught to most non-native learners of Japanese.

Polite language can be used to refer to one's own actions or those of other people.

Respectful language

Respectful language, "sonkeigo", is a special form or alternate word used when talking about superiors and customers. It is not used to talk about oneself. For example, when a Japanese hairdresser or dentist requests their client to take a seat, they say "o kake ni natte kudasai" to mean "please sit down". However, they would use the verb "suwaru" rather than "o kake ni naru" to refer to themselves sitting down. The respectful version of language can only be used to refer to others.

In general, respectful language is directed at those in positions of power; for example, a superior at work, or a customer. It also implies that the speaker is acting in a professional capacity.

It is characterized by lengthy polite expressions. Common verbs may be replaced by more polite alternative verbs, for example, "suru" (do) by "nasaru", or "hanasu" (talk) by "ossharu" when the subject is a person of respect. Some of these transformations are many-to-one: "iku", (go), "kuru" (come), and "iru" (be) all become "irassharu", and "taberu" (eat) and "nomu" (drink) both become "meshiagaru".

Verbs may also be changed to respectful forms. One respectful form is a modification of the verb with a prefix and a polite suffix. For example, "yomu" (read) becomes "o-yomi ni naru", with the prefix "o-" added to the i-form of the verb, and the verb ending "ni naru". The verb ending "-(r)areru" can also be used, such as "yomareru".

Nouns also undergo substitution to express respect. The normal Japanese word for person, "hito", 人, becomes "kata", 方, in respectful language. Thus a customer would normally be expected to be referred to as a "kata" rather than a "hito".

Humble language

In general, humble language is used when describing one's actions or the actions of a person in one's in-group to others such as customers in business. Humble language tends to imply that one's actions are taking place in order to assist the other person.

Humble language ("kensongo" or "kenjōgo") is similar to respectful language, in substituting verbs with other forms. For example "suru" (do) becomes "itasu", and "morau" (receive) becomes "itadaku". These two verbs are also seen in set phrases such as "dō itashimashite" (you're welcome) and "itadakimasu" (いただきます—a phrase said before eating or drinking).

Similar to respectful language, verbs can also change their form by adding a prefix and the verb "suru" or "itasu". For example, "motsu" (carry) becomes "o mochi shimasu". The use of humble forms may imply doing something for the other person; thus a Japanese person might offer to carry something for someone else by saying "o mochi shimasu". This type of humble form also appears in the set phrase "o matase shimashita", "I am sorry to have kept you waiting", from "mataseru" (make wait) with the addition of "o" and "shimasu". Similarly, "o negai shimasu", "please [do this] ", from "negau" (request or hope for), again with the addition of "o" and "shimasu".

Even more politely, the form "motasete itadaku" literally means "humbly be allowed to carry". This phrase would be used to express the idea that "I will carry it if you please."

In humble language, name suffixes are dropped, hence when referring to oneself, one uses only one's own name without the suffix "san". Similarly, when referring to people from inside one's group, one drops the suffixes. Thus, a Japanese-speaking company executive would introduce himself and his team by saying "I am Gushiken the president, and this is Niwa, the CEO."

Similarly to respectful language, nouns can also change. The word "hito", 人, meaning "person", becomes "mono", written 者. The humble version is used when referring to oneself or members of one's group, such as one's company.

Respectful verbs

The "omachisuru" humble forms carry an implication that the waiting or other activity is being (humbly) done by the speaker for the benefit of the person being addressed. Thus a "humble" sentence is unlikely to take a third person subject. For example, a sentence like "jon ga sensei wo o machi suru" (John waits for the teacher) is unlikely to occur.

Honorific titles

:See Japanese honorifics.


Japanese requests and commands have many set forms depending on who is being addressed by whom. For example, the phrase yoroshiku o negai shimasu, meaning "I ask you for favor" can take various forms. At the bottom of the scale comes

:"yoroshiku tanomu",

which might be used between male friends. Its more polite variant

:"yoroshiku tanomimasu"

might be used towards less familiar people or to superiors.

Going up in politeness, the phrase

:"yoroshiku onegai shimasu"

means the same thing, but is used in business settings. It is possible to go further, replacing the polite "shimasu" with the humble "itashimasu", to get

:"yoroshiku onegai itashimasu".

In extremely formal Japanese, such as that used on New Year's greeting cards, this may be replaced with an even more polite expression

:"yoroshiku onegai mōshiagemasu".

When making requests, at the bottom of the politeness scale comes the plain imperative "tabero" or "kue", literally "Eat!", a simple order to be said to an inferior or someone considered to have no choice, such as a prisoner. This form might convey anger. Similarly, the "no/n da" suffix can make an order: "taberu n da", or "kuu n da" "Eat!". To express anger, the suffix "yagaru" also exists: "kuiyagare", an extremely forceful and angry instruction to eat, expressing contempt for the addressee.

Negatives are formed by adding suffix "na": "taberu na" "do not eat", "gomi o suteru na": "do not throw away rubbish". Similarly, the negative of "da", "ja nai", can be used: "taberu n ja nai".

More polite, but still strict, is the "nasai" suffix, which attaches to the i-form of the verb. This originates in the polite verb "nasaru". "Tabenasai" thus is an order perhaps given by a parent to a child. This is often colloquially shortened to "na", hence "tabena". This form has no grammatical negative.

Requests can also be formed by adding to the "te" form of a verb. The plainest form adds "kure", an irregular form of the verb "kureru", to the te form. For example "tabete kure" or "kutte kure": "eat it", less forceful than "tabero". Negatives are made by using the negative "te" form: "tabenaide kure" or "kuwanaide kure" "don't eat it".

Going up one scale in politeness, the more polite verb "kudasai" is added. For example "tabete kudasai". With this polite form, the rough "kū" verb is unlikely to be used. Similarly, "tabenaide kudasai": "please don't eat it".

A similar entry on the scale of politeness is made by using the imperative form of a polite verb. For example, "meshiagaru", the polite verb for "to eat", when turned into "meshiagare", the imperative, becomes the response to the set phrase "itadakimasu".

Further, more polite forms are also possible. These involve the "i-form" of the verb rather than the "te form", and an honorific prefix. For example, "tsukau", "use", becomes "o tsukai kudasai": "please use this". Politeness can be carried even further by conjugating kudasaru into its masu form and using the imperative, which becomes "o tsukai kudasaimase." The most polite form of this would probably be along the lines of "o tsukai ni natte itadakimasen deshou ka." "You will probably not bestow the favor of honorably using this?" Language like this, however, is rarely used.

Other ways to increase politeness involve indirection of the request: "kore o tsukau you ni o negai shimasu": "I humbly request that you think about using this".

Honorific prefixes

"O-" and "go-" (both written 御, or in hiragana) are honorific prefixes which are applied to nouns and sometimes to verbs. In general, "go-" precedes Sino-Japanese words (that is, words borrowed from Chinese or made from Sino-Japanese elements), while "o-" precedes native Japanese words. There are exceptions, however, such as the Sino-Japanese word for telephone ("denwa"), which takes the honorific prefix "o-". There is also a rarer prefix "mi-", which is mostly used in words related to gods and the emperor, such as "mi-koshi" (御輿 or 神輿, "portable shrine" in Shinto) and "mi-na" (御名, "the Holy Name" in Christianity).

Although these honorific prefixes are often translated into English as "honorable" ("o-denwa," for example, would be given as "the honorable telephone") this translation is unwieldy and cannot convey the true feeling of their use in Japanese. These prefixes are essentially untranslatable, but their use indicates a polite respect for the item named or the person to or about whom one is speaking.

There are some words which frequently or always take these prefixes, regardless of who is speaking and to whom; these are often ordinary items which may have particular cultural significance, such as tea ("o-cha") and rice ("go-han"). The word "meshi", the Japanese equivalent of Sino-Japanese "go-han", is considered unattractive. Honorific prefixes can be used for other items, possibly for a comic or sarcastic effect (for example, "o-kokakōra", "honorable Coca-Cola"). Overuse of honorific prefixes may be taken as pretentious or simpering.

In tea ceremony, common ingredients and equipment always take the honorific "o-" or "go-", including water ("o-mizu"), hot water ("o-yu"), and tea bowls ("o-chawan"). However, these terms are often heard in daily life as well.

As with honorific word forms and titles, honorific prefixes are used when referring to or speaking with a social superior, or speaking about a superior's actions or possessions, but not usually when referring to oneself or one's own actions or possessions, or those of one's in-group.

For example, when referring to one's own order at a restaurant, one would use "chūmon", but when referring to a customer's order, the restaurant staff would use "go-chūmon". Similarly, "kazoku" means "my family," while "go-kazoku" means "your family" (or, broadly speaking, someone else's family).

Foreign loanwords (except those that come from Chinese; see above) seldom take honorifics, but when they do "o-" seems to be preferable to "go-". Examples are "o-bīru" ("bīru": beer), which can sometimes be heard at restaurants, "o-kādo" ("kādo": card, as in credit card or point card), which is often heard at supermarkets and department stores, and "o-sōsu" (honorable sauce).

"O-" was also commonly used as an element in female names in pre-war Japan. For example O-hana (お花), O-haru (お春), and so on. This was a less polite honorific than "san". For example, a female servant, "Haruko", would be referred to as "O-haru" rather than "Haruko-san". This usage has disappeared in current Japanese.

ee also

*Japanese names
*Japanese pronouns
*Japanese grammar
*Japanese language
*Aizuchi (相槌 "aizuchi")
*Korean honorifics

External links

* [http://www.jlpt-kanji.com/keigo.php Keigo Examples]
* [http://www.jekai.org/entries/aa/00/no/aa00no31.htm jeKai article on keigo]
* [http://www.sil.org/Linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAnHonorific.htm SIL Glossary of linguistic terms - What is an honorific?]

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