An honorific is a title that conveys esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. Sometimes, the term "honorific" is used in a more specific sense to refer to an honorary academic title. It is also often conflated with systems of honorific speech in linguistics, which are grammatical or morphological ways of encoding the relative social status of speakers.
- Modern English honorifics
- Ancient Rome
- Persian cultures
- Spanish speaking cultures
- Wuvulu Aua
Typically, honorifics are used as a style in the grammatical third person, and as a form of address in the second person. Use in the first person, by the honored dignitary, is uncommon or considered very rude and egotistical. Some languages have anti-honorific (despective or humilific) first person forms (expressions such as "your most humble servant" or "this unworthy person") whose effect is to enhance the relative honor accorded to the person addressed.
Modern English honorifics
The most common honorifics in modern English are usually placed immediately before a person's name. Honorifics which can be used (both as style and as form of address) include, in the case of a man, "Mr" (irrespective of marital status), and in the case of a woman the honorific will depend on her marital status: if she is unmarried, it is "Miss", if she is married it is "Mrs", and if her marital status is unknown, or it is not desired to specify it, "Ms". Someone who does not want to express a gender with their honorific may occasionally use Mx, Ind. or Misc..
Other honorifics may denote the honored person's occupation, for instance "Doctor", "Esquire", "Captain", "Coach", "Officer", "Reverend" for all clergy and/or "Father" (for a Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Anglican Christian priest), or Professor. Holders of an academic Doctorate such as PhD are addressed as "Doctor" (abbreviated Dr). "Master" as a prefix ahead of the name of boys and young men up to about 16 years of age is less common than it used to be, but is still used by older people addressing the young in formal situations and correspondence.
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."
Judges are often addressed as "Your Honor" (or "Honour") when on the bench, and the style (in the USA) is "His/Her Honor" the plural form is "Your Honors". If the judge also has a higher title, that may be the correct honorific to use: "Your Lordship". Similarly, a monarch (ranking as a king or emperor) and his consort may 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 kingly rank are addressed as "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 Grand Ducal 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".) Protocol for monarchs and aristocrats can be very complex, with no general rule; great offence can be given by using a form that is not exactly correct. There are differences between "Your Highness" and "Your Royal Highness"; between "Princess Margaret" and "The Princess Margaret". All of these are correct, but apply to people of subtly different rank. An example of a non-obvious style is "Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother", which was an official style, but unique to one person.
In music, a distinguished conductor or virtuoso instrumentalist may be known as "Maestro".
In aviation, pilots in command of a larger civil aircraft are usually addressed as "Captain" plus their full name or surname. This tradition is slowly diminishing in the United States and most EU countries. However, many countries, especially in Asia, follow this tradition and address airline pilots, military pilots, and flight instructors exclusively as "Captain" even outside of the professional environment. In addition, such countries' etiquette rules dictate that this title must be placed on all the official letters and social invitations, business cards, identification documents, etc. In the United States, when addressing a pilot, common etiquette does not require the title "Captain" to be printed on official letters or invitations before the addressee's full name. However, this is optional (akin to "Esq" after an attorney's name, in the U.S.) and may be used where appropriate, especially when addressing airline pilots with many years of experience.
Occupants of state and political office may be addressed with an honorific. A monarch may be addressed as His/Her Majesty, a president as Your Excellency or Mr/Madam President, a minister or secretary of state as "Your Excellency" or Mr/Madam Secretary, etc. A prime minister may be addressed as "the Honorable". In the UK, members of the Privy Council are addressed as "the Right Honourable ...". A member of Parliament or other legislative body may have particular honorifics. A member of a Senate, for example, may be addressed as "Senator". The etiquette varies and most countries have protocol specifying the honorifics to be used for its state, judicial, military and other officeholders.
Former military officers are sometimes addressed by their last military rank, such as "Captain", "Colonel", "General", etc. This is generally only adopted by those officers who served in at least the rank equivalent of Major.
In areas of East Africa, where the Bantu language Swahili is spoken, mzee is frequently used for an elder to denote respect by younger speakers. It is used in direct conversation and used in referring to someone in the third person.
While Swahili is Bantu, it is highly influenced by Arabic and Hindu languages and cultures. "Babu" is a prefix honorific used with elders, similar to "Mzee", but may also mean grandfather. Other prefix honorifics are "Ndugu", for brother or a close male friend, and "Dada" for a sister or close female friend; thus, John and Jane would be Ndugu John and Dada Jane, respectively.
Amongst the Akan ethnic groups of West Africa's Ghana, the word "nana" is used as an aristocratic pre-nominal by chiefs and elders alike.
In Yorubaland, also in West Africa, the word "ogbeni" is used as a synonym for the English "mister". Titled men of the region's aristocracy are therefore called "oloye" instead, this being the word for "chief". Although the former of the two titles is only used by men, aristocrats of either gender are addressed using the latter of them.
Some honorifics used by Ancient Romans, such as Augustus, turned into titles over time.
During the ancient and imperial periods, Chinese honorifics 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 settings. In fact, the ability to use honorifics in China is now seen as a display of social status. In other words, educated people tend to rigidly use honorifics as a display of their status.
In addition, the use of honorifics varies greatly across Chinese-speaking regions in the world. In Taiwan, for example, honorifics are more widely used in daily interactions. In Mainland China, however, honorifics tend to recede to formal settings.
Indian honorifics abound, covering formal and informal relationships for commercial, generational, social, and spiritual links. Honorifics may be prefix, suffix, or replacement types. There are many variations.
Italian honorifics are usually limited to formal situations. Professional titles like Ingegnere (engineer) are often substituted for the ordinary Signore (mister), while Dottore (doctor) is used very freely for any graduate of a university. Honorifics lose their e ending when juxtaposed to a surname: e.g., dottor Rossi, cardinal Martini, ragionier Fantozzi. People in high religious positions, such as the Pope or cardinals, are addressed as Sua Santità Cardinal/Papa (His holiness Cardinal/Pope).
The word in Japanese for honorifics, keigo (敬語), is used in Japanese everyday conversations. Japanese honorifics are similar to English, with 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 many nouns, primarily names, 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.
In Japan, there are three rough divisions of honorifics:
Indonesia's Javanese majority ethnicity has many honorifics. For example:
Korean honorifics are similar to Japanese honorifics, and similarly, their use is mandatory in many formal and informal social situations. Korean 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. Linguists say that there are six levels of honorifics in Korean but, in daily conversation, only three of them are widely used in contemporary Korean. Suffix -si-(씨) is used at most honorific verbs, but not always. It is considered very impolite and offensive not to use honorific sentences or words with someone who is older or has a higher social status, and most Koreans avoid using non-honorific sentences with someone they have met for the first time. In Korean, names, first and/or last, always precede a title, e.g., Park Sonsaengnim, Park Kwanjangnim, etc.
A complex system of Titles and honorifics is extensively used in the Malay language-speaking cultures in Brunei and Malaysia. In contrast Singapore, whose Malay royalty was abolished by the British colonial government in 1891, has adopted civic titles for its leaders.
Pakistan has numerous honorific forms that may be used with or as a substitute for names. The most common honorifics in Pakistan are usually placed immediately before the name of the subject or immediately after the subject. There are many variations across Pakistan.
Persian honorifics generally follow the second name, especially if they refer to gender or particular social statuses (e.g., Name Agha [Mr.], Name Khanom [Ms.], Name Ostad [teacher or cleric]), Name Rayis [manager, leader or director]. Such honorifics are used both in formal and informal situations. A more formal honorific referring to gender would be Jenab [His Excellency], which preceds Name Agha [Mr.] and Sarkar [Her Excellency], which precedes Name Khanom [Ms.]. A newer honorific is Arjomand [esteemed], which comes after other honorifics (except those referring to gender), and is not gender-specific (e.g., Ostad Arjomand Name Surname, or Rayis Arjomand Sarkar Khanom Name Surname). They are generally used in very formal situations.
The usage of Filipino honorifics differ from person to person like the occasional insertion of the word po or ho in conversation. Though some have become obsolete, many are still widely used in order to denote respect, friendliness, or affection. Some new "honorifics" mainly used by teenagers are experiencing surges in popularity.
Tagalog honorifics like: Binibini/Ate ("Miss", "Big sister"), Ginang/Aling/Manang ("Madam"), Ginoo/Mang/Manong/Kuya ("Mr.", "Sir", "Big brother") have roots in Chinese shared culture.
Depending on one's relation with the party being addressed, various honorifics may be used.
As such addressing a man who is older, has a higher rank at work or has a higher social standing, one may use Mr or Sir followed by the First/ last/ or full name. Addressing a woman in a similar situation as above one may use Ms, Ma'am, or Madam followed by First/ last/ or full name. Older married women may prefer to be addressed as Mrs. For starters, the use of Sir/Ms/Ma'am/Madam followed by the first and/or last name (or nickname) is usually restricted to Filipino, especially vernacular, social conversation, even in TV and film depictions. Despite this, some non-Filipinos and naturalized Filipinos (like some expat students and professionals) learn to address the older people the Filipino way.
On a professional level many use educational or occupational titles such as Architect, Engineer, Doctor, Attorney (often abbreviated as Arch./Archt./Ar., Engr., Dr. [or sometimes Dra. for female doctors], and Atty. respectively), even on an informal or social level, although their usage shows a sign of Filipino professionals' obsession with their academic accomplishments and their educational attainment that they go to extreme measures to flaunt them. Despite this, some of their clients (especially non-Filipinos) would address them as simply Mr. or Mrs./Ms. followed by their surnames (or even Sir/Ma'am) in conversation. It is very rare, however, for a Filipino (especially those born and educated abroad) to address Filipino architects, engineers, and lawyers, even mentioning and referring to their names, the non-Philippine (i.e. standard) English way. As mentioned before, this is prevalent in TV and film depictions.
Even foreigners who work in the Philippines or naturalized Filipino citizens, including foreign spouses of Filipinos, who hold some of these titles and descriptions (especially as instructors in Philippine colleges and universities) are addressed in the same way as their Filipino counterparts, although it may sound awkward or unnatural to some language purists who argue that the basic titles or either Sir or Ma'am/Madam are to be employed for simplicity, as they are unnecessary when he or she is included in a list of wedding sponsors, or when his or her name appears in the list of officials of a country club or similar organization. They are uncalled for in public donations, religious activities, parents-teachers association events, athletic competitions, society pages of newspapers, and in any activity that has nothing to do with one’s title or educational attainment. It is also acceptable to treat those titles and descriptions (except Doctor) as adjectival nouns (i.e., first letter not capitalized, e.g. architect <name>) instead.
Even though Doctor is really a title in standard English, the "created" titles Architect, Attorney, and Engineer (among other examples) are a result of vanity (titles herald achievement and success; they distinguish the title holder from the rest of society) and insecurity (the title holder's achievements and successes might be ignored unless announced to the public), even due to historical usage of pseudo-titles in newspapers when Filipinos first began writing in English.
Possible reasons are firstly, the fact the English taught to Filipinos was the “egalitarian” English of the New World, and that the Americans who colonized the Philippines encountered lowland societies that already used Iberian linguistic class markers like "Don" and "Doña." Secondly, the fundamental contradiction of the American colonial project. The Americans who occupied the Philippines justified their actions through the rhetoric of "benevolent assimilation". In other words, they were only subjugating Filipinos to teach them values like American egalitarianism, which is the opposite of colonial anti-equality. Thirdly, the power of American colonialism lays in its emphasis on education – an education that supposedly exposed Filipinos to the "wonders" of the American way of life. Through education, the American colonial state bred a new elite of Filipinos trained in a new, more "modern", American system. People with advanced degrees like law or engineering were at the apex of this system. Their prestige, as such, not only rested on their purported intelligence, but also their mastery of the colonizer’s way of life. This, Lisandro Claudio suspects, is the source of the magical and superstitious attachment Filipinos have to attorneys, architects and engineers. The language they use is still haunted by their colonial experience. They linguistically privilege professionals because their colonizers made us value a certain kind of white-collar work. Again, even expatriate professionals in the Philippines were affected by these reasons when they resided and married a Filipino or were naturalized so it's not unusual for them to be addressed Filipino style.
Spanish has a number of honorific forms that may be used with or as substitutes for names, such as señor or caballero ("Mr.", "Sir", "Gentleman"); señora ("Madam", "Mrs.", "Lady", "ma'am") and señorita ("Miss", "young lady"); licenciado for a person with bachelor's or a professional degree (e.g., attorneys and engineers); maestro for a teacher, master mechanic, or person with a master's degree; doctor ("doctor"); etc. Also used is don (male) or doña (female) for people of rank or, in some Latin American countries (e.g., Puerto Rico), for any senior citizen. In some Latin American countries, like Colombia, "Doctor" is used for any respected figure regardless of whether they have a doctoral degree (for instance Colombian presidents are often referred to as Doctor ___); likewise "Maestro" is used for artistic masters, especially painters.
Additionally, older people and those with whom one would speak respectfully (e.g., one's boss or teacher), are often addressed as usted, a formal/respectiful way of saying "you" (e.g. Dra. Polo, ¿cómo está usted? Dr. Polo, how are you?). The word usted historically comes from the honorific title vuestra merced (literally "your mercy"). Intimate friends and relatives are addressed as tú. In some regions, addressing a relative stranger as tú can be considered disrespectful or provocative, except when it's directed to a person notably younger than the speaker, or in an especially informal context.
Pingelapese is a Micronesian language spoken on the Pingelap atoll and on two of the eastern Caroline Islands, called the high island of Pohnpei. Pingelapese does not employ many honorifics into their speech. Their society is structured in a way that everyone is seen as equal, most likely due to the fact that there are so few of them due to emigration. There is no structured hierarchy to enforce the use of honorific speech. There are not many polite vocabulary words and the language they use can be classified as a commoners’ language.
However, among the Micronesian languages, Pohnpeian is the only language that uses a thoroughly developed honorific speech. This demonstrates that a highly structured hierarchical society was very important in their culture. There are multiple ways that Pohnpeic speakers show respect through their language. In the Pohnpeic language there is royal language, which is used for the two highest-ranking chiefs. Next, respect honorifics are used with other superiors and people who are considered respected equals. There is not only the use of honorifics, but humiliative language as well, which is used to lower oneself below higher-ranking people, showing respect and reverence. This speech was lost in Pingelap when Pohnpei speakers migrated to the Pingelap atoll and adapted their more casual way of speaking.
Even though the younger generation of Pingelapese speakers does not use honorific speech, elders in the language report being taught a form of ‘language of respect.’ This language was to be used to address elders and leaders in the community. Women were also told to use it towards their brothers and with their children. Phrases could be made polite by adding the second person singular possessive suffix –mwi. Other ways to utilize honorific speech is by changing words entirely.
The most common honorifics used in Thailand are used to differentiate age between friends, family and peers. The following represent some of the most commonly used.
คุณ (khoon)(Middle Tone) is used the same way as Mr / Mrs or Miss. It is a formal way to refer to persons not overly familiar. It is also used as a pronoun for the word "You"
พี่ (Pee)(Falling Tone) is used when speaking to or about an older sibling or friend. It is used for both men and women and can also be used when referring to oneself if they are older than the addressee(s)
น้อง(Naawng)(High Tone) is the exact opposite of the above. It is use when speaking to or about a younger sibling or friend. It is used between both men and women and can also be used when referring to oneself if the person speaking is younger than the addressee(s).
ครู (Khruu)(Middle Tone) is used when addressing a teacher, translating literally to "Teacher".
อาจารย์ (Aah-jarhn)(Middle Tone both syllables) is used to address a professor. It is used much in the same way as Khruu however Aa-jarhn holds a little more esteem. It generlly refers to someone who is a master in their field. Many Theravada Buddhist scholars and those who have dedicated their lives to Theravada Buddhism assume this title amongst their followers.
พระ (Prah)(High Tone) This is perhaps one of the highest honorifics in Thai culture. It is reserved for monks and priests. It is also allows for use when referring to a most revered place or object such as a temple or palace.
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 Beyefendi [literally meaning "Lord Master"], Name Hanımefendi [literally meaning "Lady Master"], Name Hoca [teacher or cleric], Name Öğretmen [solely for teacher]). Such honorifics are used both in formal and informal situations. Another honorific is Sayın/Muhterem [esteemed], which precedes the surname or full name, and is not gender-specific. (e.g. Sayın/Muhterem Name Surname, or Sayın/Muhterem Surname). They are generally used in very formal situations.
Honorifics in Vietnamese are more complex compared to Chinese, where the origins of many of these pronouns can be traced, and many have fallen out of usuage or have been replaced due to the changing times. An honorific, or a pronoun, in Vietnamese when referring to a person acts as a way to define two peoples' degree of relationship with one another. Examples of these pronouns include 'chị' older sister, 'ông' male elder and 'chú' younger uncle (younger brother of father/only used on father's side). The exclusive use of the Vietnamese words for 'I' and 'you' are considered informal and rude. Rather honorifics are used to refer to oneself and to others. These terms generally differ from province to province, or region. Additionally, as with East Asian tradition, the surname is written prior to the given name (i.e. Hoang Khai Dinh, Hoang is the surname and Khai Dinh is the given name). This occurs in all formal situations. Although placing the surname last has become a commonality in order to cater westerners, that is, for example, on social media sites such as Facebook. When referring to a person as Mr or Mrs (teacher, doctor etc.) as in the English tradition of 'Mr Hoang', the surname is not usually used but instead the given name is more commonly used as to not cause confusion, "Mr Khai Dinh". This is due to the issue that many Vietnamese share the same surname (e.g. up to 40% of Vietnamese share the surname Nguyen).
Wuvulu-Aua does not normally incorporate honorifics as it is reserved for only the utmost respect. Originally without any honorifics, the semantics of pronouns change depending on the social context. In particular, the second person dual pronoun is used as an honorific address. The dual reference communicates that the second person is to be respected as two people. This honorific is typically reserved for in-laws. It is undocumented if any other honorifics exist beyond this one.
People who have a strong sense of egalitarianism, such as Quakers and certain socialists, eschew honorific titles. 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", "sister", "friend", or "comrade". This was also the practice in Revolutionary France and socialist countries which used Citoyen[ne] ("Citizen") as the manner of address.
Feminist criticism of the use of separate honorifics for married and unmarried women (Mrs. and Miss) has led to some women's adopting the honorific "Ms."