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; kenjōgo (謙譲語), humble language (or "modest 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, for a total of five categories: teichōgo (丁重語) "courteous language" and bikago (美化語), "word beautification", but more often these are included in the above three: teichōgo as a kind of kenjōgo (humble), bikago as a kind of teineigo (polite)—these two other categories use the same forms as the general categories, but are used in different contexts, hence differentiated by some linguists. 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, 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, 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.
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 (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."
The same forms may also be used when the speaker is not the agent, as a courtesy to the listener, as in the common phrase 電車が参ります (densha ga mairimasu "a train is arriving") at rail stations. In the case, the announcer him or herself is not arriving, but he or she is simply being courteous. Some linguists distinguish this from kenjōgo (where the speaker is the agent), calling it instead teichōgo (丁重語) "courteous language", and defining it formally as:
Honorifics by which the Speaker shows consideration to the hearer through all expressions of the subject matter.
This category was first proposed by Hiroshi Miyachi (宮地裕). Teichōgo, as an addressee honorific, is always used with the teineigo (-masu) form, the politeness sequence (using "go" as an example) being 行く, 行きます, 参ります (iku, ikimasu, mairimasu).
In humble language, name suffixes are dropped when referring to people from inside one's group. Thus, Japanese-speaking company executives would introduce themselves and their 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.1
The distinction between these three verbs is lost in some respectful forms.
Both are the humble form of receive
); it can also be used for related verbs like eat
) and drink
Word beautification (bikago, 美化語, "beautified speech", in tanka also sometimes gago, 雅語, "elegant speech") is the practice of making words more polite or "beautiful". This form of language is employed by the speaker to add refinement to one's manner of speech. This is commonly achieved by adding the prefix o- or go- to a word and used in conjunction with the polite form of verbs. In the following example, o before cha and senbei and the polite form of the verb are used to this effect. Generally o- is used before native Japanese words and go- is used before Sino-Japanese words, but there are exceptions.
Example: お茶にお煎餅、よく合いますね O-cha ni o-senbei, yoku aimasu ne:
Tea and rice crackers go well (together), don't they.
In finer classifications, the above example is classified as word beautification—rather than honorific speech—as the speaker is voicing a general opinion regarding tea and rice crackers and is not intentionally deferential towards the listener. In the following example, the speaker is directly referring to the listener and items received by them and is regarded as honorific language.
Example: お宅様からいただいたお菓子は大変おいしゅうございました O-taku-sama kara itadaita okashi wa taihen oishuugozaimashita:
The sweets you gave me were most delectable.
See the section on honorific prefixes, below, for further discussion.
Honorifics are considered extremely important in a business setting. Training in honorifics usually does not take place at school or university, so company trainees are trained in correct use of honorifics to customers and superiors.
When using polite or respectful forms, the point of view of the speaker is shared by the speaker's in-group (内 uchi), so in-group referents do not take honorifics. For example, members of one's own company are referred to with humble forms when speaking with an external person; similarly, family members of the speaker are referred to humbly when speaking to guests. Similarly, the out-group (外 soto) addressee or referent is always mentioned in the polite style (though not necessarily with honorifics).
Mastery of politeness and honorifics is important for functioning in Japanese society. Not speaking politely enough can be insulting, and speaking too politely can be distancing (and therefore also insulting) or seem sarcastic. Children generally speak using plain informal speech, but they are expected to master politeness and honorifics by the end of their teenage years. Recent trends indicate that the importance of proper politeness is not as high as before, particularly in metropolitan areas. The standards are inconsistently applied towards foreigners, though most textbooks attempt to teach the polite style before considering to teach any of the other styles.
Depending on the situation, women's speech may contain more honorifics than men's. In particular, in informal settings, women are more likely to use polite vocabulary and honorific prefixes, such as gohan o taberu for "eat cooked rice", whereas men may use less polite vocabulary such as meshi o kū for exactly the same meaning. This is part of a general pattern of difference in speech by gender. However, in many settings, such as customer service, there will be little or no difference between male and female speech.
Japanese has grammatical functions to express several different emotions. Not only politeness but also respectfulness, humility and formality can be expressed.
There are three levels of politeness, plain or direct (普通体 futsūtai or 常体 jōtai), polite or distal (敬体 keitai or 丁寧 teinei), and formal (generally, 敬語 keigo or 最敬体 saikeitai). Formal and polite can be combined. For example, for the sentence "This is a book",
The informal style is used among friends, the distal or polite style by inferiors when addressing superiors and among strangers or casual acquaintances, and the formal style generally in writing or prepared speeches. The plain formal and informal styles of verbs are identical, with the exception of the verb de aru used as a copula. However, formal language in Japanese uses different vocabulary and structures from informal language.
In some contexts, where both the imperfective (incomplete: present/future) and perfective (complete: past) tenses are acceptable, the perfective is considered more polite. This is only at the completion of an activity; common examples are ありがとうございました arigatō gozaimashita "thank you (for a completed favor)", ご馳走様でした go-chisō-sama deshita "it was a feast (for a completed meal)", 失礼しました shitsurei shimashita "I have been rude (when leaving, after a visit)". For example, when entering someone's office, one conventionally says 失礼します shitsurei shimasu, as the visit is not complete yet, while when exiting one may say either shitsurei shimasu or, more politely, 失礼しました shitsurei shimashita. Many phrases cannot be used in the perfective in this way, as the referent is as yet incomplete. For example, the standard greeting お早うございます ohayō gozaimasu "Good day" cannot be said as ×お早うございました *ohayō gozaimashita "It was a nice day", as the day is not over yet.
Further to this, there is another factor, respect, which is indicated in yet other ways. For each politeness level there are two respectful forms (敬語 keigo).
- The respect language (尊敬語 sonkeigo) form shows respect to the subject of the sentence.
- The humble language (謙譲語 kenjōgo) form gives respect to the (direct or indirect) object by a variety of means, the most common being to humble the speaker.
These respectful forms are represented by different verb endings. Since verbs come at the end of the sentence in Japanese, most of the factors of formality, politeness, and respect are expressed at the very end of each sentence.
The o-machi-suru 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.
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 your favor" can take various forms. At the bottom of the scale comesyoroshiku tanomu
which might be used between male friends. Its more polite variantyoroshiku tanomimasu
might be used towards less familiar people or to superiors.
Going up in politeness, the phraseyoroshiku 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 getyoroshiku 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 expressionyoroshiku 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 (see honorific prefixes: verbs, below). Beyond simply increased politeness, this form is more formal, and is used when addressing a group, or as a general instruction, rather than directed at a particular person. For example, tsukau, "use", becomes o tsukai kudasai: "please use this". In the case of phrasal verbs the honorific o appears before the entire phrase, not simply the verb, as in o-ki (w)o tsuke-kudasai (お気を付け下さい), from ki (w)o tsukeru (気を付ける). 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".
The bikago (beautifying) prefixes o- (お〜) and go- (ご〜) (both written with the character 御 in kanji) are honorific prefixes which are applied to nouns and in some contexts to verbs. In general, go- (the on'yomi) precedes Sino-Japanese words (that is, words borrowed from Chinese or made from Sino-Japanese elements), while o- (the kun'yomi) precedes native Japanese words. There are many exceptions, however, where the o- prefix is used for Sino-Japanese words, including お茶 o-cha "tea", お大事に o-daiji-ni "get well", お電話 o-denwa "telephone", お稽古 o-keiko "practice", and many others. There is also one common exception for the go- prefix, ごゆっくり go-yukkuri "slowly", where the main word is clearly not of Chinese origin.
These prefixes are used for two purposes: to speak respectfully about a social superior's family, belongings, or actions (as part of 尊敬語, sonkeigo); or to speak in a generally refined or polite way (敬語 keigo generally, specifically 美化語, bikago).
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. A shorter translation is "dear"—for example, o-ko-san, お子さん, translates idiomatically as "your dear child"—and a similar sentiment is expressed in such English expressions as "Would you care for a spot of tea?" or "Would you care for a little tea?" (as opposed to the plain "Would you like some tea?").
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).
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 rough and masculine (男性語). The honorific o- is also sometimes attached to verb stems (連用形, ren'yōkei, continuative form, -masu stem—see stem forms) of native verbs (hence native o-) to refer to a specific item associated with the verb, as in oshibori (お絞り、絞る) "hot towel", and onigiri/omusubi (お握り、握る and お結び、結ぶ) "rice ball".
In rare cases, both a base form and honorific are in use with different readings. A notable example is 利益 ri-eki "benefit, profit (e.g., business)" and 御利益 go-ri-yaku "divine favor, grace"; plain ri-yaku is sometimes used, but go-ri-eki is generally not. The former, an everyday term, uses the usual kan-on reading, while the later, a specialized religious term, uses the older go-on reading.
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, and, as with other polite speech, they are more used by women than men.
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.
Foreign loanwords (gairaigo, 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 (sōsu: sauce).
For verbs, a respectful request—or rather a polite command—addressed to a group may be formed by using 御〜, followed by the masu-stem (連用形), followed by kudasai (下さい, please). For Chinese verbs (kango + suru), the prefix is generally pronounced go-, while for native Japanese verbs the prefix is pronounced o-. This is generally written in kana. The most commonly heard use is go-chūi-kudasai (ご注意ください, please be careful) (Chinese verb), which is used pervasively in recorded announcement in Japan (escalators, trains and subways, turning trucks), but other verbs are also used frequently, such as o-suwari-kudasai (お座りください, please sit down) (Japanese verb).
The respectful prefix can also be used in honorific verbs, when speaking about a superior, in which case it is formed by o-, followed by the masu-stem, followed by -ni-naru (〜になる) (suitably conjugated), as in o-kaeri-ni-narimashita (お帰りになりました, went home).
O- was also commonly used as an honorific prefix to female given names in pre-war Japan, particularly in combination with dropping common suffixes such as -ko (子, literally "child"). For example, Hanako (花子) would be referred to as O-hana (お花), Harumi (春美) would become O-haru (お春), Yuki (雪) would become O-yuki (お雪), and so on. This was a less polite honorific than "san". For example, a female servant named Kikuko would be referred to as O-kiku rather than Kikuko-san. This usage has disappeared in current Japanese, and has been replaced by using the diminutive suffix -chan instead (compare to male -kun), as in Aki-chan for Akiko.
There is also a rarer prefix mi- (kun'yomi), which is mostly used in words related to gods and the emperor, such as mi-koshi (御輿, "portable shrine" in Shinto) and mi-na (御名, "the Holy Name" in Christianity). However, in this context it is often replaced by 神 ("god", also pronounced mi-), and then a further 御 (pronounced お-, o-) may be added, as in 御神輿 (o-mi-koshi). Sometimes the reading is ambiguous—for example, 御霊屋 "mausoleum" may be pronounced either mi-tama-ya or o-tama-ya. When pronounced as mi-, the prefix is usually written in kanji (unlike o- and go-, which are very frequently hiragana), but in some case it is written in hiragana, with a notable example being mi-hotoke (御仏, "Lord Buddha") often being written as み仏, partly to avoid confusion with the incorrect reading *go-butsu.
The honorific prefix generally does not fall in the middle. In compounds, where the honorific would fall in the middle, the honorific is almost always dropped. For example, お茶／御茶 o-cha "tea", but 麦茶 mugi-cha "barley tea", not ×麦お茶／麦御茶 *mugi-o-cha. There are exceptions, however, such as 乾御門 inui-go-mon "northwest gate (to imperial palace)"; note that 乾門 inui-mon "northwest gate (generally)" is also used.
Rarely, 御 is used instead as an honorific suffix, notably in 甥御 oigo "your nephew" and 姪御 meigo "your niece".
The character 御 has other readings, notably on (kun'yomi) and gyo (on'yomi), as seen in on-sha (御社, your company, literally "honorable company") and gyo-en (御苑, imperial garden, literally "honorable garden"), but these are not productive (they are not used to form new words, but only in existing words).
Another prefix, pronounced o- （お〜） and potentially confused with 御〜 when written in hiragana, is 阿〜 o-, which also has affectionate connotations, but is a separate term and not productive. It was previously used for endearment for women's names, and today is most notable in 阿多福／阿亀 (o-ta-fuku, o-kame, "moon-faced woman, homely woman"), which are frequently written as お多福／お亀, which may be mistaken (partially) for hiragana forms of ×御多福／×御亀. The character 阿 is more frequently pronounced a, and used especially in words and names from Sanskrit, such as the a in the syllable "aum", hence unfamiliar in this use, creating the potential for confusion.
In one case, a triple honorific prefix may used, namely in the word o-mi-o-tsuke, a polite term for miso soup, which is ordinarily referred to as miso-shiru (味噌汁, miso soup). This may be spelt in kanji in multiple ways, including (御御御汁, honorable-honorable-honorable soup), but also as (御味御汁, honorable flavor honorable soup) (味 = mi, flavor), and the 御御御〜 spelling may be considered ateji, punning on 御 and 味 both having the reading mi.
While English has different registers, its levels of formality and politeness are not as formalized or as clearly defined as in Japanese. However, they can be instructive in gaining a feel for Japanese speech. English imperatives range from very blunt ("Give me the book"), to very indirect and elaborate ("If it's not too much trouble, could you please be so kind as to pass me the book?"—note the use of potential form, as in Japanese).
Similarly, changes in word use can make language more flowery or respectful—rather than "Do you know?", one might say "Are you familiar with?" or "Are you acquainted with?", which convey some of the feel of 知る versus ご存知だ。 In English, words of Germanic origin are generally plainer, those from French are generally more flowery (compare "drink" versus "beverage"), and those from Latin are more formal and technical (see Anglish and related articles); similarly in Japanese, words of Japanese origin are plainer, while words of Chinese origin are more formal. These are not hard-and-fast rules, but they give a feel for the gradations.
Humble language is less common in modern English, but is found in some contexts, such as guests saying "I am honored to be here," (rather than "I am glad to be here" or "I am happy to be here") and in various valedictions such as "Sincerely", which were formerly more formal and humble, with such forms as "I am, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant," and the like.
Some convenience stores and fast-food restaurants teach their young and part-time employees to verbally interact with customers in strictly prescribed ways laid down in instruction manuals. These forms of speech are known as マニュアル敬語 (manyuaru keigo, "manual keigo") or バイト敬語 (baito keigo, "part-timer keigo"). Manual keigo includes forms which would be considered incorrect or at least non-standard in terms of traditional usage (keigo and otherwise). A common example is "udon ni narimasu" (literally "[this] becomes udon", "[this] will be udon") as a polite form of "udon desu" ("[this] is udon"), instead of the standard "udon de gozaimasu" ("[this] is udon (polite)")—this manual keigo form is often criticized on the basis that the udon is not "becoming" anything, and therefore "ni naru" is incorrect, both as keigo and more generally.