This is an overview of the various layers of the polite Japanese language. While many Western languages have polite usage, such as polite personal pronouns (Sie in German, vous in French, usted in Spanish, etc.) taking plural verb forms even when used in the singular, Asian languages – and Japanese in particular – employ a more complex grammatical system to express formality and politeness.
The following levels of politeness can be distinguished in colloquial Japanese:
In general, honorifics are used to establish social disparities and differences in rank and seniority, position or experience. The party in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech when addressing a senior party, while the latter may use a more plain form.
- kudaketa (くだけた, the plain form, “chatty” or “impolite”)
- keigo (敬語 “honorific language”, advanced polite form).
- teineigo (丁寧語, “polite language”)
- kenjōgo (謙譲語, humble language)
- sonkeigo (尊敬語, respectful language)
The plain or casual form (kudaketa) is used by children until their teens, at which point they are supposed to start speaking in a more adult, or polite, manner. The plain form is recognised by the shorter, so-called dictionary (辞書形 jishokei) form of verbs and the da form of the copula. Casual speech is also used between family members, close friends, adults of equal rank and in impersonal written documents (newspapers, magazines, articles, reports, etc.).
Keigo, the advanced form of polite language, consists of three categories of politeness: teineigo, sonkeigo and kenjōgo. The two latter are so-called “referent honorifics”, used to talk about someone else, while and teneigo is an “addressee honorific”, used to talk to someone.
Teineigo, or the standard polite form, is used by adults who don’t know each other well or who are strangers to each other. It is used in corporate life to communicate with an immediate superior, while more honorific language might be expected when addressing a higher-ranking superior. Polite language is also used with foreigners, who are strangers per se. It is taught to children at school, so they are not expected to use it in their pre-teen days. In the tenei-level, verbs end with the helping verb –masu, and the copula desu as well as prefixes such as “o” and “go” towards neutral objects, are used.
Sonkeigo, respectful or exalted language, is never used by interlocutors to talk about themselves, but always when referring to others in power, in particular superiors or customers and their group, indicating that the speaker is acting in a professional context. The polite suffixes “-san” and “-sama” (“Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms”) are examples of such honorifics, and as such always applied to others, never to oneself. Honorifics are also applied to verb forms, using either alternative verbs or a prefix and polite suffixes, and to nouns, being substituted by more polite expressions. 人 (hito, “person”) turns into the polite 方 (kata). Please see the “Honorifics” table below. It should be noted that honorifics should not be applied to someone from the own group (e.g. company) when talking to someone from another group (e.g. another company).
Kenjōgo, on the other hand, is used when referring to oneself or someone from the own group towards people from another group, to humble the own actions vis-à-vis the actions of another person, in particular, a customer. In humble language, common verbs are substituted with other verb forms, too, but are often altered with prefixes. As mentioned above, name suffixes are omitted when talking about oneself or someone from the own group. As in respectful language, sometimes nouns are substituted. 人 (see above) becomes 者 (mono).
Most nouns in the Japanese language may be made honorific by the addition of o– (お) or go– (ご); as a prefix. o– is generally used for words of native Japanese origin, whereas go– is affixed to words of Chinese derivation. In some cases, the prefix has become a fixed part of the word and is included even in non-honorific speech, such as gohan, or rice. Such a construction usually indicates deference to either the item’s owner or to the object itself. For example, the word tomodachi (“friend”), would become o-tomodachi when referring to the friend of someone of higher status. On the other hand, a female speaker may sometimes refer to mizu (water) as “o-mizu” to show her cultural refinement, compared to blunter male speech patterns.
It is a common lament and a popular topic in the Japanese media that the usage of polite forms has lately been declining, particularly among the young, who employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity and distance. That is, they use polite forms for new acquaintances, but as a relationship becomes more intimate, they speak more frankly. This often occurs regardless of age, social class, or gender.
As a result of that decline, many Japanese companies, fast-food restaurants and convenience store chains released manuals instructing their young employees, part-time workers more often than not, on how to address their customers politely. This form of keigo is referred to as マニュアル敬語 (manyuaru keigo, “manual keigo”) or バイト敬語 (baito keigo, “part-timer keigo”), and has been criticised as it often disseminates incorrect and distorted patterns of honorifics.
Teichōgo (丁重語) and bikago (美化語)
Some linguists point out two more categories of keigo: teichōgo, “courteous language”, and possibly just a variation of kenjōgo, used as humble language in which an action or object is not directed toward the listener or a third party, and bikago, “word beautification”, as a variation of teneigo using a more refined language through prefixing of “o-” or “go-” to words, and use of appropriate vocabulary.
Some irregular respectful forms
Meaning plain respectful (sonkeigo) humble (kenjōgo) polite (teineigo) see / look / watch 見る miru ご覧になる go-ran ni naru 拝見する haiken suru 見ます mimasu meet 会う au regular (ex. お会いになる o-ai ni naru) お目にかかる o-me ni kakaru 会います aimasu be1 ある aru - - ござる gozaru - いる iru いらっしゃる irassharu
おいでになる o-ide ni naru
おる oru おる oru come / go1 来る kuru (come)
行く iku (go)
- 伺う ukagau
参る mairu know 知る shiru ご存じ go-zonji 存じあげる zonji ageru 存じている zonji te iru eat / drink 食べる taberu (eat)
飲む nomu (drink)
召しあがる meshi-agaru 頂く itadaku 頂く itadaku receive もらう morau - 頂く itadaku2
もらいます moraimasu give (who receives is respected) やる yaru (considered rude today, except in Kansai dialect)
あげる ageru (once the humble form)
- 差しあげる sashiageru あげます agemasu give (who gives is respected) くれる kureru くださる kudasaru - くれます kuremasu do する suru なさる nasaru 致す itasu します shimasu say 言う iu おっしゃる ossharu 申し上げる mōshi-ageru
言います iimasu put on 着る kiru お召しになる omeshi ni naru - 着ます kimasu sleep 寝る neru お休みになる o-yasumi ni naru - 休みます yasumimasu die 死ぬ shinu お亡くなりになる o-nakunari ni naru - 亡くなる nakunaru
* -こうはい (kohai) is rarely used as an affix. Most people in a senpai position would use -くん (kun) instead.
Affix Romaji Translation お- o- Honorific title used on words of typically Japanese origin or other titles ご- go- Honorific title used on words of typically foreign origin -さん -san Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss -ちゃん -chan Used to denote familiarity or a kind of cuteness -君 (-くん) -kun Used to denote someone of lower rank or a small level of impoliteness -後輩 (-こうはい) -kohai Used to denote someone of a lower grade than the speaker ('underclassman')* -先輩 (-せんぱい) -senpai Used to denote someone of a higher grade than the speaker ('upperclassman') -様 (-さま) -sama Used to denote someone of royalty or godhood **
Note that -くん (kun) is a somehow (not strictly, just more often) preferred affix speaking to or between boys (although boyfriends are sometimes addressed with -ちゃん). Girls tend to use -ちゃん (chan) in a similar manner, although -くん (kun) is also used sometimes. Unlike -さん (san) which is commonly used with a family name, these two affixes can also be used with given names (moreover, the name used may be shortened in front of these two affixes).
** Customers, clients, guests, patients, etc. are not king, but kamisama (神様, "deities"), hence -sama is used to show respect towards clientele.
- In Wikipedia Japan, do they use formal or informal verbs conjugations? (from the Japan Forum)
- Should I study in Dictionary form or Polite form? (from the Japan Forum)
- Keigo! (from the Japan Forum)
- Do you like keigo? (from the Japan Forum)
- Is ‘masu/desu-style’ used with kids? (from the Japan Forum)
- Politeness Levels in Japanese