informal speech

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

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  
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  
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
come / go1 来る kuru (come)
行く iku (go)
伺う ukagau
参る mairu
参る mairu
know 知る shiru ご存知だ go-zonji da 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 itadaku2
receive もらう morau   頂く itadaku2
頂戴する chōdai-suru2
(who receives is respected)
やる yaru (considered rude today)
あげる ageru (once the humble form)
  あげる ageru
さしあげる sashiageru
(who gives is respected)
くれる kureru くださる kudasaru    
do する suru なさる nasaru 致す itasu 致す itasu
say 言う iu おっしゃる ossharu 申し上げる mōshi-ageru
申す mōsu
申す mōsu
put on 着る kiru お召しになる omeshi ni naru    
sleep 寝る neru お休みになる o-yasumi ni naru   休む yasumu
die 死ぬ shinu お亡くなりになる o-nakunari ni naru   亡くなる nakunaru
1 The distinction between these three verbs is lost in some respectful forms.
2 Both are the humble form of receive (もらう morau); it can also be used for related verbs like eat (食べる taberu) and drink (飲む nomu).

Word beautification

Word beautification (bikago, 美化語 or sometimes referred to as gago, 雅語, in tanka) 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.

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.

The above example is classified as word beautification 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 taihen oishuugozaimashita:
The sweets you gave me were most delectable.



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.

In groups and out groups

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 it is generally recommended for adult learners of Japanese to master the polite style before attempting the others.

Gender differences

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.

Grammatical overview

Japanese has grammatical functions to express several different emotions. Not only politeness but also respectfulness, humility and formality can be expressed.

Expressing politeness

There are three levels of politeness, plain (常体 jōtai), distal or polite (敬体 keitai or 丁寧 teinei), and formal. Formal and polite can be combined. For example, for the sentence "This is a book",

informal polite formal polite formal
kore wa hon da.
kore wa hon desu.
kore wa hon de aru.
kore wa hon de gozaimasu.

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. For example, formal language uses many two-kanji Chinese derived words conjugated with suru, and substitutes highly formal vocabulary such as joshi for josei (woman).

Expressing respect

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).

  1. The respect language (尊敬語 sonkeigo) form shows respect to the subject of the sentence.
  2. 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 formality, politeness, and respect is expressed at the very end of each sentence.

Plain form ジョンさんが佐藤さんを待つ Jon san ga Satō san wo matsu.
John waits for Sato.
Respect for subject 先生がお待ちになる Sensei ga o-machi-ni-naru.
(The) teacher waits.
Respect for object 先生をお待ちする Sensei wo omachi-suru.
We wait for you, Teacher.

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 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.

See also

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