けいご【敬語】

■respectful speech, honorifics

□ 敬語 (けいご), often called honorific speech, is important in Japanese to indicate social status and respect. The grammar and words used in 敬語 (けいご) differ from those in normal speech. There are three types of 敬語:

□ Determining the form: Social status is based on the 五倫. When speaking to or about a person with a higher social status, 尊敬語 forms are used, and when you wish to show deferment (often a show of humility, not necessarily a true indication of humble social status), 謙譲語 is used. Mixed in with both of these is 丁寧語. In every day terms, the use of 敬語 depends on many social factors including the speaker, the listener, the person being referred to, and the surrounding social environment.

□ Mixed 敬語: A rarely mentioned feature of 敬語 is that except in formal situations, it is not used in an unadulterated form. Skillful use of 敬語, particularly 丁寧語 is knowing when to use it. When speaking to a 目上の人, the lack of 敬語 can intimate friendship when interspersed appropriately among non-honorific statements. The overuse of 敬語, on the other hand, can make the speaker sound fawning. A useful rule of thumb is to use no more than one noun of 丁寧語 and one verb (usually the final verb) of 敬語 per sentence.

In addition to the social conditions and relationships between people, 敬語 usage depends on the personality of the speaker. While some use it hardly at all, others use it profusely. All things considered, trying to figure out when and how much respectful speech to use is difficult, but is an indispensable part of speaking Japanese.

Beginners of Japanese will never be expected to use most forms of 敬語, though certain 丁寧語 such as わたし will be expected. When beginning to use 敬語, though, be careful to use it with consistency. If you use it, people will tend to expect it, and if you should fail to use it later, the listener might become confused or offended.

□ Changes: Like all aspects of language, 敬語 is subject to change. The media in Japan and well as adults are fond of saying that young people cannot use 敬語 correctly. One expression often heard on TV, ご覧頂きましょう, is probably both a product of this change and a catalyst to further changes. The expression is used by TV hosts to mean "Let's look," but could be more literally translated as, "Let's honorably look humbly," where the honor is intended for the viewers and the humility is intended for the host. According to traditional use, the entire expression should be humble or honorific, but this hybrid form is well entrenched now in the daily lives of the Japanese.

□ Dialect usage: Dialects differ on their treatment of 敬語. Not only does frequency differ according to dialect, but the grammatical patterns and words also may differ. Kyoto tends to have a rich collection of 敬語 expressions, whereas respectful speech is generally not used at all in the Ise dialect. (The latter is sometimes attributed to the fishing industry where quick speech is important in life-and-death situations on boats.)

□ In modern Japanese, a form of respect speech known as relative respectful speech is used. See 相対敬語 ・絶対敬語 for an explanation of this aspect of 敬語.


This entry was created by Benjamin Barrett, with additional contributions by Lewis Cook.


Created 2001-06-08. Typo corrected by LC 2001-06-09.


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