Center for Japanese Language Education,the University of Tokyo

Honorifics and style

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I have already explained that verbs in Japanese are followed by various elements such as negative, tense, potential, and causative, but what about personal elements? Verbs are followed by personal elements in many languages, but Japanese is not one of these languages. There is no personal inflection or personal affix. All you need is to mention the subject, or even omit the subject when it is obvious.

Some people may doubt how one could avoid misunderstanding without using a subject in a language that does not have a personal affix. But actually, it is possible to communicate without misunderstanding. Of course, you can mention the subject when you want to be sure. However, the issue of how one can communicate without misunderstanding while omitting the subject, is related to the issue of honorifics, which I will explain about in this text.

1. Do I have to learn honorifics?

"I heard that in Japanese, there are honorifics one must use to those with higher social status. How feudalistic! I don't want to learn such things." I sometimes meet international student who says this. However, this is a big misunderstanding. Honorifics are often used even by one with higher social status to one with lower status. When I was a student, one professor of the University of Tokyo, he was truly a great scholar, used to speak very politely to his students. Modern honorifics are very different from those of the former status society. Please eliminate your prejudice against honorifics.

Some students say, "But honorifics are difficult. Do I really have to use them?" In a way, no, non-native speakers are not required to use honorifics (subject honorification and humble expression). Among native Japanese speakers, not using honorifics in certain situations could offend others, but Japanese society is generous towards non-native speakers who can not using honorifics. "Great, so I don't have to learn honorifics, then." Sorry for the bad news, but you still need to learn honorifics. Why? This is because you need to understand when the others speak to you in honorifics. Many Japanese are generous towards non-native speakers who do not use honorifics, but they do not consider speaking without using honorifics when speaking to non-native speakers. In other words, many Japanese will talk to you in honorific speech. To be able to communicate with Japanese, you need to understand honorifics when you hear them.

2. Honorifics as alternative to subject

Some of you may be disappointed, but honorifics are very effective to learn. It gives the answer to the earlier question "Is it possible to communicate without misunderstanding without using a subject?". With honorifics, you can omit the subject and avoid misunderstanding at the same time.

Do you remember the following example that showed how the "understood noun can be omitted"?
(cf. "What are the characteristics of Japanese?")

(1) Itsu taishikan e ikimasuka. (When will you go to the embassy?)
(2) Ashita ikimasu. (I'll go tomorrow.)

Neither "you" or "I" are mentioned in Japanese, but the sentences make sense. However, in (1) and (2), although the subject of (1) is most probably "you" and (2) is "I", there are other possibilities theoretically. If you use honorifics as follows, it is clear that the subjects of each sentence are "you" and "I".

(3) Itsu taishikan e irasshaimasuka. (When will you go to the embassy?)
(4) Ashita mairimasu. (I'll go tomorrow.)

"Irasshaimasu" (in dictionary form, "irassharu") in (3) is the honorific of "go". There are several types of honorifics, and "irassharu" is the type called subject honorification, which is most often used with a second-person subject. On the other hand, "mairimasu" (dictionary form "mairu") in (4) is also the honorific of "go" in a honorific, a type called humble expression, which usually takes the first-person subject. This is why in (3) and (4) the subjects are understood without mentioning them. "You" could be "your husband" and "I" could be "my husband" in some situations, but in that case, there should be some context, so without any specific context, the subject of (3) should be "you" and (4) should be "I".

As you can see, honorifics suggest unstated subjects. They work as a kind of personal affix, and that is why it is important in Japanese which often omits subjects and other nouns. Of course, it is not exactly the same as personal inflections or affixes in other languages, but there are very similar aspects, so why not study honorifics in such a context?

Are you feeling gloomy to see that there are three ways to say "go" in Japanese, thinking that you must learn verbs three times? Don't worry. The subject honorification forms and humble expression forms of most of the verbs are made regularly according to rules. "Iku (go)" is one of the very few exceptions which does not observe the rules.

In this text, I will not go further into the use of honorifics, so I would like you to study them in class, but for advanced learners who wish to learn more about honorifics, I recommend my book 'Keigo Sainyumon' (Maruzen Library). In this book, I analyze honorifics linguistically with explanations on their use, and although it is targeted for Japanese people, I also receive favorable comments from advanced Japanese learners.

3. Polite and Plain

Honorifics can be classified into subject honorification and humble expression in a limited sense, but there is another type of honorific called "polite expression". Subject honorification and humble expression are language regarding "about who one is talking", but polite expression regards " to whom one is talking". It is related to the "style" of text, so it is often called "polite style". The "..desu" and "..masu" beginners learn are actually the polite style. Antonym of polite style is "casual style" in spoken language. For example, "ikimasuka (Are you going?)" "hai, ikimasu (Yes, I'm going.)" is polite style conversation, and "iku? (Are you going?)" "Un, iku (Yes, I'm going.)" is casual style conversation. Polite style is taught mainly in Japanese classes, and some students ask, "Why are we taught polite style mainly in classes? In my laboratory, everyone is always talking in casual style."

Is it true? Are they all really always talking in casual style? Listen closely to the conversation. Even among students, if the grade or age is different, polite style "..desu" and "..masu" is used usually, at least from the junior to the senior (or mutually). Even if everyone in the laboratory is really using casual form among them, aren't they using polite style with the people outside the laboratory? As a matter of fact, people who one can talk to in casual form without being impolite is very limited. I said earlier that Japanese society is quite generous to non-native speakers not using subject honorification and humble expression, but it is not so regarding polite style. Using casual style in a situation you are expected to use polite style gives a very rude impression, not only to Japanese but also non-native speakers. This is why polite style is taught mainly in classes. It does not mean that casual style is insignificant, but to avoid confusion, it is necessary to stick to one style at the early stages. This is the reason why polite style is taught mainly at the elementary stage.

However, generally speaking, polite style is not used in written language such as thesis, reports, and newspaper articles. Such style is called "plain style" instead of casual style. The antonym for polite style is plain style in written language or when talking of both written and spoken language. When talking about individual forms instead of style, they are called "plain form" and "polite form". For example, "iku (go)" is the plain form, "ikimasu (go)" is the polite form for the present tense affirmative. To make it past tense affirmative, the plain form is "itta (went)", and the polite form is "ikimashita (went)". As I have already explained, the verb is followed by various elements such as negative, potential, causative etc., and they all have plain forms and polite forms.

"That is a lot to learn! But it seems that it is safe to use the polite form all of the time. Then I will only learn polite form and skip plain form." Is this what you thought? Unfortunately, you need to learn plain form also. Although plain and polite is a matter of the style at the end of a sentence, in certain positions in a sentence plain form must be used because of grammatical / contextual requirements, no matter how politely one is talking. For example in the sentence "Ashita iku resutoran (the restaurant where I go tomorrow)", the plain form must be used in modifying the clause. (Please learn more about this in class).

As you can see, you need to learn both plain form and polite form. It may sound tough, but you can learn them step by step as part of the verb inflections I mentioned in the last text. Plain form is shorter than polite form, so in some textbooks they are called short form and long form.

Some people ask "Is plain form impolite?" because it is used as an antonym of polite form, but I think you already know the answer from reading this text that it is not so. Plain form used in modifying a clause is not impolite. Even if it is used at the end of a sentence, plain style in the written language such as for thesis, reports and articles is also not impolite. Moreover, even in spoken language, it is not impolite to use plain (casual) style in informal conversation with your intimate friends. Plain style is not impolite, it is impolite only when you use plain (casual) style at the end of sentences to someone with whom you should be speaking in polite style.

4. "...ndesu"

There are many expressions related to politeness or good impression, and here I would like to refer to "...ndesu". "Ikimasu (go)" and "Ikundesu (go)". It is difficult to distinguish the usage of these two expressions since both of them are translated into the same words in English. Though not always but in certain situations, the latter expression gives a better impression. When you say "Ashita kunino tomodachi ga Nihon ni kimasu. Jugyo o yasundemo iidesuka. (My friend from my couuntry is coming to Japan tomorrow. May I take a day-off from class?)" or "Ashita kunino tomodachi ga Nihon ni kurundesuga, jugyo o yasundemo iidesuka.", the latter gives a better impression (in this case, "ga" in "...kurundesuga" is also effective).

Some specialists of Japanese education say that because it is too difficult for foreign people, there is no need to teach "...ndesu". It may be difficult, but it is a word with important effect, so we try to help you get the hang of such expressions in our course.

Points: Advise for Japanese learners (3)
Honorifics are essential for Japanese language study.
Eliminate the prejudice that it is feudalistic.
1. Honorifics suggest unstated subjects.
Irasshaimasuka. (Are you going?)
(Subject honorification - Usually the subject is "you")
Mairimasu. (I go.)
(Humble expression - Usually the subject is "I")
2. Start studying with the polite style out of the two styles.
Ikimasuka? - Hai, ikimasu. (polite style)
Iku? - Un, iku. (casual style)
(Are you going? - Yes, I'm going.

* The contents of this page are almost the same as the article "Learn the characteristics of Japanese language and study effectively (3) : Honorifics and Style" by KIKUCHI Yasuto (Professor of the International Center, the University of Tokyo), to appear in International Center News, The University of Tokyo, No.35.

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