Introduction to honorific Japanese, a few words on keigo

As I have already mentioned in one of my previous articles, it is not the grammatical structures that make the learning process difficult, when somebody is trying to master Japanese. I would say that the thing that’s very complex, is how you act in a given situation and what structures you use. The different forms of honorific phrases appeared due to the fragmentation of the Japanese society and the Samurai era also had great influence on the language. There are three basic forms of respectful Japanese these days, namely sonkeigo(尊敬語), kenjougo(謙譲語)-t and teineigo(丁寧語), but there are linguists who differentiate additional classes.

Fragmentation of the Japanese society resulted in a complicated language and different forms of honorific phrases

In the following article I would like to give the reader a short introduction to sonkeigo and kenjougo. The former one (sonkeigo) should be used when somebody is talking to his or her superior, about the superior’s actions. As such, if you are about to ask your boss in Japanese for example about his last year’s holiday, you must use sonkeigo. On the other hand, when you are talking to you superior and you are referring to your own actions you will need to use kenjougo. In this sense they are the opposite of each other.

I know it might sound difficult to use for beginners, but don’t worry, most of the cases these expressions can be easily formed by conjugating the verbs in a different way. Moreover when you are talking in Japanese it is possible, and sometimes required that you make the nouns more “beautiful” as well. These words are called “美化語”.

When using honorific Japanese, one has to consider female and male relationships as well

What is “bikago” (美化語)?

In a sophisticated context for a given noun you might need to use a neater form and this can be easily achieved by putting ”ご” or ”お” in front of the noun. Unfortunately the rules regarding the usage of ”ご” or ”お” are not exact. Most of the cases you can attach ”お” to a noun that’s pronounced by using the kunyomi (Japanese, 訓読み) reading, and you will need to put ”ご” to the onyomi (Chinese, 音読み) readings. However there are very common exceptions such as お電話 or ごゆっくり. In addition there are words, which are correct both with ”ご” and ”お”. For instance there are these two words: ご返事 or お返事, and ご名刺 or お名刺.

A few ”お” type 美化語:


And some ”ご type 美化語:


Naturally when talking to elderly people one has to use more polite phrases than usual

In the same time though, there are synonyms that are used in a more sophisticated context. A similar use case in English would be, toilet, loo or lavatory:

  • めし ー ごはん  『food』
  • 汁 ー おつゆ 『juice』
  • 水 ー おひや 『water』
  • うまい ー おいしい 『delicious』
  • 腹 ー おなか 『stomach』
  • 便所 ー お手洗い 『toilet』
  • Differentiating the sonkeigo and kenjougo forms:

    I have already mentioned that even in everyday situations, respect is incredibly important when talking in Japanese. Think about is as you were talking to the Queen and you mistakenly used the word “loo”. This can be equally awkward when you mix kenjougo with sonkeigo at you workplace for instance and I can say that if the situation is tense it is not difficult to misuse these phrases, however the rules are quite straightforward:

    Sonkeigo form of the verbs:

    • ご 〜 になる
    • お 〜 になる

    Kenjougo form of the verbs:

    • ご 〜 する
    • お 〜 する

    Where the 〜 should be substituted by the “ます” form of the verb cutting the ”ます” off. As I have written above ”ご” and ”お” cannot be used interchangeably, but the rules are not so clear, so the learner has to master them almost case by case. Alright, let me show you two examples:

    • 相手が、お話になる『my partner talks』 → sonkeigo
    • 自分が、お話しする『I talk』 → kenjougo

    I have to note it here, that if the action is has no connection to the superior, then kenjougo should not be used and it is considered as a mistake. Therefore:

    • 会社に戻ってから、ご連絡します 「I will let you know, if I have returned to the company」→ correct
    • 会社にお戻りしてから、ご連絡します 「 -- || -- 」→ not correct

    There are different kenjougo forms of the Japanese verbs:

    • お~する、ご~する
    • お~いたす、ご~いたす
    • お~申し上げる、ご~申し上げる
    • ~させていただく
    • ~ていただく、~していただく
    • お~願う、ご~願う
    • お~いただく、ご~いただく
    • お~にあずかる、ご~にあずかる

    The most common verbs have synonyms that can be used interchangeably with the above mentioned, if we want to express kenjougo:

    • 言う ー 申し上げる 「to say」
    • もらう、食べる、飲む ー  いただく、頂戴する 「to receive, to eat, to drink」
    • 思う、知っている ー  存じ上げる 「to think, to know」
    • 見る ー  拝見する 「to see, to look」
    • 与える、やる  ー 差し上げる 「to give」
    • 行く、聞く、尋ねる ー  伺う 「to go, to hear, to visit」
    • 聞く、わかる  ー 承る「to hear, to understand」

    Learn About Respect in Japan: NOW

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