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※ 敬語 (けいご) is a relatively advanced subject. There is no romaji used on this page and it is assumed that common kanji do not need furigana.

Contents

Introduction

敬語 is the general term for special words and grammatical forms used to be respectful. It falls into three types;

  • 尊敬語 (そんけいご) This is respectful language used to refer to actions by people 'above' you.
  • 謙譲語 (けんじょうご) This is humble language used to refer to your own actions.
  • 丁寧語 (ていねいご) This is polite language that is not limited by the up / down relationships.

敬語 is not essential for everyday Japanese conversation, particularly for non-Japanese people talking in Japanese. Use of 敬語 with friends can be weird or even downright offensive. 敬語 may, however, be useful particularly if you are working in the service industry or as a secretary.

尊敬語 (そんけいご)

Leaving aside special words for the moment let's start with a grammatical form for 尊敬語.

お + Vmasu-stem + になる

いつお出かけになりますか。 When will you go out?

The plain form 出かける → The masu form 出かけます → masu-stem 出かけ then add the honorific prefix 御 (usually kana お) and になります

Note that it typically the になる will be in masu form but that isn't necessary if it is a sub-clause in a sentence.

いつあなたはお帰りになるのか教えてください。 Please tell me when you are coming back.

A similar form can be used with ください.

Instead of the ください form (Vて + ください) the 敬語 variation uses the -masu stem of a verb and prefixes お to the verb.

(Normal) 呼んでください Please call me.
(敬語) お呼びください Please call me.

ご注文がお決まりになりましたら、お呼びください。Tell me when you'd like to order.

Passive as 尊敬語

Another grammatical form that comes into the category of 尊敬語 is the use of the passive form of verbs to indicate respect (an example of indirectness = respect that can be seen elsewhere in the Japanese language as well).

どう思いますか。What do you think? (normal)
どう思われますか。What do you think? (尊敬語)

Titles and honorifics

This is another aspect of 敬語 that is so common that you tend not to think of it as 敬語 at all but using even simple titles like ~さん is 尊敬語 that shows respect for the person being referred to.

Honorifics are covered in more detail elsewhere but the most important point is as 尊敬語 they are not used when talking about your "in group" to people who are "out group". This is covered in detail below.

General

The honorific prefix お or ご can also be nouns referring to the person being 'respected'.

With ON reading words it's usually ご

ご注文 = your (respected) order

With KUN reading words it's お

お話 = your (respected) talk/tale

Customary phrases

お目にかかれて光栄です。It is an honour to meet you. (Used when meeting someone for the first time).

謙譲語 (けんじょうご)

Again leaving special words to one side for the moment let's look at a grammatical form for 謙譲語.

お + Vmasu-stem + いたします

(お願いします uses this form but it's become part of normal Japanese rather than any special form by now).

ご幸運をお祈りいたします。/ご幸運をお祈り申し上げます。 I wish you good luck.

Note that it is _you_ (the speaker) is doing the wishing so you use 謙譲語.

丁寧語 (ていねいご)

丁寧語 are words and phrases that sound more polite but don't imply anything about the relative 'status' of the people involved.

~ます masu as 丁寧語

~ます standard use

As use of the 'polite' or ~ます form is so common to Japanese conversation and writing (indeed it can be rude not to use it) it may not be immediately obvious that there is anything special about it. However ~ます / です is 丁寧語 in its own right and deserves its place in any discussion of 敬語.

敬語 is easy to use incorrectly or overuse and end up sounding very odd however there ~ます is pretty safe - normal use (~ます form at the end of each sentence) won't cause any trouble. The worst that can happen is that you sound stiff when talking with friends. However there are other uses of the ~ます form that are more problematic, specifically (like with other 敬語) you need to take care not to over use them.

It is normal to use the ~ます form before ように。 when wishing for something, although otherwise ように goes after plain form.

あなたがいつも幸福でありますように。May you always be happy!


~ます in the middle of sentences

When joining two sentences with a conjunction of some sort it is common to use the plain (or dictionary) form for the ending of the first sentence even if the sentence as a whole is in ~ます (polite) form.

あまり時間がないので、急いでもらえますか。 I didn't have much time. Could you hurry?

However in formal contexts you can use ~ます in the first clause if you wish (not essential).

内容が件名で判断出来ますので、記入をお願い致します。 I use the subject line to determine the contents so please fill it in.

~ます in the middle of sentences will often be used after words that are 尊敬語 and 謙譲語.

Connective (て) ~ます form, ~まして

Normally even in polite (masu) form sentences clauses are joined with the plain-connective ~て.

今朝はやく起きて、弁当を作りました。I got up early today and made a boxed lunch.

However the masu form polite connective can be used in some cases as detailed below;

  • In fixed phrases

明けましておめでとうございます。Happy new year! (The plain form would be 明けて)

  • In particularly polite conversation

generally with specific words such as いただく.

ご参加いただきましてありがとうございました。Thank you very much for taking part.

  • When joining two sentences, particularly if they are not closely joined

(this section should be viewed with caution until details are confirmed)

  • When the second clause is missing

(this section should be viewed with caution until details are confirmed)

e.g. そう言いましても・・・。Even if you say so ...

丁寧語 words

You can also see in the following table that ございます corresponds to ある and でございます to である. Take care not to over-use these words.

In Group / Out Group

Let's give a concrete example of 'in group' (身内) vs 'out group'. Suppose you're a secretary and your 部長 (section head) walks in past your desk.

秘書:田中部長、おはようございます。Good morning, Mr. Tanaka. 田中部長:おはよう。Morning.

※ Your boss, above you in position, uses the casual おはよう. You, below him in postion, use the full おはようございます。
※ 部長, his job title, can be used as an honorific.
※ It's polite for the lower ranking individual to greet the other first.

Now a little later you get a phone call from a worker in a company that has done business with yours.

A社の社員:○○会社の小川ですけど、田中さんはいらっしゃいますか。This is Ogawa of ○○ co., is Mr. Tanaka in?
秘書:小川さんですね。すみません、今田中部長が席から離れています。Mr Ogawa, right? Sorry, Mr. Tanaka is not at his desk at the moment. ← WRONG

Although 田中部長 is above the 秘書 inside the company heirachy both secretary and section head are in the same _in group_ compared to somebody from a different company. You don't use 'respect' language for your 'in group' while talking to somebody 'out group' - that's rude.


秘書:小川さんですね。すみません、今田中が席から離れています。Mr Ogawa, right? Sorry, Mr. Tanaka is not at his desk at the moment. ← RIGHT

The same principle applies to other 尊敬語.

Table of 'special' words

Normal 尊敬語 謙譲語 丁寧語
見る ご覧になる 拝見いたす
いる いらっしゃる おる
来る おいでになる 参る
来る おこしになる
来る お見えになる
知る ご存知である 存じ上げる
行く いらっしゃる 伺う
行く おいでになる
言う おっしゃる 申し上げる
言う おおせられる▽
思う おぼしめす▽
思う 思われる
もらう お受けになる いただく
食べる 召し上がる いただく
飲む   いただく
する なさる いたす
聞く (が)お耳に入る 承る
借りる 拝借する
与える 差し上げる
ある ございます
分かる 承知いたす
です
である でございます
座る お掛けになる
くれる いただける or
くれる くださる

※ Words marked with ▽ are rarely used in modern Japanese.

Related Topics

Set phrases, greetings and honorifics are an important part of Writing Letters.

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