Japanese language of courtesy

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A central element of the Japanese language is the keigo ( Japanese 敬 語 ), the polite language . Modern German knows the formal difference between the levels “you” and “you”. In Japanese, this system is more complex. The main idea is to show respect for the interlocutor and possibly third parties, while being humble towards yourself. The language is very nuanced, with flowing transitions between the individual levels of politeness.

Courtesy moves on two tracks. The first is the Uchi-Soto relationship, or inside-outside relationship. Modesty relates not only to the speaker himself, but also to what belongs to the speaker's circle, his own family, the department in the company or the entire company towards a customer. Respect is shown to an outsider.

Within the Uchi district, on the other hand, there is a hierarchy, for example the professional position, the age or the generations of a family. The language of politeness is used here to show respect for a superior.

Sanskrit (Indian languages) , the Javanese language ( Austronesian) , the Korean language and (now only partially) the Chinese languages also have a similarly extensive system of polite language .

Keigo is still used on formal occasions, in politics and in business; When talking to customers, employees are expected to use Keigo. In today's everyday life, this is mainly a repertoire of fixed formulations - only a few Japanese can claim to have flawlessly mastered the keigo in free conversation.

The forms of courtesy language

The general Japanese expression for the language levels from polite to respectful and humble to vulgar is taigūhyōgen ( 待遇 表現 ). Part of this is the area of ​​polite language, the so-called keigo ( 敬 語 ), literally "respectful language". The forms are divided into three broad categories: teineigo ( 丁寧 語 ), the neutral polite language comparable to the German "Sie", sonkeigo ( 尊敬 語 ), the respectful language, kensongo ( 謙遜 語 ) or kenjōgo ( 謙 譲 語 ), the humble language. Each of these levels has its own synonyms for certain expressions, its own empty phrases, its own salutation suffixes , its own personal pronouns and, above all, its own rules of conjugation .

Sonkeigo and Kenjōgo are a pair of opposites that complement each other: If the statement relates to the interlocutor or a third party, Sonkeigo is used. If the statement refers to the speaker himself or his uchi area, Kenjōgo is used instead. The more formal the situation and the greater the difference in the hierarchy, the more both Sonkeigo and Kenjōgo are used.


The teineigo form is always used among adults when there is neither a special familiarity nor a hierarchical relationship with the counterpart, for example when talking to acquaintances, as a customer in the shop or when asking for directions. TV presenters also use this level of courtesy. Language courses often teach the teineigo forms first, before the basic forms of the verbs.

Grammatically, the teineigo forms are primarily characterized by the use of desu and masu . In addition to desu and masu, there are two more sophisticated styles within the Teineigo , the de arimasu and the de gozaimasu style. The use of these shapes is largely a matter of education and formality.

The courtesy prefixes “o” and “go” are only used in certain fixed terms ( ocha - tea; obento - lunch box) and in idioms. Some nouns have teineigo forms. These are, for example, otoko , "man", and onna , "woman". In the neutral politeness level, dansei and josei or otoko no hito and onna no hito are used instead.

Sonkeigo (respectful language)

The Sonkeigo is used to express respect for the interlocutor or third party. Sonkeigo is always appropriate in a suitably formal or professional setting. On the one hand, it is used to express hierarchical differences when addressing superiors, professors and other high-ranking people. On the other hand, Sonkeigo is used when there is a soto relationship between the conversation partners, for example between two employees from different companies who do business with each other. Employees in companies and shops are explicitly trained to use correct forms of politeness towards their customers.

At the Sonkeigo level, almost every part of the sentence can be supplemented or replaced by politeness. The amount of substitution can be used to “regulate” the level of politeness, including excessive licorice rasping.

  • Personal pronouns are no longer used in polite language; instead, people are addressed by name, title, or both. The suffix -sama instead of -san is only used in fixed expressions such as okyaku-sama ("customer") or in relation to people of real respect such as Nobel Prize winners.
  • Things that are related to the interlocutor are given the politeness prefix o- or go- . There are fixed polite synonyms for some objects and terms (see table). Adjectives can also be given the prefix, in some fixed idioms it is always present, such as o-genki desu ka? ("How are you?").

The verbs experience the greatest change. There are several options and levels:

  • Verbs in the Kun reading are replaced by On reading Sino-Japanese Suru verbs with a similar meaning. These are considered to be stylistically more sophisticated.
  • There are a number of commonly used verbs that have fixed equivalents in Sonkeigo. These are pairs like surunasaru and hanasuossharu . In some cases, multiple verbs are replaced by the same Sonkeigo verb, such as iku , kuru, and iruirassharu . The table in the section Overview of replacements provides a detailed list .
  • Where there is no fixed substitution, a sonkeigo form can be formed with the courtesy prefix o- , the Ren'yōkei , the particle ni and the verb naru (to become). Suru verbs use the alternative form go- + stem + nasaru .
  • Another possibility is the indirect formulation via the passive voice. “Have you read it?” ( Yomimashita ka? ) Becomes “Has it been read?” ( Yomaremashita ka? )
o + Ren'yōkei + ni naru notify 伝 え る tsutaeru お 伝 え に な る o-tsutae ni naru
o + Ren'yōkei + ni naru have fun 楽 し む tanoshimu お 楽 し み に な る o-tanoshimi ni naru
go + Ren'yōkei + nasaru leave 出 発 す る shuppatsu suru 御 出 発 な さ る go-shuppatsu nasaru
passive read 読 む yomu 読 ま れ る yomareru

Kenjōgo (humble language)

Kenjōgo as the counterpart to Sonkeigo is used to express facts that relate to the speaker himself. The speaker's entire uchi area is considered to belong to him. A speaker who speaks to his neighbor about his own son uses the kenjōgo form. A company employee uses the Kenjōgo forms when he speaks to a customer about his own company, even if it concerns the actually higher-ranking own superiors. The Uchi-Soto relationship takes precedence over hierarchy here.

Like the Sonkeigo, the Kenjōgo is mainly marked by the exchange of verbs and special conjugation forms. There are also a number of fixed substitutions such as suruitasu , iumōsu . Here, too, these forms have solidified in certain idioms, such as dō itashimashite ("gladly done") and itadakimasu (formula of thanks before you start to eat).

Similar to Sonkeigo, -o + Ren'yōkei + suru can be used to form the Kenjōgo form of a verb if there is no fixed replacement. A common expression, derived from motsu ("to carry"), is o-mochi shimasu ("May I take this off your hands?"). O-matase shimashita ("I made you wait") is derived from matsu ("wait"), using the causative mataseru .

Salutation suffixes are expressions of respect, so they are generally dropped if the speaker refers to himself or the uchi area, this of course also applies to Kenjōgo. If it is necessary to clarify the hierarchical position of a person, this can be done with the attribute particle no .

Kenjōgo (employee introduces his own boss to people outside the company)

こ の 者 は 社長 の 田中 で す
kono mono wa shachō no Tanaka desu .

For comparison: Sonkeigo (employee introduces the boss of another company to his own people)

こ の 方 は 矢吹 社長 で ご ざ い ま す
Kono kata wa Yabuki-shachō de gozaimasu.

As on the level of respect, there is also a vocabulary of its own in humility. The word hito ( ; person) becomes mono ( ). Many Kenjōgo synonyms express humility by replacing neutral expressions with words with negative connotations. So tazuneru ( 訪 ね る ), “visit”, becomes o-jama suru ( お 邪魔 す る ), “ annoy ”, for example in the phrase o-jama shimasu , which is used when a guest enters a house. The German equivalent is “Thank you very much for your hospitality”, literally it means “I'm bothering you”. If such phrases are translated too literally, it sounds exaggerated or inappropriately ironic. 

Overview of replacements

All verbs in the table are listed in their basic form ( Shūshikei ). In polite language, they are used in the masu form . An empty table cell means that there is no separate substitution for the corresponding form of the verb.

meaning Basic form Sonkeigo Kenjōgo Teineigo
見 る miru
読 む yomu
御 覧 に な る goran ni naru 拝 見 す る haiken suru
聞 く kiku 伺 う ukagau
承 る uketamawaru
拝 聴 す る haichō suru
to meet 会 う au お 目 に か か る o-me ni kakaru
お 会 い す る o-ai suru
to be / have あ る aru お あ り で あ る o ari de aru ご ざ る gozaru
to agree 分 か る wakaru 畏 ま る kashikomaru
承 知 す る shōchi suru
来 る kuru
行 く iku
い ら っ し ゃ る irassharu
お い で に な る oide ni naru
参 る mairu 参 る mairu
be い る iru い ら っ し ゃ る irassharu お る oru
knowledge 知 る shiru ご 存 知 で あ る go-zonji de aru
ご 存 知 に な る go-zonji ni naru
存 じ 上 げ る zonji ageru
承 知 す る shōchi suru
存 じ る zonjiru
食 べ る taberu 飲
召 し あ が る meshi-agaru 頂 く itadaku
頂戴 す る chōdai suru
to get も ら う morau 頂 く itadaku
give あ げ る ageru
く れ るkureru
く だ さ る kudasaru さ し あ げ る sashiageru
to do す る suru な さ る nasaru 致 す itasu 致 す itasu
speak 言 う iu お っ し ゃ る ossharu 申 す mōsu
申 し 上 げ る mōshiageru
申 す mōsu
visit 訪 ね る tazuneru 参 観 す る sankan suru
お い で に な る oide ni naru
お 邪魔 す る o-jama suru
伺 う ukagau
to die お 亡 く な り に な る
o-nakunari ni naru
な く な る nakunaru
person hito kata mono
company 会 社 kaisha 御 社 onsha 弊 社 heisha
wife 女 房 nyōbō 奥 さ ま oku-sama tsuma

Written language

In the written language, Keigo is used in every form of written correspondence. Similar to the German “Dear” and “Sincerely”, there are also a number of keigo expressions in Japanese that serve as standard phrases in letters. As in the conversation, it is also true in letters that Sonkeigo is used towards the addressee, while statements relating to the author are kept in Kenjōgo.

Newspaper texts and non-fiction, on the other hand, do not use any politeness. This is where the neutral de aru style comes into play.


The tripartite division shown has been criticized by Tokieda Motoki ( 時 枝 誠 記 ). The division between sonkeigo and kenjōgo on the basis of deference and subservience is superfluous. These means are about how the speaker looks at high and low (in the matter). Instead, the honorable language means can be divided into the two categories 1) Shi (independent words, i.e. jiritsugo ) for object-like and 2) ji (dependent words, fuzokugo ) for subject-like. The Shi category can be divided into the determination of the relationship between material and material and the determination between the speaker and the material. The Ji category includes the situation-related honorifica ( keiji ), the subject-like terms of which show the respect shown directly by the speaker to the addressee, i.e. show the relationship between the two.


  • Lewin, Bruno (Ed.): Contributions to the interpersonal relationship in Japanese. Wiesbaden 1969

Individual evidence

  1. Comparison of Honorific Language in Javanese and Japanese Speech Community by Ely Triasih Rahayu - Jenderal Soedirman University Jl. Dr. Soeparno Purwokerto, Indonesia - Volume 2, Issue 7, July 2014, PP 140-146 ISSN 2347-3126 (print) & ISSN 2347-3134 (online)
  2. Japanese Honorific Systems in Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar Framework by Akira Ikeya - Ehwa University, Seoul, December 1983
  3. ^ Honorifics in China, Japan and Korea - Bilingua . In: Bilingua . May 30, 2018 ( bilingua.io [accessed August 15, 2018]).
  4. ^ Formal forms of Japanese has it's base in Sanskrit . In: "Various Musings" Journal of IPH, ajwad of MDashF . September 8, 2011 ( wordpress.com [accessed August 19, 2018]).
  5. cf. Kokugogaku-genron 国語學 原 論 , Tokyo 1941, p. 430 ff.
  6. further developed by Tokieda from Hashimoto Shinkichi Kokugohō-yōsetsu, in: Kokugo-kagaku-kōza; Tokyo 1934, p. 6.
  7. Izishaka Shōzō; Keigō; in: Kokugo-gakkai (ed.); Kokugogaku-jiten; Tokyo 1955; P. 286f.