Keigo - A color palette in Japanese culture
Some of us would have a hard time in Japan due to multiple reasons as culture shock, unfavorable weather as well as language barriers. In this blog, I would like to share with you one huge obstacle I struggled with when chatting in Japanese - Keigo.
Keigo (敬語, or honorific) refers to "respectful language," which is used in daily conversation to show respect. It is a color palette that highlights Japanese culture. Honorific is handled differently depending on social disparity or social rank.
For instance, the way we use pronouns will express the social relationships between us and whom we chat with. Such links are diverse: employer-employee, senpai-kouhai (senior-junior), close friend, acquaintance, etc.
Keigo is used so popularly that it becomes a social scale to measure the first impression between people and acts as a bridge to strengthen human relationships.
Honorific in Japanese is divided into three main categories:
- Sonkeigo (尊敬語): respectful language
- Kenjōgo (謙譲語): humble language
- Teineigo (丁寧語): polite language
To make it more transparent, let’s look closer at those categories.
SONKEIGO (尊敬語) - Respectful language
Sonkeigo is a special form used to talk with superiors and customers.
For example, when helping a guest in the restaurant, the waiter would say go annai shi masu (ご案内します) to mean "Let me help you".
Or when a Japanese hairdresser tells clients to take a seat, they say o kake ni natte kudasai (お掛けになって下さい) meaning ”Please sit down”.
Not only did keigo change in form, but it also changes from nouns or verbs to express respect.
The typical Japanese word for person, hito (人) becomes kata (方) in respectful language.
Polite alternative verbs may replace common verbs such as suru (する means doing) by nasaru (なさる), or hanasu (話す means talking) by ossharu (おっしゃる) when the subject is a person of respect.
KENJŌGO (謙譲語) - Humble language
In general, Kenjōgo is used to describe the actions of a person in a group to others, such as customers within a business. Humble style tends to imply that one would like to give other people a hand in business or chores.
Humble language is similar to respectful language, in substituting verbs with other forms. For example, suru becomes itasu (致す), and morau (もらう means receive) becomes itadaku (頂く）.
These two verbs are also seen in set phrases such as dou itashimashite (you're welcome) and itadakimasu - a phrase said before eating or drinking.
TEINEIGO (丁寧語) - Polite language
Teineigo is known for the use of the sentence ending "desu" or "masu" and the use of prefixes such as o- and go- towards neutral objects.
It is the form of the language first taught to most non-native learners of Japanese. Polite language can be used to refer to one's own actions or those of other people.
We should notice that not every word with prefix o- or go- is considered keigo!
For instance, if you work in a konbini (convenience store), you might ask your customers whether they take plastic bags or not. In this case, you cannot use o-fukuro (bag) because ofukuro also means "mother". Many adults in Japan use ofukuro to talk about their moms.
Thus, you must be careful because not every word with o- or go- is honorific, it depends on other circumstances as well.
One time I talked to the teacher using everyday language and everyone in the class was surprised. The teacher also confusingly looked at me. Then, my friends explained more about keigo to me, shared with me so many new things about their culture.
All in all, it is a must to carefully learn keigo in order to communicate politely and adequately as well as thoroughly understanding Japanese culture.
Don’t worry if you make a mistake, you will just have to ask and learn always to improve yourself. Wish you have a pleasant and safe trip to Japan.
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