Honorifics play a huge role in the Japanese language. They define underlying power dynamics and help the speaker express deference to the listener without being explicit. It is the one area of the language where it is as essential to understand the culture as is it to understand the grammar and syntax. It is also one area which can prove a bit of a stumbling block for learners (and beyond!). This is partly because the grammatical constructs can be a little difficult; partly because conferring respect through defined words and grammar is unfamiliar to native English speakers.
The polite form we have been using throughout this guide is one of the three forms of Japanese honorifics. I’ve been referring to it as the “polite form” but its formal name is teineigo (literally, “polite language”). Teineigo is the basic way of being polite in Japanese and is absolutely crucial to master. As I’ve stated before: it is used everywhere, every day in Japan. The other two forms of keigo—sonkeigo and kenjōgo—are used to confer respect on the listener and debase oneself or show modesty. In addition to teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjōgo there is also bikago which is linguistically separate but very closely related.
The JLPT tests your understanding of keigo and by N3 you would be expected to have a good understanding of all three forms. However, it may also crop up in N4, used as phrase you are expected to know.
You should now be familiar with this form of keigo—sometimes referred to as the desu and masu form.
|He is a student.
|He is a student.
The commonly seen ございます is actually the polite form of ござる which is the polite form of ある, the verb “to exist”. In fact, it is also seen in some set phrases/words which beginners would likely be taught within their first few Japanese lessons.
|Thank you very much.
|We do not have any stock here.
We can also express the auxiliary verb in this form.
|である ⇒ でございます。
|Hello, this is Yamada from ABC speaking.
Note that it is just Yamada and not Yamada-san. San is appended to a person’s name to confer respect (although it’s used so liberally with children, bosses, strangers, friends and so that it might be easy to forget this fact), consequently using it to confer respect on yourself is very unnatural. It’s such an easy mistake to make at first, but you cannot introduce yourself as “David-san” or “Jessica-san” and so on (it might raise a smile).
Sonkeigo is used to elevate the listener to a position above yourself. Consequently, it can only be applied to actions that the listener will take and cannot be used for actions that the speaker will perform.
There are three ways to change a verb to sonkeigo.
- Put the verb into the passive form
- Use the verb stem and なる
- Use the honorific verb (in certain cases)
The Passive Form
Recall when we met the passive form that the person performing action was required to take the に particle.
|I will be told something by someone.
|I forgot our wedding anniversary and was given a hard time by my wife.
To form sonkeigo using the passive we put our listener as the subject. In the sentences below the subject—not explicitly stated—is the person whom you are addressing.
|Will you go on a business trip next week?
As noted previously, formal written Japanese does not use the question mark. Strictly speaking, questions should end in a Japanese period (kuten, 句点) like the questions below. I’m not going to be stickler for this rule in this grammar guide.
|Will you drink something?
|About what time will you return?
You may be thinking that we now have three identical conjugations (for group 2 verbs, at least) which all mean different things. And you’d be right.
|Can you eat? [potential]
|Will you be eaten? [passive]
|Will you eat? [honorific]
But fortunately the meaning is always clear from the context. Further, the addition of a particle or two makes things grammatically clearer.
“Can you eat something?” doesn’t really mean much and the passive form of the verb can’t take a direct object so you logically it must be sonkeigo and the meaning simply, “Will you eat something?”
Now, technically, the standard sonkeigo form of the verb “to eat”, for example, is…
… and not…
But the entire point of using keigo is to confer respect and be polite to your listener and so using the standard form of the verb defeats the entire purpose. Consequently, everything gets put in the “polite form” (teineigo).
|Will you call the customer?
In companies more senior employees often get addressed by their title/position, which doesn’t translate well in English.
Verb Stem and なる
The second way to form sonkeigo is to use the following structures:
|【お or ご】【Verb: Stem】になる
お and ご are prefixes for nouns and verbs in keigo that denote or confer respect. They are often written in hiragana but the kanji for both is the same: 御. The pronunciation depends on the verb or noun which is precedes. For any verb that is formed by adding the verb “to do” to a noun the pronunciation is ご; for all other verbs it is お.
|Did you meet Nakazawa-san?
|Did you read today’s article?
|I think you have understood, but I will explain once more.
|Will you use the computer?
There are, however, certain words that change completely. Four of the most common are listed below.
|Have you read [seen] this article?
|Where are you at the moment?
|Kanazawa-san said that tomorrow is the deadline for the report.
When the verb has another form like above then you should you that or the passive to form sonkeigo. In other words, you will not see the following sentence:
|Have you read [seen] this article?
Incidentally, certain mistakes are so common amongst native speakers that they have almost become accepted into parlance.
|The customer said “～”.
This is the honorific form of “to say” (仰る) put into the passive, creating a sort of “double keigo” which is grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, it can be heard quite often in business meetings which only goes to prove that honorifics aren’t only a problem for learners of the language!
Sama used above a more polite form of the suffix san. Emails in the business world always use sama when the addressee is from outside of your own company. Equally, customers in restaurants, banks, and shops will be addressed using sama.
Kenjōgo is used for actions performed by the speaker to abase themselves in front of the listener. Consequently it can only be applied to actions that the speaker will take. This is subtly different from sonkeigo. Sonkeigo elevates the listener; kenjōgo lowers the speaker. The result is the same—respect conferred from the speaker to the listener—but the usage and grammar are different.
We can form kenjōgo in three ways:
- Combining the causative with the honorific verb “to receive”
- The verb stem with the verb “to go”
- Honorific verbs
The Causative and the Verb “to receive”
Recall that the causative was used to make or let someone do something. Recall also that ～てもらう was used to have someone do something for you.
Combining this structure and we get “to have someone let you do” which is a very convoluted way of saying that you will perform the action. The inference here is that the listener is being so kind as to let you do perform the action or that you have the pleasure of performing the action. The verb いただく is the honorific form of もらう.
|To make a phone call.
|I would like to begin the presentation.
|If you would let me explain I would be very grateful.
The Verb Stem with the Verb “to go”
As a general rule we use the following structure to form kenjōgo:
|【お or ご】【Verb: Stem】する
You’ll no doubt have noticed the similarity with the structure for forming sonkeigo; but note here that the verb “to do” is used instead of “to become” (and we don’t need the target particle).
|I will be in touch tomorrow.
|I am waiting.
|I will send the file shortly.
Remember that kenjōgo can only be used for actions that you, the speaker, will perform. Consequently, the following is incorrect.
|Please send me an email tomorrow.
As with sonkeigo, certain words change completely. Some common examples:
|I’m called Robert.
|The train will arrive.
|The above is often seen on the electronic boards at train stations.
|May I have some coffee?
|I’m waiting for your reply.
Note that ご連絡 in the last sentence is sonkeigo—you are referring to the response of your interlocutor!
|We will re-start business on 1 September.
With kenjōgo we can also prefix お or ご to certain nouns to denote respect. Generally, words that are pronounced using onyomi (i.e. a derivation of the original Chinese reading) take お and those words using kunyomi (the Japanese reading) take ご as the prefix.
For example, the word “telephone” (電話) is pronounced denwa in Japanese and diànhuà in Chinese—clearly the former derives from the latter. And since denwa is onyomi is takes an お and becomes お電話. Conversely, “communication” (連絡) is renraku in Japanese and liánxì in Chinese—the Japanese reading does not derive from Chinese. It is kunyomi and therefore becomes ご連絡.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive rule as to whether a noun takes a prefix or nothing at all! It’s a little like learning genders in German or French with the exception that the vast majority of nouns take nothing at all—it’s only a subset you need to remember. Moreover, omitting a お or ご will not be grammatically incorrect or leave anyone confused or offended. Some of the common nouns are in the table below.
|連絡 ⇒ ご連絡
|質問 ⇒ ご質問
|返事 ⇒ お返事
|電話 ⇒ お電話
Generally speaking, for objects or concepts that won’t pass from one person to another no prefix is used. A question can be asked by someone to someone, money exchanges hands, as do letters, but train stations just exist. Consequently the word for station cannot take a prefix. Nor would we use a prefix with nouns which are not desirable, e.g. a robber, a fire, an earthquake. Foreign words written in katakana also never take a prefix.
|Thank you for your correspondence.
|If there’s something that you don’t understand by all means give me a call.
Whereas keigo seeks to change the standing of the speaker with the listener to confer respect, bikago is used as a prefix for inanimate objects to “beautify” them. Indeed, the three kanji for bikago (美化語) mean “beauty” “change” and “language”. Below are some very typical examples (some of which have actually been included in past example sentences).
|茶 ⇒ お茶
|金 ⇒ お金
|水 ⇒ お水
Because you are simply elevating the object itself the rules above do not so strictly apply. For example, the following sentences are grammatically acceptable despite the fact that you are talking about yourself in each:
|I want to drink water.
|I’ve got no money.
A Final Word
Congratulations if you managed to read this far without putting your fist through the screen. Honorifics are quite frankly confusing—no, frustrating—at first. And they are not only difficult for learners of the language. Take the following for example:
Here you’re referring to someone else’s correspondence so ご should be okay, right? But what about:
This seems like the correct use of kenjōgo, but then aren’t I using ご in reference to my own correspondence and therefore elevating myself above the other person…?
In fact both are correct (the first is sonkeigo and the second is indeed the correct usage of kenjōgo), but you can see where the seeming contradiction lies. You need only type ご連絡 into Google and all the links will be to Japanese forums where native speakers are asking about the correct usage of keigo.
Below is a summary table of some common words in teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjōgo.
* Remember that sonkeigo can always be formed by putting the verb in the passive form.