Why does The Japanese language have a large variety of honorifics like keigo (敬語)sonkeigo (尊敬語), and kenjogo (謙譲語) ?

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Prof. Nagahiro Yoshida

Updated on Sep 28 2015

Q.The Japanese language has a large variety of honorifics or keigo (敬語) that are classified into three groups – respectful language called sonkeigo (尊敬語), humble language called kenjogo (謙譲語) and polite language called teineigo (丁寧語). The Chinese language also has honorific words, but its system is not as complex.

A.The history of honorifics goes back to ancient times


  The Japanese language has three different groups of specific wordings that express respect for the listener. With sonkeigo, the speaker refers to the subject as superior; with kenjogo, the speaker refers to the object or the other party as superior; and with teineigo, the speaker uses polite language in a relationship in which the listener is superior. Both sonkeigo and kenjogo wordings can be traced back to eighth-century literature. It is not known how honorifics entered the Japanese language in ancient times, but I believe the hierarchical society of those days needed to devise a linguistic formula to express the pecking order. In the 10th century, teineigo wordings were derived from the kenjogo genre. The usage of the three formats has continued to change over time. More recently, the use of honorifics became more sophisticated so as to give greater consideration to the person being addressed deferentially. Honorifics such as -san are no longer used to represent hierarchical relationships, but to maintain good social relations with other people by showing respect to them as superior or senior to the speaker.




published in The Japan News on 28/9/2015



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