Formality in the Japanese language

by Jake Hallows

When people discuss the difficulties of learning the Japanese language, they normally mention the following things: 文法 (Bunpou – Grammar), 敬語 (Keigo – Formal language) and 文型 (Bunkei – Sentence structure). These three points all differ greatly when compared to European languages. The theme of this article is to focus on formality in language and how it is used in Japanese culture.

For those of you who have started learning the language already, you may know a few 敬語 terms already. If you’ve read other language articles such as ‘Digging in to Japanese cuisine’, then you’ll have learnt a few phrases too. The phrases いただきます (Itadakimasu – I receive this meal) and ごちそうさまでした (Gochisousama deshita – Thank you for the delicious meal) are two of the most commonly used 敬語 phrases in everyday life. Keep reading as I take you through what 敬語 is, how to use it and when you should use it!

What types of formal language?

When you’re first dipping your toes into learning Japanese, you’ll often be focused on learning phrases and responses that you’ll commonly use in daily life. However, you probably won’t learn about what kind of language you’re learning. So, first of all, let’s break down the three main levels of formality used in Japanese.

1. 辞書形 (Jishokei - Dictionary form)

This is the base form of verbs and adjectives that most people learn as they progress in their studies. It’s sometimes called the ‘Plain form’ as this is the neutral state of words in Japanese. If you search words up in a dictionary, then this is the form you will find.

2. 丁寧語 (Teineigo – Polite form)

丁寧語 is the most commonly used form of the Japanese language. An easy way to recognise this is that verbs normally end in ―ます (Masu) and nouns are followed by です (Desu – To be). When you first learn Japanese, you normally learn 丁寧語.

3. 敬語 (Keigo -Formal Language)

As mentioned earlier, 敬語 is considered one of the difficult aspects of Japanese and I definitely agree. Not only is it a whole different form of language to learn, but there are actually two different types of 敬語! These are 尊敬語 (Sonkeigo – Honorific language) and 謙譲語 (Kenjougo – Humble language).

謙譲語, like it’s translation suggests, is formal language used humbly regarding oneself and one’s own actions. 尊敬語 is the opposite; You use it to describe other people’s actions or selves in a respectful manner. Both of these forms introduce many new words to the language, and cause many-a language learner difficulty. Even many Japanese people struggle with it, having to take specialist 敬語 classes to get their head around it!

Some examples

Even those who have studied and lived abroad in Japan can struggle with this topic, so don’t worry if you’re a bit confused. We’re going to use a basic sentence to help you understand how these forms are used. First, let’s learn the vocabulary we’ll be using here.

Now that we’ve run through the vocabulary, let’s run through the example sentence, ‘I eat cake’.

ケーキを食べる (Keeki o taberu)

This is the plain form or 辞書形 version of the sentence. You would use this with close friends and family. It uses the basic vocabulary simply and is short and to the point. People often omit the subject (I, You) to shorten it even further.

私はケーキを食べます (Watashi wa keeki o tabemasu)

This is the 丁寧語 sentence. This time 私 is used to mark the subject (I) of the sentence and 食べる is conjugated in it’s 丁寧語 form 食べます. This is the kind of Japanese you would use in everyday scenarios.

私はケーキをいただきます (Watashi wa keeki o itadakimasu)

This is the 謙譲語 sentence. The main difference is that 食べる has been replaced with いただきます (I receive this meal). This sentence is much more polite, and commonly used in restaurants.

山田さんはケーキを召し上がります (Yamada-San wa keeki o meshiagarimasu)

Finally, we have the 尊敬語 sentence. 尊敬語 is always used about other people, so we have replaced 私 with 山田さん, a person’s name. 食べる has again been replaced, this time with 召し上がる (To eat, To drink). This is a very polite way to refer to others.

When and where do I use it?

Did our last exercise help clear up what the forms are? If not, then don’t worry. It can take years to really wrap your head around what form to use and when. Nevertheless, we’re going to give some practical examples of what form you should use in certain scenarios to help you out.

When you’re at 仕事 (Shigoto – Work), what language you use will depend on your relationship with your co-worker that you’re talking to. If they are your boss or more experienced than you, then you will use 敬語. If they’re your equal or subordinate, then you can use 丁寧語 as well. If you keep making mistakes, you could end up butting heads with your co-workers quickly, so be sure to keep this in mind!

学校 (Gakkou – School) also have a similar system where you should treat your seniors more respectfully than your friends. However, you don’t need to use 敬語 here, as 丁寧語 is fine. With friends in your year group or below, you may find yourself using less formal speech and 辞書形 too.

How am I meant to learn it all?

As I said before, understanding how and when to use the different levels of formality in your speech is very difficult. But you can do it! Most Japanese language textbooks will touch on these forms, and they crop up in language exams too if you’re planning on taking classes. One piece of advice though; Learn how to use 丁寧語 and 辞書形 thoroughly before you start pushing yourself to learn 敬語. Trust me, you’ll thank me later!

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