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Japanese Lessons

Lesson 2 - Politeness

Japanese has two different ways to form polite expressions. One is to show respect to the addressee. This is called an "honorific expression," and the other is to lower yourself (the speaker) or someone in your group. This is called a "humble expression."

Generally speaking, an honorific expression is used when the addressee is older or higher in social status. The longer the expression is, the more polite it tends to be.

There are two ways to make honorific verb forms in Japanese. One is to add the prefix "o-" in front of the verb stem and add ni naru (-ni narimasu). The other is to make the verb passive. Also, there are certain irregular honorific verbs such as "Goran-ni-naru" (honorific form of "miru" to see), "Irassharu" (honorific form of "iru"-to exist, "kuru" to come and "iku"-to go) and "Nasaru" (honorific form of "suru"-to do).

Adding the prefix "o-" forms honorific adjectives and nouns. Some nouns take the prefix "go-" instead of "o-." "O-" is used for the traditional Japanese word or "Japanized" noun, while "go-" is used for the Japanese word whose origin is from Chinese.

Humble verbs are made by the prefix "o-" and also "-suru" (-shimasu) to the verb stems. There are certain irregular humble verbs such as "Haiken-suru" (humble form of "miru" to watch), "Mairu" (humble form of "kuru" to come), "Itasu" (humble form of "suru" to do).

In addition to the honorific forms and humble forms, there is another "polite" form in Japanese. This uses "-de gozaimasu," which is the polite form of the copula "da." Adding "-de gozaimasu" after nouns, Na-adjectives or nominalized verbs forms this. In order to master the polite speech, it is necessary to understand the social and cultural aspect of Japanese. You need to know when and how to elevate somebody. For example, when you talk to somebody who seems older, you use honorific forms. However, when you are talking about the older person who is your in-group member (usually your family member or people at your company, including your bosses), you use the humble form to indirectly elevate the addressee. This is why Japanese people try to obtain personal information (such as job, marital status, age, etc.) as soon as they meet someone new in order to know which form they should use.


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