Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview
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5. Honorifics and honorifics research

0. Introductory notes by the editors

The honorific system of Japanese is examined here. Japanese honorifics is notorious among learners of Japanese because of the complexity of usage, and has become famous among scholars because of recent interest in “politeness”.

In this paper the Japanese technical term “treatment expression” to refer to phenomena related to honorifics is introduced to cover a wider area encompassing honorific expressions. The basic function of honorifics is explained as being to maintain distance from hearers (or from topicalized persons). Results of recent pragmatic studies on honorific usage are utilized here. A variety of actual usages are ascertained, and the possibility of systematic classification is advocated.

The Japanese language is characterized by a highly developed grammatical system of honorifics. Its history can be traced in literature dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries. The directions of its development show similar tendencies with the European T/V distinction of second person pronouns, and with developments in other Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Javanese). Though this paper is concerned only with recent trends, many insights into universals in honorific usage may be drawn from its descriptions.

1. Special Treatment

One of the problems which arises when discussing “honorifics” is that all scholars have their own definitions of “honorifics”. A more serious problem is that the Japanese term keigo ‘honorifics’ contains the morpheme kei ‘respect’. This undoubtedly leads to the fact that “honorifics” is sometimes defined as “a linguistic device used to express respect for others”. This definition introduces the idea that “honorifics” are part of etiquette or the manner of association with others, and that people ignorant of how to use honorifics are regarded as etiquette-violators or as insolent.

“Honorifics” can be used not only as a way of expressing respect for others, but also as a way of alienating them. If we express both respect and alienation in one word, it would be keien ‘keeping at a (respectful) distance’. “Honorifics” can be regarded as a linguistic device used to keep one’s distance.

Keeping one’s distance is, in a sense, a reflection of an attitude towards “superiors” or “strangers” held by the speakers themselves, that is, to treat listeners as superiors or strangers. The linguistic devices used towards “inferiors” or “intimates”, or when treating others as such, should also be included in “honorifics”. The linguistic forms used in such cases are a group of words often referred to as “invectives” or “swear words”. If expressions used towards superiors are construed as being in the plus direction and those toward inferiors in


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