Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

By Tetsuya Kunihiro; Fumio Inoue et al. | Go to book overview

6. The honorific prefix “o-” in contemporary Japanese

0. Introductory notes by the editors

The honorific prefix o- is one of the most troublesome phenomena in present day Japanese. Since its use with most words is optional, there arises a dilemma. A speaker underusing the o- prefix may sound too brusque, but a male speaker who overuses it risks sounding effeminate. Learners using the form excessively might reveal the influence of a female teacher, or its underusage that of a male teacher. The trouble for learners is that the degrees of usage of o- are not detailed in any dictionary, nor are there any grammars considerate enough to show complete lists of those nouns which use o- and those which do not.

This paper is a combination of two related papers. In the first part of the paper, nouns are surveyed extensively to examine the probability that they would be prefixed with <>–. Semantic and etymological explanations (whether the word is indigenous or a loanword etc.) are given. This classification has been referred to and utilized in many subsequent studies of Japanese honorifics. The second part of the paper is concerned with differences of usage among speakers in Tokyo.

This extensive work of Dr. Sibata is a predecessor of sociolinguistic and geographic studies of the Tokyo metropolis. Using statistical methods, he was able to ascertain what kind of factors most affect the use of the prefix o-. As expected, women of the upper class were found to use more o- than those of the lower class. But contrary to general expectations, women of the Downtown (Shitamachi) area were found to use o- more than those of the more prestigious Uptown (Yamanote) area. This may now be explained as a kind of hyper-urbanization or by the linguistic insecurities of Downtown speakers as was later pointed out by Labov (1972) in reference to middle class speakers in New York City. Thus the results are quite interesting from the present state of sociolinguistics.

The use of o- is thought to have spread since this study was done both in that o- is being used with more words, and that men’s use of o- is increasing. This study almost a decade after the Second World War is thus a monumental work for later studies of o- and of honorifics in general.


1. Introduction

It seems that not only intellectuals but even the Japanese people as a whole have the impression that the honorific prefix o- is used excessively. According to an inquiry carried out by the National Language Research Institute in the city of Okazaki in Aichi Prefecture, the majority of informants regarded such forms as oninjin ‘carrot’ and o-megane ‘eye-glasses’ as excessively polite (Kokuritsu Kokugo Kenkyûjo 1957: 198, 283).

-99-

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