Sociolinguistics in Japanese Contexts

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

7. Learning to say “haha”

0. Introductory notes by the editors

In this paper, Dr. Sibata treats the very interesting phenomena of sociolinguistic behavior in the usage of Japanese address terms for family members. Speakers in Japan generally address their mothers with the “honorific” form okâsan when speaking directly to them, in order to show respect to them. Since it is the respectful form, okâsan is also the appropriate form when referring to or addressing someone else’s mother. However, when talking to someone outside of their family, Japanese are expected to use the “humble” form haha in referring to their own mothers. Haha is never, however, used as an address term, only as a reference term.

In the Japanese honorific system, members of one’s “in-group” (e.g. family members) should not be referred to using respect-form expressions when speaking to people outside of the “in-group”. One is expected to change even reference terms into their humble form equivalents. Instead of address terms which are often accompanied by the respect form suffix (son), neutral reference terms should be used. Although children are exempt from using this rather complicated system of reference, when an adult misuses this system, he is likely to be regarded as ill-mannered.

Japanese children learn this usage somehow and at some point, but the actual learning process had never been made clear. In this paper this problem is approached using the questionnaire method. It is found that the time of graduation from the junior high school is the critical period. Later follow-up studies conducted at various locations in Japan have confirmed this phenomenon.

The entire results of this section are summarized in Figure 7–0 (p. 141), which is based on Table 7–15. The occasions for entering the junior high school (at age 12) and senior high school (at age 15) seem to be crucial for girls to adopt the reference term ‘haha’, though geographical differences (which seem to relate to urbanization) are also observed.

Furthermore, this phenomenon is noteworthy in its connection to the learning processes of honorifics usage on the whole. The complicated Japanese honorific system is notorious among learners of Japanese, but this study shows that appropriate usage is acquired quite late even among native speakers. Honorifics constitute, perhaps, the last stage of the native language learning processes of Japanese. Geographical and social differences in the age of acquisition are also suggested.

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