Japanese Language and Culture

Keigo and Japanese Verbs

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A Brief Introduction to Keigo

Keigo, or "honorific speech," is comprised of three classes of polite language: teineigo, sonkeigo, and kenjougo.

Teineigo is the normal way of being polite. In terms of verbs, this means using -masu forms and desu, but it also has implications for other parts of the sentence. Nouns can take on the polite prefixes "o-" and "go-" to make them polite, especially when indicating something that belongs to someone else. In addition, there are quite often different words which are considered more formal, which can substitute for more common words. For instance, "honjitsu" may be used in place of "kyou" to mean "today."

Sonkeigo, which is honorific forms, is language which recognizes that the subject of the sentence has a higher social status than the speaker.

Kenjougo, or humble forms, is language which lowers the position of the subject, usually the speaker or someone in the subject's in-group, when speaking to someone of higher social position.


Another form to be aware of is the expression of respect that's commonly used when inquiring about another person directly. Simply asking with "normal polite" language could actually be considered rude much of the time (especially from a native speaker). For instance, instead of asking

nan nin kodomosan ga imasu ka?
How many children do you have?

you might say

nan nin kodomosan ga oraremasu ka?

or, applying an honorific variant,

nan nin kodomosan ga irasshaimasu ka?

There is more information in the "passive" inflection case section.

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