Japanese formal speech - it's easier than you think!

Posted on November 24, 2005 | evankirby

To many students of Japanese, the use of polite forms (or "keigo") can seem like one of the hardest parts of the language to learn. After all, the words in a sentence can change completely based on whether you're talking to someone higher in rank than you, someone lower in rank, or an equal. For example, here are just a few of the ways you can ask someone if they want to eat (in Japanese, "taberu")
Formality level - Japanese sentence
Very high: omeshi-agari ni narimasen ka
High (polite): meshi-agarimasen ka OR taberaremasen ka
Normal: tabemasu ka
Low (informal): taberu?
Very low: kuu?

Notice that the word “taberu”, or some form of it, only appears in three of these examples. The very formal ones use the word “meshi-agaru” (equivalent to “take in”) instead, while the most informal one uses just the word “kuu” (a word used only by men, meaning something like “chow down”). Which one a particular person uses depends on his or her relationship with the person they are talking to.
This all sounds incredibly confusing, right? And because the social structure in Japan is so rigid and formal, making a mistake when you talk to the emperor might cost you your head!
But the truth is, Japanese is a lot easier than English, precisely because of its rigid formality. In almost any situation, there is a generally accepted “best” expression or phrase, and very clear rules about when to use each phrase. Compare this with English, which has levels of formality, but no clear rules about what to say when. For example, here are just a few of the ways you can ask someone if they want to eat in English:

Formality level - English sentence
Very high: I wonder if you would be interested in eating something.
High (polite): Would you like to have something to eat? OR How would you like to get something to eat?
Normal: Do you want to get something to eat?
Low (informal): How about getting a bite to eat?
Very low: Wanna grab something to eat?

As you can see, there are as many ways of saying it in English as in Japanese, but from looking at these two tables you can see one big difference straight away: the Japanese phrases look like they’re in order! Indeed, this is one of the main points when studying levels of politeness in Japanese:

The longer the phrase, the more polite it is.

This fact alone makes it easy to remember or understand which phrase is for formal use and which phrase is for informal use.

There’s another difference too, which I found out when the editors looked over this article: people’s opinions differ about which English phrase is more polite. Your order for these phrases may be different from mine. You might disagree with a phrase even being included in the list. Think how difficult it would be for a Japanese person to study the various English sentence patterns required to be able to understand all of these phrases!
However, the phrases listed in the Japanese table are absolutely standard. Any Japanese person would put these phrases in the same order. And once you understand the three words used for “eat”, you’re 90% of the way to understanding the sentences!

Now, you’re probably thinking, “there are still a lot of different ways to say the same thing. How am I supposed to know which one to use?” Well, the truth is that you don’t need to know a phrase for each of the levels; thankfully, you can get away with just learning phrases for the basic three (in the first table, Polite, Normal, and Informal). As long as you can recognise the other phrases when you hear them, these three will be good enough for 99% of daily situations!
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