Summary of Keigo in Japanese

02 Oct 2020

Honorifics (keigo):

keigo (敬語), fall under three main categories:

Linguistically, the former two are referent honorifics, used for someone being talked about, and the last is an addressee honorific, used for someone being talked to.

Respectful language, sonkeigo

Respectful language, sonkeigo, is a special form or alternate word used when talking about superiors and customers. It is not used to talk about oneself. For example, when a Japanese hairdresser or dentist requests their client to take a seat, they say o kake ni natte kudasai to mean “please sit down”. However, they would use the verb suwaru rather than o kake ni naru to refer to themselves sitting down. The respectful version of language can only be used to refer to others.

It is characterized by lengthy polite expressions.

Common verbs may be replaced by more polite alternative verbs, for example suru by nasaru, or hanasu by ossharu when the subject is a person of respect. Some of these transformations are many-to-one: iku, kuru, and iru all become irassharu, and taberu and nomu both become meshiagaru.

Verbs may also be changed to respectful forms. One respectful form is a modification of the verb with a prefix and a polite suffix. For example, yomu becomes o-yomi ni naru, with the prefix o- added to the i-form of the verb, and the verb ending ni naru. The verb ending -(r)areru can also be used, such as yomareru.

Nouns also undergo substitution to express respect. The normal Japanese word for person, hito, 人, becomes kata, 方, in respectful language. Thus a customer would normally be expected to be referred to as a kata rather than a hito.

Humble language (kenjōgo)

In general, humble language is used when describing one’s actions or the actions of a person in one’s in-group to others such as customers in business. Humble language tends to imply that one’s actions are taking place in order to assist the other person.

Humble language (kenjōgo) is similar to respectful language, in substituting verbs with other forms. For example: suru becomes itasu, and morau becomes itadaku. These two verbs are also seen in set phrases such as dō itashimashite and いただきます.

Similar to respectful language, verbs can also change their form by adding a prefix and the verb “suru” or “itasu”. For example, motsu becomes o mochi shimasu. The use of humble forms may imply doing something for the other person; thus a Japanese person might offer to carry something for someone else by saying o mochi shimasu. This type of humble form also appears in the set phrase o matase shimashita, “I am sorry to have kept you waiting”.

Even more politely, the form motasete itadaku literally means “humbly be allowed to carry”. This phrase would be used to express the idea that “I will carry it if you please.”


Irregular Verbs that Morph on keigo

meaning dictionary form respectful (sonkeigo) humble (kenjōgo)
see / look / watch 見る miru ご覧になる go-ran ni naru 拝見する haiken suru
meet 会う au regular (ex. お会いになる o-ai ni naru) お目に掛かる o-me ni kakaru
be (inanimate) ある aru   ござる gozaru
be (animate) いる iru いらっしゃる irassharu おる oru
come / go 来る kuru (come) / 行く iku (go) おいでになる o-ide ni naru 伺う ukagau (to respectful location) 参る mairu (to other)
know 知る ご存じ 存じ上げる
eat / drink 食べる/ 飲む 召し上がる いただく
receive もらう   いただく 頂戴する
give (when the receiver is respected) やる (considered rude today, except in Kansai dialect) あげる ageru (once the humble form)   差しあげる
give (when the giver is respected) くれる くださる  
do する なさる 致す
say 言う iu おっしゃる 申し上げる 申す mōsu
put on 着る kiru お召しになる omeshi ni naru  
sleep 寝る neru お休みになる o-yasumi ni naru  
die 死ぬ shinu お亡くなりになる o-nakunari ni naru  
ask 聞く kiku / 尋ねる tazuneru   伺う ukagau
visit 訪ねる tazuneru   伺う ukagau

Bottom line:

While keeping tense:

sonkeigo (honorific): o- (i-form) - ni naru

kenjōgo (humble): o- (i-form) - suru / itasu (humbler)

Unless it’s an irregular verb, in which case, see chart above.