Levels Of Politeness

Perhaps the JapaneseLanguage word for levels of politeness would be more appropriate for this message, since it is the language most often associated with them.

Many Japanese textbooks written for English speakers assert that there are four official levels of politeness in the Japanese language: honorific (keigo?), normal-polite (DesuMasu?), familiar, and abrupt. The rules for which of these to use when are often considered too complicated for Westerners, and especially English-speakers. So we are taught to use DesuMasu? most of the time, and throw in some humble verb forms whenever we are requesting or accepting things.

I read there are special forms for addressing the Imperial Family but don't have a link to verify this.

This is true. Before WWII, they were also taught in school, but the Japanese have converted to practicality with this.

Politeness (teinei na hanashikata) is a very complicated phenomenon, not only related to grammatical forms but also to words chosen, ways to express ideas, keeping talk fluent, confirming frequently what you have heard, etc. The most important difference between Japanese and European languages in this respect is that the "rules of politeness" are much more explicit.

Examples: there are different verbs for giving, the choice of which depends on the direction of giving: if I give, it's usually ageru (to raise); when I am given, it's usually kureru. If I'm talking about somebody doing a nice thing, it's customary to express it as being given the deed: Uchi e okutte kureta ("I got a ride home", lit. home to bringing I-was-given). But even so, it is usually impolite to say Uchi e okutte ageta to somebody even if you took em home: you're stressing your doing a favor too much. And that's something that can't be mitigated by using honorific forms.

Western languages are less ornate about such matters, but there are still levels of familiarity. All Romantic languages, many Germanic languages, and at least a few Slavic languages have different second-person ("you") pronouns. French, for example, has the familiar "tu" form, along with the formal "vous" form. These different pronouns often require different verb conjugations and possessive forms. English-speakers often have trouble determining which one is appropriate, myself included. And I find it a little embarrassing to ask about something which a native speaker will seem to have picked up instinctually before they could even walk.

Contemporary English, at least in the United States, has little evidence of levels of politeness remaining. In more civilized parts of the Southern United States, people are still raised to say "Sir" or "Ma'am" in every sentence (and people in some professions, i.e. taxi drivers, will say it when they consider it appropriate). There are also anachronisms like the familiar "thou" (ThouVsYou) and using the pronoun "one" to refer to oneself in an insignificant way, not to mention those expressions reserved for royalty. There are certain polite phrases like "May I help you?" and "please" and "thank you" that apply in some situations. And we can show deference with how we say someone's name, by choosing either "Mr. Peterson," "Norman," "Norm," or "Peterson." But in Phoenix, Arizona, during lunch, we offer French fries to our boss, our employees, our mothers, our daughters, our enemies, and our customers with the exact same phrase: "Would you like fries with that?"

-- NickBensema

LevelsOfPoliteness and LevelsOfFamiliarity? are similar, but not the same. In SpanishLanguage?, for example, you would address both your grandfather and your grandson with the familiar "tu". But in JapaneseLanguage -- and in KoreanLanguage, which has similar linguistic gradations of social rank -- you would use different forms.

By the way, KoreanLanguage and JapaneseLanguage have interestingly differing courtesy systems. The Korean honorific is said to be "absolute": if somebody's above you in the social hierarchy, you speak honorifically of em irrespectable of who you're talking to. The Japanese one is said to be "relative" or "practical": how you talk about a person depends on whom you're talking to. The most typical example is talking about your boss to another company's people: in Korea, using normal forms is impolite (towards your boss); in Japan, using courteous forms is impolite (towards the other company): your boss is "uchi".

Once you have more than one form of politeness, the distinguishing characteristic is usually based on social rank. In Japanese, for example, there are forms of address for your social superiors, equals, and inferiors. In an ostensibly egalitarian society, these explicit references to social castes don't fit well. As a result, they are rapidly junked (far more rapidly than the social castes themselves!).

That said, it's still possible to be polite and civil in an egalitarian society. "May I help you", "please" and "thank you" are examples of this. So the egalitarian nature of most Western countries isn't enough to explain the continuing DeclineOfCivility present in said countries.

One rule of thumb that is true for most languages is that given two expressions with the same meaning, the one containing more syllables is generally considered more polite. Long = polite, short = informal. Compare "please be so kind as to come over here" vs. "come here". In Japanese, these verb forms, ordered by politeness from least to most, are also ordered by syllables from least to most: "da", "desu", "de gozaimasu".

Indeed, it is my theory that it is precisely because these forms are longer, that they are more polite. They are more effort to say, and what is politeness but assuming a burden on oneself? The same premise works for speaking carefully and enunciating properly, though those have the alternate (or complementary?) explanation that they make your words easier to understand, thereby relieving the hearer of a burden. -- DanielKnapp

I just had a strange thought. Is there a connection between the social process that would intentionally complicate a message and barriers to DoTheSimplestThingThatCouldPossiblyWork?

It is interesting that politeness is often expressed by avoiding addressing the second person directly. There are traces of this in Spanish, where the second person polite pronouns are identical to the third person (e.g., "su casa" = your house/his house, as opposed to "tu casa" or "vuestra casa" for the familiar forms).

This may be the verbal equivalent of the habit of avoiding eye contact with superiors, prevalent in some human and animal cultures.

In Afrikaans (a derivative of Dutch spoken in South Africa), this can lead to somewhat extreme levels of circumlocution. When addressing a more senior family member, utterances like the following are quite natural: "Hoe hou oom Jan-hulle van oom Jan-hulle se nuwe huis?" - How does uncle John (and family) like uncle John's (and family's) new house. Just saying "How do you like your new house" would seem terribly rude.

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