A porter opening the door of a Japanese taxi for a client.
In Japanese, there are two main levels of language: informal language, characterized by basic verbal forms, and more polite language, teineigo, which includes more elaborate verb forms. But did you know that there is a third level?
Keigo and its sub-divisions
The polite register, or keigo, is itself divided into two streams. On the one hand, sonkeigo or honorific language, which is intended to enhance the actions of who you're talking to. On the other hand, kenjgo, or humble language, which aims to "belittle" one's own actions in order again, elevate, who you're talking to.
The use of keigo
Commonly, keigo is used in client-employee relationships. The employee will use the humble form for verbs that express his own actions. Likewise, he will use the honorific form to refer to the actions of the client. It works also between trading partners. For example, the expression "heisha", "our humble enterprise" is used to refer to one's own company, and "kisha" or "onsha", "your honorable business" to refer to that of the other party.
Verb forms according to the degree of politeness
For one verb, there are several forms depending on the level of language. Take for example the verb "to be". The basic form, coming from the informal register is iru . It becomes imasu in its polite form. Its sonkeigo (honorific) form is irassharu / irasshaimasu (basic form / polite form). Finally, the humble form kenjgo is oru / orimasu (basic form / polite form). Confused yet? Rest assured, the Japanese are equally confused by English verb forms!
To read : Akimahen, the guide to good manners
Keigo in everyday life
Itadakimasu is a typical keigo word that one hears regularly in everyday life. It's often translated as "bon appetit" or something similar, said before people start to eat. In reality, it's the humble form of the verb "to receive" (morau). It therefore means "I receive humbly (what you offer me to eat)" and therefore thanks the person who prepared the meal.
To signify Sir or Madam in Japanese, they add the suffix "-san" after the last name. The more polite counterpart is "-sama" (eg: "Tanaka-sama" ). This form is used when addressing a customer, a person of high rank in society, etc.
Finally, you often find honorary prefixes in keigo in front of common words. These are "o" prefixes, as in o-niku (meat) or o-tearai (the toilet); and "go", as in go-renraku (contact), go-ryoshin (your parents)... These prefixes are used regularly in everyday life. It's unthinkable, for example, to just say "ryoshin" when talking about someone else's parents, even those of a friend. However, there are some that use these prefixes excessively to embellish their speech!
Read also : Typical Japanese gestures