Honorific Systems – Managing Politeness


At its core, language is used to get information across, whether it be a news bulletin, a train timetable, or someone telling you about their bizarre dream. But we can’t just go blurting things out; you also need to consider your audience…

When we communicate – by talking, signing, writing or using our body language – we generally convey extra emotive information. Sometimes we change our accents to accommodate who we are speaking to because we want them to feel comfortable in communication. Sometimes our whole lexicon (the words we use) changes to suit the audience we’re addressing for similar reasons! Smaller instances can be seen, too. The director of your company might be referred to as Mrs. Johnston, but you wouldn’t expect her 6-year-old daughter to do the same (just as it would be mortifying to be an employee of hers and refer to her as mum).

Languages vary in the way their users address one another. In an earlier post I made on something called the T-V Distinction, we saw that various languages change the way a verb is conjugated when addressing someone. For example, in French, you could refer to a good friend using the “tu” form of the verb, but your elderly grandfather would need a “vous” directed to him. This slight change in language can have a big impact with regards to emotion: “tu” shows your solidarity with your friend, whereas “vous” shows respect for your elders.

respect-your-elders-they-made-it-through-school-without-google-or-wikipedia-322Aside from changing which type of ‘you’ is used, various languages have words you can add or use as a substitute. These are called honorifics. In English, these usually take the form of prefixed titles: seperate words that go before a persons name to indicate aspects such as gender, marital and educational status. Some examples include:

  • Mr
  • Master
  • Ms
  • Lady
  • Dr
  • Sergent
  • The right honourable

The same occurs in various European languages: Monsieur/Madame, Herr/Frau, Señor/Señora, Herra/Rouva (Finnish). However, there are some languages that take the idea of honorifics to an entirely different level. The two examples I’ll look at here are Japanese and Korean.

Japanese and Korean form part of the Altaic family of languages*. Both languages incorporate honorific titles in the similar way as described above but often use suffixes instead of prefixes. For instance, in Japanese, you might refer to Mr Smith as Smith-san, or if he’s your boss, Smith-sama. Prefixes can be used in honorific language, but these tend to be stuck to verbs and nouns, such as “o” (お) and “go” (ご). These are often called beautifying prefixes and can translate as “honourable,” although in English it sounds a little unusual: “tenki” (天気) means weather, but “otenki” (お天気) would mean “honourable weather.”

Both languages have certain speech levels** that reflect the formality of a situation. This results in verbs being changed, pronouns swapping, affixes being placed in many places… a lot happens! Taking Korean for this example, there are roughly seven different levels:

  • 해체 (haeche) – lowest level, used between close friends (or when trying to start a fight!)
  • 해요체 (haeyoche) – informal but polite, often between strangers of similar ages; used more by women than men
  • 해라체 (haerache) – formal and (im)polite, used by friends, in newspapers and in reported speech
  • 하게체 (hageche) – formal and neutral polite, used by older speakers when addressing younger speakers
  • 하오체 (haoche) – similar to 하게체 (hageche) but used by fewer speakers
  • 합쇼체 (hapsyoche) – formal and polite, used by strangers in formal situations, TV presenters and towards customers
  • 하소서체 (hasoseoche) – the highest form, only used when addressing royalty or officials

The closest thing I could find to a visual representation of trying to navigate speech levels when communicating with a native Japanese/Korean person!

So why are all of these things used and why such complexity?! The same reason we modify English speech as described above: to show our (im)politeness and emotive understanding of a situation, with respect to the conversational partners that are present. Different cultures have different ideas of respect, and thus their language moulds and is moulded by this fact.

Remember: this post is just scratching the surface of honorific systems. There are many, many articles online that explain the multiple systems around the world well, but be warned: this is one of those areas in which the theory is extremely tricky to grasp unless exemplification is provided!

What about you? Which honorific levels/markers/systems do you have in your language? If you speak Japanese or Korean, do you have anything further to add on the above? Add your comments below =]


*Many websites will give you different opinions on the status of Japanese and Korean in the Altaic family. I’ve decided to class them as such here for ease of explanation, and to not go completely off-topic…

**Some researchers prefer to separate honorifics and speech levels as two individual things. However, for the purposes of exemplification, I’ve decided to meet people halfway and class it in the post as “honorific language”


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