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My understanding is that, strictly speaking, "honorific" Japanese 敬語{けいご} is completely different from "formal" Japanese 丁寧語{ていねいご}. Yet, I sometimes hear even native speakers conflate them:

「する」の尊敬語{そんけいご} --->「なさる」
「する」の丁寧語 --->「します」
「する」の謙譲語{けんじょうご} ---> 「いたす」

「書く{かく}」の尊敬語 ---> 「お書きになる」
「書く」の丁寧語 --->「書きます」
「書く」の謙譲語 --->「お書きいたす」

formal (not honorific) escalation:「だ」-->「です」-->「である」-->「であります」
honorific (not formal) escalation:「です」 -->「でございまさう」

Strictly speaking, am I right about this? But, is the reality that the usage of honorifics necessarily means you are speaking formally? For years now, I've heard the phrases "honorific Japanese", and "formal Japanese", often used interchangeably. Isn't there a distinct difference?

Indeed, I've read a little Mishima, and he writes formally, but not honorifically. So, there must be a clean difference, and it's just that some people carelessly interchange those two phrases, right?

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I'm having a hard time understanding exactly what you have seen conflated, and what you are asking. –  Darius Jahandarie Mar 3 at 2:03
丁寧語 is usually considered a kind of 敬語 –  dainichi Mar 3 at 2:28
@DariusJahandarie The question is what to label なさる / なさります. なさる is 敬語、 but not 丁寧語? If なさる is both 敬語 and 丁寧語, then what is なさります。If なさる is 敬語, but not 丁寧語, that's a contradiction (maybe mistake?) I hear quite a bit. But, I've never formally studied Japanese, so I'm most certainly wrong. なさる and なさります must be labelled differently, but how so? –  kingyo Mar 3 at 2:34
As an aside, it's usually なさいます rather than なさります. –  snailboat Mar 3 at 3:04
Even though they are separate it's probably perfectly natural for them to influence each other, which careful writers like Mishima are careful not to do. –  hippietrail Mar 3 at 4:53

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

尊敬語 is when the subject of the sentence is shown respect.

謙譲語 is when the subject of the sentence is being humbled.

丁寧語 is when the addressee is being shown respect.

(Note that the subject is often not explicitly in the sentence.)

From the definitions, it should be clear that it is possible to combine 尊敬語 and 丁寧語, or 謙譲語 and 丁寧語, but not 尊敬語 and 謙譲語 (in a single clause). So, to answer one of your questions regarding なさる & なさいます, the former is 尊敬語, while the latter is both 尊敬語 and 丁寧語.

Regarding how to classify 丁寧語, most people consider it to be a kind of 敬語 (for example, 大辞林), but there are some linguists who do not consider it to be 敬語. In normal discussion I think that it is safe to assume that 敬語 contains 丁寧語.

Formality (e.g., である) is yet another dimension unrelated to showing respect.

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I kind of just gave a summary -- I hope your questions have been answered as a result. –  Darius Jahandarie Mar 3 at 2:55

I go by the definitions & examples below which I based on the explanations in 日本語能力試験 完全マスター N3文法.

As Darius says, formality is another neutral form which would used to write academic papers for example which focus on being both concise and precise.


尊敬語 : Respectful language: refers to the actions of superiors

謙譲語1: Humble language1: Verb forms to describe one's own action when it affects a superior

謙譲語2: Humble language2: Verb forms to politely/modestly describes one's (group's) own actions (not affecting a superior)

丁寧語 : Polite language: Verbs forms to be polite w/o reference to hierarchy












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