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As I begin to learn sonkeigo and kenjougo, I have come across several websites stating that levels of politeness and levels of respect are independent and not to be confused. I understand the concept of politeness without respect, but it seems to me that respect naturally contains the concept of politeness. (One would not be sloppy casual toward a respected person.) Furthering my confusion, an apparently reliable website gives the following example: “私はただいま自宅におります。… Addressee honorific. Your being at home does not affect anyone. Using おります is just politeness to the addressee.” That example’s explanation uses both “honorific” and “politeness” with respect to the same one word. Similarly, I’ve seen teineigo described as both the second politeness level and the first respect level.

My question is: would it be more accurate to say that sometimes expressions of politeness are independent of respect, but at other times a word indicates both? (I understand that keigo allows for various degrees of expressing both politeness and respect.)

  • Kenjougo such as 「おります」 is more about being humble and placing yourself below the other person, rather than placing the other person above you. – Halfway Dillitante Sep 11 '18 at 2:49
  • Halfway Dilitante, Thank you for your response. Unfortunately, it doesn't address my question. If you can clarify what I asked about, I would be most appreciative: as you can see from the quotation and other examples that I cited, the explanation/differentiation is unclear. – NattoYum Sep 11 '18 at 3:10
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Question of the year right here. Trying to decipher English approximations of Japanese honorific systems has been a journey, so I totally get where you're coming from.

  1. Can expressions of politeness exist independent of respect? Linguistically, I would say yes. Although using です・ます体{たい} (desu/masu form) obviously takes into consideration the social positioning of the addressee, linguistically its function as 丁寧語{ていねいご} is not technically to express respect (raising or lowering of social status by use of referents) but to express politeness (increasing social distance by use of verb stem). To put it in other words, 尊敬語{そんけいご} (respect honorifics) and 謙譲語{けんじょうご} (humble honorifics) feel more vertical, while 丁寧語 (polite form) feels more horizontal to me. That being said, none of this exists on a binary, and respect and politeness are certainly tied up in one another.

  2. As for the specific sentence that おります that you ask about from the LingWiki Keigo page, there is yet another distinction that must be made to fully understand why they may have written "politeness" to describe the reasoning for using おります. Under the "Types of Honorifics" section on the LangWiki page, you can see that in 2006, the Institute of Japanese Language expanded from recognizing three types of keigo (sonkeigo, kenjougo, & teineigo) to five. What this allowed them to do was to make a more explicit distinction between referent honorifics and addressee honorifics (in addition to making an independent category for beautified language called 美化語{びかご}, e.g., adding prefixes お and ご to nouns like 店 and 本, respectively).

    • Referent honorifics are easy enough to understand: they must refer to or involve the respected person. Clearly, sonkeigo falls into this category because it is talking about the actions of the respected person (e.g., 召し上がる is the honored action of the respected person).

    • Addressee honorifics are more about expressing respect/politeness (hehe, wait for it) towards the person(s) you are talking to. Clearly, teineigo falls into this category because whether or not you use it depends on who you're talking to, not who you're talking about (e.g., using です・ます with your senpai).

    • Okay, so where does kenjougo fit into these? Acutally, with the 2006 expansion, a new category of keigo was created! It is called 丁重語{ていちょうご} (or sometimes 荘重語{そうちょうご}). Teichougo ended up stealing some humble verb forms from kenjougo in order to make a distinction between involvement/non-involvement of the respected person.

    • Examples of verbs that are still kenjougo: いただく、伺{うかが}う、お+verb+する form. Why? Because these are actions that refer to/involve the respected person. If you receive a book from your sensei, you use いただく because you respect the fact that your sensei gave you the book. When you visit your sensei in the office, you use 伺う because your visiting disturbs/involves your sensei.

    • Examples of verbs that became teichougo: おる(おります)、参る(参ります)、申す(申します). Why? Because these are states that only refer to the speaker and have nothing to do with the respected person(s). Your going (おります), coming (参ります), and what you are called (申します) do not involve the respected person(s). I believe teichougo is only written in the ます form.

    • Okay! This brings me back to why the LangWiki page probably used "politeness" to describe the use of おります. Take another look at the distinction between kenjougo and tenchougo. Obviously both are forms of showing respect (through raising other and lowering self, respectively), but doesn't tenchougo have slightly more of an air of the "horizontal" social distancing I brought up earlier? You use です・ます always when using tenchougo because both are about the relationship with the listener, but not always when using kenjougo because it's about the respect of the referent.

This was extremely long-winded and possibly unclear in places. Anyone, please feel free to comment with content or organizational edit suggestions--and admins, feel free to directly edit where you see fit. Best of luck in your language study! 頑張ってください!

  • Matai, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thorough— and very clear— explanation. In all my attempts to see these distinctions, I had never come upon (or perhaps just never noticed) the characteristics of teichougo. Your explanation is so helpful. どうもありがとうございました。 – NattoYum Sep 11 '18 at 13:36
  • Would it not make sense to distinguish between addressing someone directly and talking about someone? If I talk to X about Y, then I can use the neutral form of honorific verbs if I respect Y and X is a friend. If I am talking to someone directly, there seems to be much less room for difference between politeness and respect (I cannot elevate someone without creating distance between us). – Mathieu Bouville Jan 26 at 18:01

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