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As far as I know, theoretically お in お[金]{かね} is optional, but in practice it's almost never omitted, and if done otherwise it'd be frowned upon.

I'd like to know the sociolinguistic explanation of why it is so, or the philosophy behind it. I'd prefer an in-depth answer please.

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  • I could be wrong, but I feel like 金 shows up by itself all the time though? When you're talking in ため口 i think it's totally fine to just use 金. In 書き言葉 as well, 金 shows up by itself. I've read novels where the narrator just says 金 without the honorific.
    – Shurim
    Dec 5 '20 at 22:28
  • The common distinction between the two is that お金 refers to money (cash, coins, etc.) whilst 金 is gold. I am not sure why that is the case though.
    – Ambo100
    Dec 6 '20 at 0:46
  • @Ambo100 When 金 means gold, it has a different reading though (きん). 金(かね) on it's own can mean money as well.
    – user40476
    Dec 6 '20 at 10:57
  • There are a bunch of words for which it has become customary to always attach the honorific prefix. Some to the point that leaving it out would be picked up as a deliberate choice or even would sound unnatural. With 金, I think it's not quite that far, but it would be advisable to rather say お金, if you are unsure.
    – user40476
    Dec 6 '20 at 11:35
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I think you already know that お- and ご- prefixes are often added to the beginning of nouns to make them more respectful. However, sometimes this is not always the case. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I can regurgitate some information I have read before.

美化語【びかご】

美化語 is literally the "beautification" of words. By adding honorific prefixes to the beginning of nouns, people are able to make their words sound more refined. Sometimes, this is for politeness.

Although this is not a definite rule, お- is typically added to the beginning of words of Japanese origin as well as 和製語【わせいご】 (Chinese/Sino-Japanese created in Japan). It also, but less commonly, attaches to the beginning of words of foreign origin (like おビール).

The ご- prefix is typically attached to Sino-Japanese words that do not use お. Since these rules are pretty loose, you would have to get used to which words are used with which prefixes on an individual basis.

Prefixes like み-, おみ-, and おんみ- also fall under 美化語 and are generally used for things with holy or imperial importance. (like 御子【みこ】)

Feminine Language

Some 美化語 comes from feminine speech. You may have noticed that women are more prone to adding honorific prefixes before nouns, which makes them sound more refined or polite. Some 美化語 that originate from feminine speech but are now widely used are: おかず、おつけ、お腹、おなら.

In more respectful settings, however, attaching honorific prefixes often becomes the norm and is no longer restricted by gender.

When the Prefixes are Necessary

Some words have evolved so that they are never used without honorific prefixes. One example of this is the word お化け, which means "ghost" or "apparition". The word 化け has completely different meanings and is by no means interchangeable with お化け.

These words range from "the prefix is always necessary" to "the prefix is usually used, but sometimes omitted". For example, お湯 is usually used with お-, but can sometimes be seen without the honorific. お世辞, however, is always used with its honorific prefix. Your example, お金【かね】, would fall into the "usually" category.

Changes in Pronunciation and Meaning

Sometimes, the meaning and even the pronunciation of words will change when honorific prefixes are attached. Here are some examples:

飯【めし】→ご飯【はん】
主人(master)→ご主人(husband)
釣り(fishing)→お釣り(change e.g. for a purchase)

In Summary

This may not be the most in-depth explanation of 美化語, but I hope it explains that honorific prefixes are more than just for being polite. What used to be feminine language is now widely used by speakers of any gender. Other words can only be used with honorific prefixes, lest they sound unnatural. Some even change in meaning, pronunciation, or both.

お金 is part of this. Although I am not 100% sure, I am assuming that it is part of the "usually used with honorific prefixes" category. I have seen it alone as just かね in some books.

Related Posts:
Neutral words with honorific prefixes
honorific 「お」or「ご」 as a necessary prefix

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  • ... and ご主人様 again has the meaning of “master” ;) Dec 7 '20 at 13:24
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Both 金(かね/kane) and お金(おかね/okane) refer to money while 金(きん/kin) is gold.

First of all, お- is a prefix preceding a noun, and it makes the noun sound more royal. Most people think money is necessary, so they usually say お金. You will find the same reason from the following words: お宝(おたから/otakara), お箸(おはし/ohashi), etc. Also, some Japanese people believe that the way you speak represents your dignity, so they use the word “お金” to let listeners feel more comfortable.

Next, some native speakers use the word “金(かね)” when they are despising money or trying to be full of themselves(or something like ヤクザ/yakuza). Please check this sentence: 金なんか大したもんじゃないよ。(金なんか大したものではないよ。). The former is more natural.

In sum, if you say 金(かね), of course the native speakers can understand what you mean, but they might think maybe you don’t have enough ability to control the language or have a sense of ヤクザ(yakuza). So please choose the words appropriately.

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    I wouldn't say the お prefix is to "make a word sound more royal". It's simply the honorific conjugation for 訓読み nouns (which in turn might make it sound royal, but I wouldn't call it the purpose).
    – user40476
    Dec 6 '20 at 11:24
  • 1
    The despising-money part reminds me of the episode 153 of an anime named Atashin'chi where the little daughter asks her mom what makes a woman great. Her mom replies after a moment of reflection abruptly "kane!" in a bitter tone, then explains it while using "okane" in her sentences, and at the end of their conversation she talks to herself bitterly "kane! kane! kane!" Dec 6 '20 at 12:40
  • I don't understand the downvote. The answer per se is well formatted and quite informative, despite being not that comprehensive as I was expecting (and the "royal" part was a bit of a stretch), yet covers enough area. You did your best. Have my +1 Dec 7 '20 at 18:45

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