It’s well known that there are many, quite subtle, forms of honorific address in the Japanese language from those of the highest rank to the lowest, and even those of unknown rank. And of course depending on the station of the addresser as well.

I’ve not yet discovered a comprehensive standard reference for suffix forms that fully elaborate on the nuances, is there one?

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    Probably too broad a topic and too context-dependent for such a reference to work/exist, but I don't know. Sounds like it could be an interesting problem for a machine learning NLP project though. – Will Apr 17 at 0:37

English really has nothing remotely equivalent to honorifics. We may occasionally talk about code switching, but that's about the extent of it and is more like a candle to the bright blazing sun of distinctive layers inherent in Japanese.

Depending on where you grew up in the Anglo-sphere, you may have an awareness of the social implications of social class. If you are English, you are probably strongly consciously aware of this. Most Americans are blithely oblivious to it. If you grew up in a military family or in a community around a military base, you may have a very strong sense of rank and the importance of getting peoples titles right.

And, if you're culturally connected to other European languages, such as German, you may also have a strong sense to strictures about how you address others or speak about them. (I'm familiar with German culture; but I'm not familiar with French or Russian and so don't how strong these social distinctions are made there.)

This distinction between inside and outside in Japanese culture, though, is quite distinct and quite different from any of the situations mentioned above. My experience of social distinctions made in English feel very rigid, impersonal, and a bit like a straight-jacket. Somehow it doesn't really feel that way in Japanese at all.

One of the most frequent comments I heard from my Japanese teachers, when they were commenting on the differences between Japanese and Western culture, was how they felt there was a kind of deficit to English in how it lacked anything resembling keigo. They were all inclined to express it as an aesthetic deficit of sorts. At first this seemed a very strange way to put for me, but the more I've become familiar with Japanese and comfortable in its culture, reading its literature, etc the more I came to understand something of what they meant.

That's a rather simplistic description. The use of honorifics (keigo) is certainly far more complex and socially nuanced than mere aesthetics. But, when you've been able to participate in the culture (been to weddings, births, funerals; participated in informal get togethers; been a regular participant/observer in the conversations with an old teacher and his former students who decades later still came to visit and chat), you are able to experience these distinctions that are made. You can feel something undeniably present in the language that goes beyond anything we who grew up with Western sensibilities are capable of expressing in our Western languages.

When I have read (or heard) folks try to translate the distinctions of honorifics into English, it comes across dreadfully. It can be almost embarrassing. Sometimes it just seems to make a mockery of the language and feels like an insult to Japanese culture. However much these translations try to comprehend the nuances of keigo, in English they will always miss the mark: we just don't have anything remotely like it in English.

A bit of an aside, but I've often wondered, how do the Japanese think about themselves as individuals as opposed to how we in the West do. (Don't leap too quickly, there's something deeper I'm trying to get at here.) In Japanese, who you are is strongly contextually (socially) contingent. If you refer to yourself, there really isn't a single, neutral choice. And you have quite a range of choices from われわれ to わたし to あたし to ぼく to おれ to じぶん to うち to こちら and much more. In English, we've just got "I". No matter what context "I" find myself in "I" am always "I". Though Japanese can surely think of themselves as unique individuals, I can't help but feel that even this mere accident of how one refers to oneself has at some deep level an impact on how one understands the world and one's place in it.

I gave eight different words that could (depending on social context, gender, age, social status etc) identify and linguistically single "me" out from the rest. And (again depending on social context, gender, age, social status etc) the use (or mis-use) of such words becomes a statement about how I perceive myself in this world.

At a fundamentally basic level, if you really want to be able to have an all encompassing way of expressing these distinctions in English, how in the world could you convey this? At best it will either sound extremely artificial; at worst it will likely completely steal center stage from what's really being said in Japanese.

To take an anecdote from my own life, once at work I was talking to a friend of mine at work and started saying something about her. I used the word あなた, but no one heard me say that. Instead they heard me say あんた which raised a couple eyebrows and lead to a good deal of teasing from all. There was no sense denying that I said what they heard; they heard what they heard. I was a gai-jin; at the time I'd only been in Japan a very brief time. Additionally we were all quite young. Still, when I've tried to tell this story to my American friends, they really can't grasp what the story is about. There are nuances in the words, but any attempt to translate this into English commits you to a narrow sliver of all that might have been felt in my faux pas.

My point is two-fold. (1) If you're trying to get a feel for what the honorifics are all about, there is no better substitute than fully immersing yourself in the culture. (2) If you're going to try find a one-to-one correspondence between honorifics in Japanese and English, you will either create horrendous English, potentially make a mockery of Japanese, or get so bogged down in the nuances to lose the thread of what was being said.

  • You've clearly put a lot of effort into this answer, but I'm pretty sure what OP meant was honorific suffixes like さん, さま, くん. – Angelos Apr 17 at 7:30
  • @Angelos Interesting point, I hadn't thought of the OP's question having a more limited scope like that. Hopefully the OP will respond and then I can modify my response. – A.Ellett Apr 17 at 12:45
  • Thanks for the detailed reply. I am not entirely sure now if I do mean what you had thought or what @Angelos proposed, to be honest. Honorific suffixes are pretty much what I had in mind but you raised the good point that there are more than just the suffixes in operation in regular conversation that also convery such ‘positional’ information, so to speak... Perhaps, limiting the question to just suffixes would allow for a viable answer. – MichaelZ Apr 17 at 14:43
  • @MichaelZ I think reframing the question with a narrower scope might indeed improve your prospects for the sort of answer you wish. – A.Ellett Apr 17 at 14:51
  • @A.Ellett Thanks, I’ve done so. – MichaelZ Apr 17 at 15:20

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