What is the difference between the Japanese term "敬語" (keigo) and the English term "politeness" (Specifically regarding language)?

I assumed politeness is more general covering things like "please" and "thank you" and that "敬語" (keigo) specifically referred to those aspects of Japanese grammar that deal with politeness in a technical way that has no equivalent in English.

But upon reading a bit and using this site a bit I'm not sure anymore. What are the overlaps and differences in meanings?

(I considered asking this as a meta question concerning the and tags but I decided it's of much broader interest.)

  • 2
    I relation to your tag question. There are cases where you aren't using Keigo, but there is a question of politeness. For instance knowing you don't use Omae when talking to your boss is not about keigo and about politeness. Jun 9 '11 at 14:27
  • 1
    @Mark: You are right, and the expressions related to politeness in the broader sense is called 敬意表現 (けいいひょうげん; expression for respect) in Japanese. In other words, 敬意表現 includes 敬語 but not limited to 敬語. Jun 9 '11 at 15:23

Politeness and Keigo are strongly related, but they are not necessarily the same, neither does one contains all cases of the other.

Politeness (丁寧語 teineigo) is a general term that is used for gauging the acceptability of different forms in different situations. Polite forms are expected to be used in formal situations, with most strangers, with peers you are not intimate enough with and with superiors. Polite forms don't form as coherent system as Sonkeigo and Kenjōgo do, but it's also quite simpler, since you just have to remember that some grammatical forms or expressions are polite, some are intimate and some are downright rude. We actually have the same thing in English: "Could you hand me the salt, please?" is quite more polite than "Hey, give me the salt!"

Keigo (敬語) itself, refers to the proper usage of two distinct forms of language: sonkeigo (尊敬語) and kenjōgo 謙譲語.

Sonkeigo (尊敬語) means honorific language. This category encompasses all words (mostly verbs) prefixes, suffixes, expressions and grammatical forms that are considered to convey honor to the person or group they refer to. These words are often used when referring to superiors, clients, and in some situations to anyone that is part of the recipient's inside group. Knowing in which situations one should use sonkeigo (and kenjōgo) is an entirely different question, and it's highly related to Japanese social and cultural norms, so it's natural that it seems very baffling to us foreigners in the beginning. :)

Kenjōgo (謙譲語) means humble or deferential language. This category encompasses all words (mostly verbs) prefixes, suffixes, expressions and grammatical forms that are considered to convey humility about the person or group they refer to. These words are mostly used when speaking to someone in sonkeigo and referring to yourself or to people who are in your inside group.

Very often, certain sonkeigo or kenjōgo bits are used without the entire conversation getting to stick to keigo rules. For instance, when two parents speaking about their respective sons, they may call each other's son 息子さん and their own son just 息子. You may call that sonkeigo and kenjōgo if you like (though some people may argue it isn't), but in the end the two parents might speak entirely casually. Another place you'd often find bits of sonkeigo and kenjōgo "out of place" is set phrases such as ありがとうございます (kenjōgo) or おはようございます (sonkeigo).

Don't politeness and keigo always come together?

Now, when keigo is used consistently, it's most often used with teineigo (since when you're using keigo you'd generally want to be polite), but it doesn't necessarily have to. As far as I can see, the main problem with using keigo without teineigo, isn't that it would sound rude, but rather that it would just sound too archaic.

The reason for that is that keigo was indeed used regularly without modern teineigo suffixes (of the ます and です family) during the Edo period, and you can still hear such language when watching historical films or TV dramas (時代劇 Jidaigeki). But since most people now identify these forms with the Edo period, they'd seem more archaic than they'd seem impolite. It's kinda like thou, which originally was just an intimate version of the polite you, would seem to modern English speakers more archaic than impolite.

  • thou is a gd example
    – Pacerier
    Jun 11 '11 at 7:27

敬語 comes from the union of the Kanji 敬 which means "awe, respect, honor, revere" and 語 which means "word, speech, language"; it means "respectful language", it's a form of honorific speech, so here you can start to see the difference.

Politeness, in English, apart from being "the practical application of good manners or etiquette", it also refers to some ways people choose to interact in order to avoid social problems. English doesn't have the difference "masu", so there are some differences.

You can read "Politeness" and "Honorific speech in Japanese" for more info on English/Japanese differences, there are sections in those links.

On that first link there is a specific comparison with Japanese way of expressing that kind of politeness. I'll paste it:

Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness has been criticised as not being universally valid, by linguists working with East-Asian languages, including Japanese. [...]

Japanese is perhaps the most widely known example of a language that encodes politeness at its very core. Japanese has two main levels of politeness, one for intimate acquaintances, family and friends, and one for other groups, and verb morphology reflects these levels. Besides that, some verbs have special hyper-polite suppletive forms. This happens also with some nouns and interrogative pronouns. Japanese also employs different personal pronouns for each person according to gender, age, rank, degree of acquaintance, and other cultural factors.

And on the second link:

While English has different registers, its levels of formality and politeness are not as formalised as in Japanese. However, they can be instructive in gaining a feel for Japanese speech. English imperatives range from very blunt ("Give me the book,") to very indirect and elaborate ("If it's not too much trouble, could you please be so kind as to pass me the book?" – note the use of potential form, as in Japanese). [...]


Keigo (敬語) is the general term for honorifics in the Japanese language, which can be further classified into three main categories: sonkeigo (尊敬語), respectful language; kenjōgo (謙譲語), humble language; and teineigo (丁寧語), polite language. The former are the so called ‘referent honorifics’ and are used to show respect for the person being talked about. The last is an ‘addressee honorifics’, used to show respect for the listener.

  • I thought "honorific" referred to the o- and go- prefixes and not to all aspects of keigo. Jun 9 '11 at 14:34
  • お and ご are honorific prefixes, part of sonkeigo. Jun 9 '11 at 14:35
  • 2
    More accurately, sonkeigo is made of honorifics, but humble language and polite language are not honorifics.
    – Boaz Yaniv
    Jun 9 '11 at 14:39
  • From Wikipedia: An honorific is a word or expression with connotations conveying esteem or respect when used in addressing or referring to a person. By this definition, at the very least teineigo (polite language) is also made of honorifics. Jun 9 '11 at 14:50
  • Wikipedia - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorific_speech_in_Japanese - also refers to all three as honorifics: Linguistically, the former two (sonkeigo and kenjōgo) are referent honorifics, used for someone being talked about, and the last (teineigo) is an addressee honorific, used for someone being talked to. Jun 9 '11 at 14:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.