Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Struggling with keigo

So today we finally (to my dismay) went back to a chapter we’d skipped: keigo. I will confess that, having not slept very well, I was not in the best mood for studying a fairly tiresome aspect of Japanese. On the plus side, GenkiJACS do sensibly leave it until you've studied absolutely everything else in the textbook, since everything else is much more genuinely useful for most people.

Keigo is basically a set of formal, polite language used for various situations where you want to show additional respect or to seem humble. In English and similar languages we tend to control politeness through the choice of words, hedging words like “possibly” and “would”, and by using avoiding allocating responsibility for problems to the person we’re talking to. Instead of “will you finish making the tea by six?” we might say “I was wondering if you happen to know yet whether the tea is likely to be ready by six?” Often we also tag on ‘explanations’ to excuse what might seem like rudeness: “…only I was thinking of nipping to the shops if there’s time”, or something like that.

In Japanese, I’m sure that sort of thing happens too, but they also have special vocabulary that replaces a lot of common words. There are entirely new verbs used in place of the most common ones, and other verbs are put into the passive to show politeness – they don’t actually become grammatically passive, but you use that form of the verb. Prefixes get added to many nouns, making them “politer” through some magical process.

Obviously, it isn’t my language to gripe about, but I have to confess that (as you might have guessed) I basically find keigo annoying.

For one thing, as a learner, keigo adds a significant burden to learning the language, without offering any very tangible benefit. Keigo gets used quite a lot in things like the service industry (shopping, restaurants), and by junior staff or pupils, as well as cropping up in formal kinds of media. All of those are common situations for language learners to discuss or encounter in real life, whereas the everyday situations where normal language is used tend to require actual friendship. It’s quite important to learn keigo, at least enough to pick out the key bits and filter the information you need from the sentence. However, what learning keigo bestows is the ability to speak in ritually polite and formal ways – which are only necessary because keigo exists. I already know perfectly adequate words and phrases for doing all those things; I don't want to waste valuable brain on learning slightly different ways to say them to different people.

And the existence of keigo makes it that much more difficult to read, listen to or watch things in Japanese by essentially replacing some language you've already learned with an equivalent that you don't yet know. It's one thing if you're swapping, say, "rake" and "libertine", or "undulate" with "oscillate", because both are fairly uncommon; it's quite another thing to switch "be", "come", "do," "go", "eat", "drink", and other vital everyday terms with entirely different ones that mean exactly the same thing. Keigo can also be quite confusing, because ambiguity is politer, but this sometimes makes it more difficult to work out what is actually happening: one common practice replaces the verb for "be" with "become", for example. It's not inherently wrong or anything, but it's another arbitrary thing that you need to learn.

Another thing is that the very formal levels of politeness in Japanese reinforce some social ideas that I find very uncomfortable. I’m fairly competent in using politeness in English when called for, but I have a very egalitarian philosophy and don’t tend to vary my language much for people’s social status. The Japanese idea that you owe particular respect to older pupils, or to people who’ve worked in a company longer than you, or that your boss is an elevated and worthier person rather than someone who does a different job as part of the same system and incidentally gets paid a lot more, are ones I instinctively revolt against. I want to respect other people’s languages and cultures, but at the same time, I don’t feel comfortable adopting these ways of talking or thinking.

The third issue is that keigo seems to be increasingly an entirely artificial thing, a lumbering zombie hulk kept in hideous unlife by demands from the ever-influential They. Native speakers notoriously don’t really understand keigo, so that even those who pride themselves on mastery of the language complain of their mistakes. Companies send their employees on special courses in using keigo so that they’ll be able to use these speech patterns with customers and colleagues. Shops have keigo manuals to instil the correct language in their peons (and purists leap all over their supposed mistakes). There are complaints that young people simply aren’t used to speaking this kind of Japanese, and no longer understand how to use it. In fairness, there have always been complaints that Young People Can't Speak Our Language Properly; I imagine the early Proto-Indo-Europeans were revolted that Today's Youth couldn't pronounce [gʷʰ] properly and kept dropping word-final *s without applying compensatory vowel lengthening.

My approach to language is one of affection for weird features, but I also agree that actual usage is king. Keigo no longer seems to be any natural part of Japanese. It is an artificial relic of feudal times, one that must be painstakingly learned by native speakers as a bolt-on to their actual language, when their normal language is (like all languages) entirely adequate for their needs. You can tell, because if they actually needed what keigo provides, it would still be part of ordinary Japanese. That’s how language works. If young people are unable to use keigo, it's probably because keigo is not useful to them.

However, because keigo does exist, it creates implications. A quick glance around the internet (even in English) will throw up people complaining of feeling slighted that a shop assistant spoke to them in normal Japanese – even though this was almost certainly the polite –masu form with polite vocabulary, rather than the simple colloquial way they would speak to friends. People who can’t really do keigo are judged for it, in the same way as those who have a provincial accent on the BBC or otherwise use dialect features that are entirely correct but non-standard; I am pretty sure that, like most such situations, it will reinforce class divisions.

In summary: it is a source of needless complexity and redundancy, it reinforces ancient ideas of social precedence that ought to be revised in view of more modern ideas about human equality, and it is so unnatural to modern speakers that it has to be specially taught and is frequently wrong. It doesn’t appear to bring any benefits other than slight nuance, but not using it or using it wrong incites judgement. Here’s to its imminent extinction.

Unfortunately, I do have to learn this stuff, not least in order to pass the end-of-book test that will let me proceed to another class (at least, I have to reason to think this chapter alone is excluded). Equally unfortunately, I find it very difficult to motivate myself to learn it, because it feels like such a waste of time. I can only hope that I'll be seized with a sudden burst of enthusiasm.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. shimmin san, I have never seen you being so bitter.
    It is one of those things you study, pass the exams and then forget about it.
    I'd love to learn some to impress the peers:P

  3. I don't think I realised that Japanese honorific speech had so many
    fixed indirect ways of saying things that you've got to learn, in
    addition to the usual conjugating of verbs differently when speaking to
    someone you're unfamiliar with or someone of higher status, which Korean
    has too. Though Koreans speak indirectly to be polite, they don't do so
    in contexts such as going shopping, so what you actually need to know is
    just a few grammar rules.

    One thing you have to use in Korean is third-person honorifics. I
    believe that these exist in Japanese but are only required as part of
    hardcore keiko, rather than normal polite speech. In Korean, they're
    much more often required. A third person honorific is a way of
    honouring the subject of a sentence rather than merely the listener. So
    for example if I spoke to one of my elementary school students in Korean
    I would talk down to them using a non-honorific verb conjugation, but if
    the subject of my sentence was the student's mother or father or another
    teacher in our school, I'd have to add to my sentence elements to
    indicate respect to him or her which would not show any respect towards
    my student.

    This can be really hard because it means you have to be thinking
    switching your politeness on and off from sentence to sentence, for
    example as you change from talking about yourself or an inanimate object
    to talking about the other person. I find it remember to change my verb
    conjugations between conversations, but it's a real mental load in the
    middle of one.

    I'd also like to say something to soothe your bad feelings towards the
    Japanese status hierarchy and how this affects language. I agree with
    you but maybe you'll feel better if you know that in Korea it's even
    more intense, because of the total obsession with age here. There is a
    pronoun 너 which means 'you' that is part of plain speech. My
    girlfriend and I are obviously sufficiently intimate not to use any
    politeness when talking to each other (except the third person
    honorifics to talk about either set of parents, for example). However
    because she is two years older than me, I cannot use 너 to refer to her,
    though she can use it to refer to me. We've both got into the habit of
    using a term of affection that means 'baby' or 'honey' to refer to each
    other but she still sometimes uses 너 and it riles me that I can't.

    There are plenty more examples. The terms for elder brother and sister
    are used to talk about older friends. It's uncomfortable to Koreans to
    use someone's name unless they are the same age as you or younger, or
    you absolutely have to in order to express yourself clearly. In such a
    case you would suffix your use of the name with the familial term. So
    to talk to my girlfriend about my girlfriend's female friend who's one
    year older than me, say, I'd have to put the word for a male's older
    sister after her name. And my girlfriend would almost certainly notice
    (and may or may not call me out depending on mood!) if I didn't. All
    Koreans are switched on to the relative ages of everyone present at all

    Goes without saying that you've got to make it a priority to find out
    the age of anyone you want to have a relationship deeper than cashier
    and customer with within a short time of finding out their name.