If you are learning to speak Japanese, get ready to start minding your manners! Much like Spanish and French, Japanese requires that you adjust your language based on whether you’re addressing peers, coworkers, strangers, etc. This is called register, and those who are learning to speak Japanese must recognize several registers ranging from formal (or polite) language to informal (or casual) language.
This article is an overview of formal and informal Japanese for students learning as beginners. It won’t teach you all the basics, but it’ll give you a birds-eye view of the subject that will lend some perspective as you are learning to speak Japanese. Whether you're learning in a classroom or using tools like Speechling.com, this perspective will help you as you continue studying. So let’s put on our proverbial business suits and get ready to blow ‘em away with our manners!
It’s logical that those learning to speak Japanese would learn the formal register first. If you aren’t sure of a person’s rank or how familiar is appropriate in a situation, err on the side of caution. It’s better to make a mistake by showing too much respect than not enough, especially in a first introduction. You can adjust your speech as you come to know the person better or as you gather more information about them.
As further proof of how important respect and rank are to the Japanese, there are multiple levels of formality in the Japanese language.
くだけた日本, or kudaketa nihongo: A more casual but still formal version with more colloquialisms and contractions.
ていねいご, or teineigo: More polite and uses fewer contracted forms of words.
けいご, or keigo: This is used when speaking to someone who holds a much higher rank or position of respect and sentences are much longer than in more direct speech.
Honorifics are extremely important in a business setting but aren’t taught in school or university. Instead, companies train their employees in how they are to speak to customers and superiors.
We’ll get into more specifics on how formal Japanese works in a moment. For now, just know that once a student of Japanese learns the basics of more formal Japanese, informal Japanese incorporates those concepts and then adjusts when speaking with those who are more familiar or equal in rank.
Japanese builds deference and respect into the language, as we saw with the formal register. Informal Japanese, on the other hand, is used with friends, family, and children, always keeping in mind that elders and those of higher rank are still shown more respect. If the choice is made to speak in an informal way, this is no more evident than in the choice of pronouns, much like with Spanish and French.
Use of Pronouns
In English, the same pronoun is used for everyone. “You” doesn’t change based on who we are speaking to in English. But if you’ve ever taken Spanish (as many in the US have), you may remember that “tú” is the familiar version of singular “you” and “usted” is the formal version.
Your conversation in Japanese with a cousin your own age uses the Japanese equivalent of “tú.” Japanese gets even more complicated, but you see the built-in aspect of respect and rank with this example of the informal “you” in Japanese:
(kimi): Used by men toward people of lower status. Typically not rude; not either formal or informal, but this makes the status hierarchy explicit and is better suited to formal situations.
(omae): Used in very informal situations or toward people of lower status. This word feels very abrupt and can easily seem rude.
(anta): A shortened version of the more polite anata, it is highly informal and generally considered rude or admonishing in nature.
Formal or informal Japanese might seem a complicated choice for the student of the language, but it gets easier once the basics of formal Japanese are mastered along with a few mental shifts about respect and rank. Let’s look at how all of this works in real situations and examples.
Basic Differences of Formal and Informal Japanese
Some languages differentiate between formal and informal pronouns and even between male and female subjects. Japanese does both at times, plus a strong dose of honorifics showing deference in more ways than one, with social rank and social relationship being two of the most important. Honorific speech also uses longer sentences, and that is a similarity English-language speakers can identify with. We use more words and fewer contractions when speaking to our boss or an older adult than we would with our friends and peers at work. We eliminate slang phrases and short-hand speech that our friends understand right away, but which an older adult might view as disrespectful.
To master Japanese registers in conversation, you’ll need to get used to making that mental shift. Practicing using online learning tools like Speechling.com can help, but first let's cover a few basic concepts.
How It Works
Here are some Japanese honorific examples. In both cases, we see the longer polite phrasing in the formal version of each message. The informal version is equivalent to a short-hand way of saying the same thing. There are also changes in verbs depending on the situation and relationships.
When asking a question: The first is casually between friends, the second is a junior person asking a superior in a formal meeting:
- Kiite ii? Is it okay to ask (a question)?
- Kikasete-itadakeru to ureshii no desu ga. I would, however, be delighted if I may be permitted to ask (a question).
When asking for cooperation: The first is usual and polite. The latter is very formal and often found in writing, especially in posters or flyers.
- Go-kyōryoku-kudasai. Your cooperation, please.
- Go-kyōryoku no hodo o-negai mōshiagemasu. We respectfully request the favor of a measure of your cooperation.
Verb Endings (desu, masu endings)
Not only are pronouns different when used in formal and informal Japanese; verb endings are adjusted too, including for tense. Desu (です) is the Japanese copula, a verb meaning “to be” in the simple present, and –masu is a verb suffix placing verbs in the simple present tense. There is no future tense in Japanese; it is referred to as non-present and simply covers anything not in the past.
The Japanese “to be” has several forms, the most important of which are the plain form だ "da" and the polite form です "desu.” Because the verb comes last in Japanese grammar, it would look like this:
"I am John" -- "John desu"
"It is big" -- "Okii desu"
"That is correct" -- "Sō desu"
Because there is no future tense in Japanese, the non-past form is used for habitual action and future tense. The polite form of verbs is known as the masu (ます) form of verbs. Here are some examples:
shimasu means do (informal version is suru)
kimasu means come (informal version is kuru)
kaerimasu means go home (informal version is kaeru)
Prefixes “O” and “Go”
The prefixes “o” (お) and “go” (ご) are used to add a feeling of politeness or respect to a word, especially about a stranger or social superior's family, belongings, or actions. Known as bikago (美化語 embellishment words or beautification), it’s a relatively simple trick that works with the ornamental character 御 and its two main readings, o and go. These prefixes are used as another way to speak respectfully.
Japanese incorporated many words from Chinese, and one rule about these prefixes turns on a word’s origin. In general, o pairs with indigenous Japanese words, and words with foreign roots use go. Here are a few examples:
- o-kome ( rice)
- o-kane ( money)
- o-sake (sake)
- go-kazoku ( family)
- go-kyōryoku (cooperation)
- go-shinsetsu ni (friendly).
In each of these instances, simply removing the o or go makes the word less formal.
For students learning as beginners, how are you to know which words are native to the language and which ones are not? To be safe, use these prefixes only after hearing or seeing a native speaker use them. Using these prefixes with a word where they are not typically used will sound unnatural, and that’s not a situation you want to find yourself in as a beginner. Also, keep in mind that speakers never use either prefix when referring to themselves.
Learning to speak Japanese also involves paying special attention to etiquette. Is the person you’re speaking to of higher rank? Are they a valued customer? Those learning as beginnings realize quickly that the differences between formal and informal Japanese matter in real conversational situations like these, and they must be learned along with simple vocabulary. Along with using an online course like Speeching, cultural tools like Japanese movies that take place in formal settings (like offices) can provide real-world applications of the differences between formal and informal speech.