第115課: Honorifics I: Nouns

     Honorific speech 敬語 is crucial to speaking Japanese, and it is very intricate. Its usage is mandatory in many situations. There are three broad categories of honorific speech in Japanese. You have been used to polite speech for a long time, so this is not going to be the focus of this lesson.

 尊敬語 そんけいご Respectful/Honorific
 謙(譲・遜)語 けんじょうご・けんそんご Humble
 丁寧語 ていねいご Polite

     Respectful speech is speaking to or of a person whom one wishes to respect. It is not used in reference to oneself. Humble speech is speaking to someone on what you or your in-group are to do. Also, respectful speech is associated with 2nd and 3rd person whereas humble speech is associated with 1st person.

Culture Note: You should also be aware that using 敬語 to someone that one is usually cordial and casual with will cause division and a sense of separation.

Honorific Nouns

     Nouns are made honorific by the prefix 御~ which has three possible readings.


     御~ is read as お~ when attached to native words as well as a number of 漢語 (Sino-Japanese words).

Motivations for using お~ with 漢語 is being a 和製語 (word created in Japan). It's nearly impossible to know whether an 音読み phrase was made in Japan without being told. However, a great hint is that the majority of these words relate to things of the modern era.

Yet another means of knowing whether お~ is used with a 漢語 is if its sense as a 漢語 has been lost in the general public and has essentially become Japanese (due to the lack or loss of a native equivalent).  

 Noun Honorific 和語・漢語 Meaning
 名前 お名前 和語 Name
 世話 お世話 和語 Assistance
 世辞  お世辞  和語 Flattery
 釣り お釣り  和語 Change
 手紙  お手紙 和語 Letter
 塩  お塩  和語 Salt
 魚  お魚  和語 Fish
 目  お目 和語 Eyes
 腹 お腹 和語 Stomach
 上 お上 和語 Buttress; government
 自宅  お住い 和語 Residence

Some words are somewhat difficult to read. For instance, お腹 is read as おなか and お上 is read as おかみ. As you can see, all words are listed. So, what about 世話? This is 当て字,  meaning せわ is native and the spelling blurs this fact.   

1. お‐ is always incompatible with 'long words' several morae long, and it is also note used with words that start with o

2. A rarer but more honorific form of お~ is おん~. Examples include 御自ら and 御母上.

Example Sentences 

1. 彼女にはいろいろなことをしていただいて世話(せわ)になっております。
    I owe her a lot for everything.

2. おしかりのお言葉を有り難く頂戴いたします。
    I would appreciate it if I receive your scolding.

3. おさきにどうぞ。
    Please go in front.

4. 亡くなられたお方の小さい御子達(おこたち)の相手に女の(めい)たちを連れて来て(もら)いたいと()うのだった。
    She was told that [they] would like her to bring along her nieces as companions to the small               children of the deceased lady. .
From 姨捨(おばすて) by 堀尾辰(ほりおたつ).  

Word Note: Though お方 now refers politely to a gentleman/gentlewoman, in the past it was used to refer to a noble woman or daughter, as is the case in this setting. 

5. 「罪が深いんですから、いくら難有いお経だって浮ばれる事は御座いませんよ」
    Since his sin is so grave, you cannot rest his soul no matter how great of a sutra you evoke.  
From 吾輩は猫である by 夏目漱石.

Word Note: お経 is an interesting exception. 経 is a Sino-Japanese word of Chinese origin and does not take ご, which we are about to get to. This must mean that the word is treated as if it is a native word, just like other old loans such as 馬.

Spelling Note: Because the novel from which this example comes from is so old, spelling conventions are not quite the same. ありがたい, when it is written in 漢字 today, is typically spelled as 有り難い. As you can see, the 漢字 are flipped. 

 Non-Polite Examples

Although a phrase may have an honorific suffix in it, it doesn't mean that it is respectful. One example is お里が知れる, which means "to reveal one's upbringing". This refers to Japanese dialects and is felt to be a rude expression. A much more polite way is なまり・方言・アクセントで出身が分かる. 

As another example of words with お that are not honorific, consider the word お化け. This is an alternative way of saying 化け物. Both refer to Japanese-style ghosts/monsters. お化け can also refer to something just really abnormal. There are a lot of important お化け that you should know about. Important ones include 轆轤首ろくろくび天狗てんぐ, and からかさけ.

 お + 外来語

What if you wanted to make a loanword like ワイン or コンピューター? You add nothing. However, there are several exceptions. In relation to drinks, おビール is questionable, but some people, particularly women, do use it. It is also appropriate in the business arena. There is no problem with using お酒, お茶, or お冷 because they are 'Japanese' words. Likewise,  although you can say お洋服, you cannot say おスーツ or おコート. 

おタバコ is not that common unless you're in a service industry. Similar words that are odd unless you're in a secretarial position include お車 and お薬 despite being native words. おズボン would also be seen in the trades or by women who frequently add お to more words than men typically do such as おジュース. おソース is on the same lines as おしょう油. 

 A decent amount of people also say things like おトイレ. It is strange to a lot of people, though. Interestingly, お手洗い is proper Japanese. 

 お + 漢語

As mentioned above, there quite a few words that are from Chinese or based on Chinese morphemes that take お. Consider the following examples.

 お電話 Phone お時間 Time お砂糖 Sugar お宅 Home お礼状 Thank you note
 お肉 Meat お邪魔 Disturbance お写真 Photo お天気 Weather お菓子 Sweets
 お愛想* Affability お風呂 Bath お会計* Bill お勘定* Bill お返事** Response

Ironically, お宅 does also mean "nerd". In honorifics, though, it seriously refers to someone else's home.  

*: All of these words happen to be used to mean "bill", but there is huge disagreement on how they should be used. おあいそ is largely felt to me rude in Tokyo, but it is frequently used in West Japan. The reason why some say it's rude is because it should be what a business should say to a customer. Meaning, it is they who may have not shown affability to you as they should have. Thus, a customer referring to this is rude. Others, though, think the opposite and that the customer should use it.

お会計 is the word of choice for younger generation. It is the word most likely to be on your receipt at any given place. However, there are those who think only the business side should use it because it is referring to actual accounting. お勘定 is rather neutral in being used by the customer, but the percentage of young people who use it is dropping.  

**: This word can also be ご返事, which is deemed to be the original form and always proper. However, over 60% of people no longer use it. So, it is fair to say that there is no practical difference between the two. Be aware of sticklers. 


     ご~ is used only with 音読み compounds that are often considered formal and typically have a native Japanese word equivalent.

 Noun Honorific Meaning
 主人  ご主人  Master*
 病気 ご病気 Sickness
 心配 ご心配  Worry
 旅行 ご旅行 Trip
 連絡  ご連絡 Contact
 両親  ご両親 Parents
 遠慮  ご遠慮  Discretion
 注意  ご注意  Caution
 親類  ご親類 Relatives
 相談  ご相談  Consulting
 近所  ご近所  Vicinity
 親切  ご親切 Kindness
 苗字  ご苗字 Last name

Usage Notes

1. The adverb ゆっくり may also be used with ご~. *

2. 主人 means "master" but "(someone's) husband when ご~ is attached.

3. There are times when adding ご results in Double Keigo (二重敬語). For instance, in ご芳名 (your good name), ご令息 (son), ご逝去 (death), the nouns themselves are already honorific. But, because they have for whatever reason been reanalyzed as being not honorific enough, ご is always attached to them. 


6. 大変たいへん面倒めんどうをおかけしてすみませんでした。
    I'm very sorry to have put you into any trouble.

7. 先生()茶道(さどう)のご教授(きょうじゅ)(たまわ)りたいのですが。
    Would you be so kind as to give me instruction on tea ceremonies?

8. ご訂正ていせいを頂戴いたしまして、どうもありがとうございます。
    Thank you very much for giving me corrections.

9. どうぞご遠慮(えんりょ)なく。
     Feel free. 


み~ is used with nouns particular to religion or grand importance. Although rarely seen, it is even possible to use おみ~ and おんみ~.

 Comes From  New Meaning
 Treasure 大御宝 Imperial subjects
 Child 御子  God's son
 Name 御名 Holy Name
 Palanquin 御輿・神輿 (みこし) Portable Shrine
 Liquor 御神酒 (おみき) Sacred Wine
 World 御世  Imperial Reign
 Heart 御心  Lord's will
 Rock of spirit 御影石 Granite

Word Note: The last example is a little complicated. 御影 happens to mean "spirit(s) of the dead". This word also happens to be a place name where granite is manufactured. Thus, the word 御影石 came from this geographical connection. This is an important example to note, though, because this word is not honorific in any way despite the fact it clearly has the honorific prefix み- in it. 


     There are other means to show respectful and humble speech in nouns. For respectful nouns, 貴~ is apart of many respectful Sino-Japanese words. However, most, with exception to 貴社 "your honorable company" are rarely used. Death especially has several respectful variants.

Several humble nouns begin with 粗(そ), 拙(せつ), and 弊 (へい). All three characters have negative/humble connotations. 愚(ぐ)~ is a humble prefix added to the 音読み of characters used for family. For representing respectfulness in terms of family, the suffix ~上(うえ) is used. Or, you may use 賢(けん)~.

  Noun HON. H or R?
 Person 人 者  H
 Person 人  方  R
 Refreshments おやつ
 My thoughts 私意  拙意  H
 Word 言葉  詔  R
 Older brother 兄  愚兄  H
 Older brother  賢兄  R
 Company 会社  貴社  R
 Company 会社 弊社 H
 Tea 茶  粗茶  H
 Place 所  御所  R
 Husband 夫  宿六  H
 Liquor 酒  粗酒  H
 Daughter 娘  愚女  H
 Father 父  父上  R/H
 Goods 品  粗品  H
 Manuscript 原稿  玉稿  R
 Production; work
 著作  拙作  H

INTERPRETING THE CHART: R = Respectful & H = Humble

Usage Notes:

1. 御所 refers to the "old imperial palace".

2. 詔 refers to an "imperial decree".

3. Whenever a word refers to royalty, that said variant is not used in reference to regular people.

4. 粗品 may also mean "little gift". This would still be 書き言葉的.

5. 粗 means "crude/course/inferior" and these meanings are implied in the humble words whether the thing(s) in question are as such.

6. Sometimes using the right word can be tricky. For instance, whenever people take entrance exams for college (入学試験) and companies (入試試験), people these days are starting to want to use 御校 and 御社 respectively instead of 貴校 or 貴社. The problem with this is with 御 being read as おん, it may sound quite unnatural in the spoken language if it were not for abnormal situation in which one is in front of many people you don't know. Although 貴校 and 貴社 may get used in letters between groups in an almost equal mentality, the most important thing in 敬語 is still to be conscious overall of ways to speak politely. Thus, it is quite OK to use those words.  


 崩御 (ほうぎょ) The honorable death of royalty.
 卒去 (そっきょ) Death of king or queen or a high ranking court official.
 逝去 (せいきょ)
 A more honorific word for the passing of an individual.
 薨去 (こうきょ)
 Death of an imperial member or high court.
 薨御 (こうぎょ) The death of a crowned prince or minister.

Word Note: It is unlikely that you will see some of these words, but there is always that chance. "To die" is generally a euphemism for several other verbs such as 死亡する (to decease), 死去する (to part), and 亡くなる (to pass away)". 


     There are also many set phrases that include the prefixes お~ and ご~ and the honorific endings ~さん and ~さま.

 お月{さま・さん}  Moon
 お日{さま・さん}  Sun
 お世話さま  Trouble
 お邪魔さま Trouble
 お疲れさま  Tired One
 お気の毒さま  I'm very sorry
 ご面倒さま  Could I trouble you
 ご苦労さま  Much obliged for hardship


     Some nouns are naturally formal because they are Sino-Japanese. These examples are by no means it, and you have seen many already. You will also see more in coming lessons through example sentences.

 Tomorrow 明日 (みょうにち)This year
 今年、本年 (こんねん、ほんねん)
 Breakfast 朝食 (ちょうしょく) Day after tomorrow 明後日 (みょうごにち)
 Next year 明年 (みょうねん) Day before yesterday 一昨日 (いっさくじつ)
 Last night
 昨夜 (さくや) Today 本日 (ほんじつ)
 The other day 先日 (せんじつ) Around... 約 (やく)

Word Note: Some of the words are typically heard as well. But, when it comes down to deciding what variant of a word you should use when speaking respectfully, you would choose these words.


   Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in fact, have 4 sets of expressions based on politeness with each set using a different verb for "to eat".

  Breakfast Lunch Dinner  To Eat
 V 朝飯(あさめし) 昼飯(ひるめし) [晩・夕]飯([ばん・ゆう]めし) 食(く)う
 PL 朝飯(あさはん) 昼飯(ひるはん) 夕飯(ゆうはん) 食(た)べる
 P 朝御飯(あさごはん)
 [晩・夕]御飯([ばん・ゆう]ごはん) 食べる
 F 朝食(ちょうしょく) 昼食(ちゅうしょく) 夕食(ゆうしょく) 取る

Word Note: 夜ご飯 is becoming more acceptable as more people are now eating dinner later in the evening. 



1. When do you use お-?

2. When do you use ご-?

3. How do you use adjectives in honorific speech?

4. What are the two types of honorific speech?

5. Make a sentence in honorific speech with the copula.

6. Make a sentence in honorific speech with an adjective.

7. Make a sentence in honorific speech with a noun.

8. Show how a noun may change meaning when used with an honorific prefix.

9. Explain the usage of honorifics in your own words.