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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

March 05, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been talking about the motivations for Japanese speakers to use honorific language, and how those motivations have been theoretically explained by linguists interested in Pragmatics. This week, I’m going to move away from the theory and take a look at how honorifics have been considered by socio-linguists – people who are interested in language use as a social activity, and in the links between language and different social groups – groups based on age, sex, affiliation, region, class, and so forth.

In any language, speakers adjust what they say, and how they say it, depending upon the situation in which they find themselves, and what image they wish to project. Do they wish to assert solidarity with their addressees? Do they wish to emphasise superiority? Level of education? Identity? And so forth. All of this can be done, and is done, through language use: the accent, use of dialect, type of vocabulary, intonation, etc. Sometimes, it’s a conscious decision, and sometimes it’s done unconsciously. British readers in their forties may remember the 1980s Nat West commercial below:

It is, of course, a showcase for Adrian Edmonson’s clowning, but the fact that he endeavours to ‘Talk proper’ in order to get a bank account is evidence of the importance placed upon the right language for the right situation in British society – and the ending is evidence of how things were changing in the 1980s.

There’s been a great deal of work done on English speakers’ attitudes to, and use of, language – some of which seems to identify general cross-linguistic tendencies, and some which is country-specific. In England, for example, there’s a very close relationship between accent and social class, and listeners tend to assign people to classes depending upon what they sound like, and then have stereotyped expectations of how they will behave, and what sort of people they are. So, people with who speak RP – the standard middle class accent spoken by Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady:

are: intelligent, unfriendly, trustworthy and, believe it or not, tall! Whereas people with accents from the larger metropoli (London, Birmingham, etc.) are friendly, devious and short, and people with rural accents are backward, uneducated, warm, and direct. As you can see, a lot of these are nonsense – accent has nothing to do with body size, for example – but the attitudes are pervasive. One of the most famous experiments a linguist did to test this was to have someone go into a cinema and shout, ‘Fire! Everybody leave via the emergency exits!’ during a performance, in an RP accent, and then at a different showing in a regional accent, and time how long it took the audience to leave. The audience were noticeably slower to get moving with the latter than with the former – evidence that an RP accent was regarded as more trustworthy and authoritative.

In Japan, of course, which lacks a class-system along English lines, accent is much less important as a social marker – even dialect use doesn’t convey as much information about background and education. As Fukuda and Asato (2004, 2000) say, however, ‘use [of] elaborate honorifics’ by people from particular groups is one of the things which serves as a badge of identity.

One of the best examples of this is given by Miller (1967, 289-90) in his description of the difference between women’s and men’s Japanese speech. The following exchange he describes as (for the time) ‘fairly elegant, but otherwise quite run-of-the-mill women’s speech’:

ma, go-rippa na o-niwa degozāmasu wa nē. shibafu ga hirobiro to shite ite, kekkō degozāmasu wa nē.

My, what a splendid garden you have here-the lawn is so nice and big, it's certainly wonderful, isn't it!

iie, nan desu ka, chitto mo teire ga yukitodokimasen mono degozaimasu kara, mō, nakanaka itsumo kirei ni shite oku wake ni wa mairimasen no degozāmasu yo.

Oh no, not at all, we don't take care of it at all any more, so it simply doesn't always look as nice as we would like it to.

ā, sai degozaimashō nē. kore dake o-hiroin degozāmasu kara, hitotōri o-teire asobasu no ni datte taihen degozaimasho nē. demo mā, sore de mo, itsumo yoku o-teire ga yukitodoite irasshaimasu wa. itsumo hontō ni o-kirei de kekkō degozāmasu wa.

Oh no, I don't think so at all -but since it's such a big garden, of course it must be quite a tremendous task to take care of it all by yourself; but even so, you certainly do manage to
make it look nice all the time: it certainly is nice and pretty any time one sees it.

iie, chitto mo sonna koto gozāmasen wa.

No. I'm afraid not, not at all...

All of the boldfaced elements in the above exchange are honorific, in one way or another, and the conversation is less about the content – which is relatively trivial – than about the two women affirming their relationship and common background, and the elaborate honorifics are a significant part of that. Miller goes on to remark humorously that the same exchange between two men would consist of Ii niwa da nā いい庭だなあ (‘Nice garden’) and ‘a sub-linguistic grunt, as a sign of acknowledgement or of polite denial’ (1967, 290), which contains no honorifics at all. This is not to say that male speakers don’t use honorifics – they do, of course – but that they use them less for asserting solidarity with friends and acquaintances than women do.

Given the pronunciation of the deferential copula degozaimasu as degozāmasu, the ladies are from the Yamanote area of Tokyo – then and now a wealthy district – and when I was last discussing this extract with some Japanese (about twenty years ago now) my informants said the language was a bit old-fashioned, but they wouldn’t be too surprised to hear it on the streets there, if the two women were quite elderly. I wonder what people would say today?

Next week, I’ll continue on the social side of honorifics, and consider some of the reasons why usage changes over time.

Fukada, Atsushi and Asato, Noriko (2004), “Universal politeness theory: application to the use of Japanese honorifics” Journal of Pragmatics, 36 (11), 1991-2002.
Martin, Samuel E. (1964) “Speech levels in Japan and Korea”, 407-414 in Dell Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society. New York: Harper & Row.
Miller, Roy Andrew (1967) The Japanese Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Interesting as always. I would very much like to hear your opinions about the various functionalities of passive verbs in Japanese - honorific, tragic, just passive, etc.


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