On the categorization of the Japanese honorific system Keigo

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The way the structure of the Japanese honorific system keigo is grasped and presented influences the understanding and appropriate use of the honorific forms this system includes. Functional categorization makes it easier to perceive principles that are not immediately evident.

This paper argues for the superiority of the new 5-category division into sonkeigo (‘deferential speech’), kenjōgo (‘humble speech’), teichōgo (‘formal polite speech’), teineigo (‘polite speech’) and bikago (‘refined speech’), recently promulgated by the Ministry of Education, over the traditional and wide-spread 3-category division into sonkeigo, kenjōgo and teineigo. It proposes that the new system offers significant functional advantages in that it better captures the ways social relations are expressed within the Japanese honorific system and that it sets out more clear-cut categories which better reflect the differences between the forms available to the speaker. Through description and comparison of the more notable frameworks proposed by Japanese linguists over the past fifty years, the paper seeks to demonstrate that the 5-category system is not just another more extensive model but also represents a logical outcome of developments in this field of scholarship.

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