Monday, May 31, 2010

Culture: Why Is Everything "Honorable"?

Sometimes when you see English translations of Japanese, you'll see things like "the honorable rice" or "Here is your honorable change." What the translators are trying to sum up in a single, awkward word is the idea of "o"/"go", a prefix you tack on the front of some words to show respect to the person you're talking to.

While the different levels of Japanese is at times a really complicated topic, here's the 30-second version: Let's say I'm the CEO of a company and you're the mailboy and for some reason we're standing outside the office together. When we have a conversation about the weather, I get to use really short, simple Japanese as you're below me. You, on the other hand, have to use very, very formal, respectful speech when talking about me and things that are mine. There is very little equality in Japanese relationships in general: someone is always considered "higher", and the other always lower, though the degree can vary.

Respect is also shown by holding others in higher regard than yourself, even if you're at an equal social level. This respectful speech found in both the above-mentioned situations at times includes the "o" or "go". So when I talk about my own family I use "kazoku" 家族 but when I talk about your family I'll say gokazoku ご家族. The family itself isn't inherently honorable or respected, but in that situation its placement as your family, not my own humble one, makes it so.

An exception is that with some words this respectful "o" over time became permanently attached no matter what the situation ("ocha" お茶, or tea, is the o + cha, and gohan ご飯, "cooked rice/meal", is go + han).

Listen carefully the next time you watch a drama, anime or movie with spoken Japanese and pay attention when an underling or lower-ranking person is dealing with someone much higher up, whether a servant and a king or a teller and customer at a bank: even if you don't speak the language yourself you'll likely hear a few clear "o"s leading off words!

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