The honorable language

by Thomas Dillon

Whenever the work and weariness of life fills my house with gloom, the one sure way to drive away the clouds and ring in the laughter is this:

All I need do is to speak politely to my wife.

In Japanese, I mean. For some reason, she finds having her husband address her in formal speech hilarious.

If, for example, I ask her if she knows where I left my wallet, odds are she will ignore me. But if I use the word zonjiru for “know” and add the polite prefix of go, resulting in gozonjimasu ka, she will pound the tatami in convulsions.

Neither way do I learn about my wallet. The immediate point, however, is that Japanese couples are not supposed to speak to each other in such a formal manner. Not unless, that is, they actually intend to make each other split.

The bigger point is that I don’t get the joke. To me, one of the finer mysteries of life in Japan is the proper use of polite speech, teneigo or — worse — its more honorific cousin, keigo. Let’s make this simple and wrap these two together in a single package — the word keigo.

Of course, Japanese will tell you keigo is a mystery to them as well. Especially younger Japanese, who — like learning to ride a bike — have to scrape their knees a few times before they can pedal away on just the right verb choices. As for me, my knees are so badly scarred, I am afraid to get anywhere near the keigo bicycle.

This may depend on how one first learned Japanese. If you acquired your skills in a classroom with a patient instructor — or one that was not so tolerant but carried a whip — you might have a handle on polite speech. If you learned your Japanese in a bar, arguing politics, sports, and whatnot with other imbibers, you may be more colorful and even more effective in your expressions. But you may not be so polite.

The advantage of bar language is that it is practical. Keigo, meanwhile, is as artificial as the classroom. But harmony-obsessed Japan is full of artificial settings and sooner or later every learner trips over the rules for respectful speech.

One aspect of keigo — one that is perhaps more polite than truly honorific — involves the use of the courteous prefixes o or go before specific words. Ah, but which words!? That is the question.

“The rules here are simple,” says my wife, who is a licensed Japanese teacher, the patient variety. “You only use ‘o’ or ‘go’ before nouns, unless you use them before verbs. ‘Go’ goes before terms of Chinese origin and ‘o’ before words of Japanese origin, if you can tell which is which. And you never put such affixes before words written in katakana, except, of course, when you do. Clear?”

Perhaps she needs a whip. In any case, the only hint I can give is to never put “o” before the noun “pie.” The story is that one guy did this when suggesting his fellow classmate partake of an apple pie baked by their teacher, as in: “Try her ‘O-pie.’ I did and it was delicious!” Oppai is the Japanese word for “breast.”

The real difficulty with keigo comes with the added lexical choices, mostly of rarely used terms, plus the dance of courteous verb endings.

I cannot do the dance. It makes me dizzy. Especially in telephone conversations.

When speaking face to face, I can guess from eye contact what the other speaker wants. But on the phone, I don’t know whether the speaker wishes to do something for me or have me do something for him. In the end, I figure that whatever it is — if he wants it bad enough — he’ll call back.

The one place seemingly rife with keigo is the Imperial family, where everyone is also required to speak at a pace slow enough to enable bookies to take bets on what word comes next. I wonder if they use keigo on the “inside.” If so, I imagine Mr. and Mrs. Crown Prince talk like this:

She: “Honorable darling, I believe it is thy turn to take out the honorable trash.”

He: “But honorable sweetheart! I took out the honorable trash yesterday! Thy honorable memory has blundered!”

No wonder she had a breakdown.

Or perhaps she just broke down laughing.