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Each year in fall, the Bunkachō (文化庁, Agency of Cultural Affairs) publishes the results of its annual opinion poll on the linguistic state of the nation, officially called Kokugo ni Kansuru Yoron Chōsa (国語に関する世論調査, Survey of the National Language). This time, the survey asked about the acceptability of a couple of recently used polite expressions that are viewed with some suspicion.

The phrase that the largest number of respondents found problematic was “O-kyakusama, dōzo itadaite kudasai (お客様,どうぞいただいてください, Please eat/drink, dear customer).” Over 74 percent of the participants said they took issue with this expression. Since the verb itadaku is a humbling term to designate acts of receiving, including eating and drinking, it should be used only to refer to actions by the speaker, not when someone else receives something. What is needed here is a verb that elevates the other person, for example meshiagaru (召し上がる), with which the phrase in question would become dōzo meshiagatte kudasai (どうぞ召し上がってください).

The second most-disliked survey item basically suffers from the same defect. Seventy-two percent found fault with the expression “Sensei, kochira de o-machi shite kudasai (先生,こちらでお待ちしてください, Please wait here, teacher).” Again the problem is that the person who is supposed to be exalted ends up being addressed with a humbling form. However, this time it’s not the verb itself that is inadequate, but the construction it comes with. O-machi suru is fine when you are waiting yourself, but when talking about someone else waiting, that person should be described as o-machi ni naru. Thus, the request should use “O-machi ni natte kudasai (お待ちになってください) or, more succinctly, “O-machi kudasai (お待ちください).”

Coming in third was “O-kyakusama ga mōsaremashita (お客様が申されました, said the customer”). This one also mistakenly uses a humbling verb, mōsu (申す, say), where the circumstances call for an exalting form. The reason why slightly less people — 63 percent — had a problem with this one might be that the defect is in part covered up by the passive voice, -areru, which is commonly used to indicate respect. The result is an interesting blend that is both uplifting and downgrading at the same time. To be on the safe side, try “O-kyakusama ga osshaimashita (お客様がおっしゃいました.”

Passive form is also an issue in the expression “3-ji ni go-shuppatsu sareru yotei desu (3時に御出発される予定です, S/he is intending to leave at 3 p.m.),” which 40 percent of the respondents found defective. Here the problem is not humbling the wrong person but an excessive praising of them — a phenomenon called “nijū keigo (二重敬語, double politeness”). In addition to the passive sareru, the term shuppatsu (出発, departure) is marked with the politeness prefix go (御). Such combinations are, for some reason, regarded as linguistically wrong, and for this reason either go-shuppatsu ni naru (御出発になる) or shuppatsu sareru (出発される) would be more appropriate.

Also considered somewhat over the top is the expression “Sensei ga osshararetayō ni (先生がおっしゃられたように, As the teacher said),” though only 28 percent took issue with this one. Here the neutral verb iu (言う, say) is replaced by the honorific ossharu (おっしゃる), which is then further upgraded by the passive voice. Since less can be more, why not leave it at sensei ga osshatta yō ni (先生がおっしゃったように)?

Judged least problematic was the phrase “Tondemo gozaimasen (とんでもございません, Oh, not at all”), which comes in handy when replying to a compliment or an apology. Only 25 percent of the respondents said they didn’t like this construction, though it is one of purists’ favorite examples of politeness gone wrong. The problem is that the term tondemonai, which this form is derived from, should not be treated as a negation. If it was, a replacement of nai by gozaimasen would indeed be the right way of making it more polite. However — or so it is explained — tondemonai is actually an ordinary adjective that just happens to end in nai (though, to be precise, the term originally does derive from a negative, but that’s a different story). Thus, just as in other –nai adjectives such as kitanai (汚い, dirty) or tsumaranai (つまらない, boring), the formal copula verb gozaimasen cannot be mobilized here. If you feel you can’t do without it, make it tondemonai koto de gozaimasu (とんでもないことでございます), otherwise tondemonai desu (とんでもないです) is just fine.

A summary of the survey in Japanese is available at www.bunka.go.jp/kokugo_nihongo/yoronchousa/h25/pdf/h25_chosa_kekka.pdf.

The results also show that in comparison to previous editions of the survey, the overall acceptance of most of the items in question is actually on the decline. Surprising as this may be, it is perhaps indicative of a new conservatism and an increased consciousness about the “right” way of doing things that is now visible in domains other than language as well.

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