Formal vs Informal Speech in Japanese Language

Formal vs Informal Speech in Japanese

Formal and casual situations often call for different ways of speaking. While in English we may change the words and phrases we use in formal vs. casual situations, Japanese has rules to define formal and casual modes of speech. 

When people learn that there are different modes of Japanese they often have some questions. What are the differences? Do I need to learn both? When do you use them? How serious is it if you use the wrong one? This article will address these questions and others.

An overview of Japanese modes of speech

In the Japanese language, there are four main modes of speech:

Simple formal speech

Simple formal speech is mainly used when speaking to people you don’t know well. It’s also an appropriate level when speaking to most teachers or coworkers. If you’re unsure which level of formality to use, simple formal speech is a respectful and “safe” choice. 

Casual speech

Casual speech is used when speaking to good friends. In fact, you may be able to tell when you’ve officially become friends by whether someone has switched to using casual speech and/or casual honorifics with you. 

Honorific speech

Honorific speech is used to show utmost respect to someone. It is most often used when talking with customers and work superiors, but you may also be expected to use it with some teachers or people older than you (depending on the person). It has its own unique vocabulary and grammar forms. You would also be expected to consistently apply honorific prefixes.

Humble speech

Humble speech is used to communicate that your position is lower than someone else. Being humble is an important virtue in Japanese culture. Humble speech and honorific speech work together, and you may hear someone use both within the same conversation. The difference is that honorific speech is used to describe someone else and humble speech is used to describe oneself.

How important are the different modes of speech?

For Japanese people, these modes hold a lot of cultural importance. If you’re casual with someone you don’t know, you may come off as rude. If you’re formal with a friend, they would wonder if something happened to make you become distant. And if you’re unable to correctly use honorific and humble speech, it may greatly impact your chances of getting hired at a company.

All this said, don’t be paranoid about offending someone by using the wrong Japanese! Japanese people on average are extremely forgiving of linguistic mistakes made by foreigners because they know that Japanese is not your native language. Rather, they are usually happy to find out that someone made the effort to learn.

If you’re still a beginner, the most important thing is to just try speaking. If you can do so while consistently using either simple formal or casual Japanese, that’s great! However even if you can’t and your Japanese ends up being “mixed”, being understood and communicating effectively should be your priority. 

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Mastering the “modes” becomes more important the more you spend time among Japanese people, especially if you’re repeatedly interacting with the same people. If you are going to make Japanese friends or work with Japanese people, using the wrong level can put a discrete barrier between you and others.

This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to communicate sufficiently, but there will be a sense that something is “off” in your relationship. If your goal is to make those relationships more natural, then you may want to focus on your “mode of speech”.

Verbs are the main focus

In order to identify the mode of a sentence, look at the verb. Although other words in a sentence may also change, the verbs will be the biggest giveaway. The difference can simply be the conjugation, or the word choice may be completely different.  

Simple formal speech

If you learn Japanese through formal education or textbooks, you will most likely start with simple formal speech or “teineigo” (literally “formal language”). This mode is characterized by using verbs in their “V-masu” form (V stands for verb). For example:

りんご を 食べます
ringo wo tabemasu
= I eat apples / I will eat an apple

公園 に 行きます
kouen ni ikimasu
= I go to the park / I will go to the park

The past tense conjugation “V-mashita”, the negative form “V-masen”, and the continuous form “V-teimasu” are also used in simple formal speech:

日本 に 行きました
nihon ni ikimashita
= I went to Japan 

たばこ を 吸いません
tabako wo suimasen
= I don’t smoke cigarettes

本 を 読んでいます
hon wo yondeimasu
= I’m reading a book

In the absence of another verb, a sentence using simple formal speech will end with “desu” or its past form “deshita”.

ケーキ は おいしい です (present tense i-adjective)
keeki ha oishii desu
= Cake is delicious

猫 が 好き です (present tense na-adjective)
neko ga suki desu
= I like cats

昨日 は あつかった です (past tense i-adjective)
kinou ha atsukatta desu
= It was hot yesterday

いい 休み でした (past tense noun)
ii yasumi deshita
= It was a good vacation

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Honorifics with simple formal speech

Honorifics are words attached to the end of names to show respect or imply a certain relationship. You can read more about them in the article “A Beginner-Friendly Japanese Phrasebook”.

With simple formal speech, the honorific you will use is “(name)-san”. To be more formal, use it together with someone’s last name.

For example, if someone’s last name is “Yamada”, you’d say “Yamada-san”. You can also use it with someone’s first name, but that would imply a closer or more friendly relationship.

Fun fact: Japanese people will often refer to a foreigner by their first name + san. This may be in order to encourage a more friendly relationship, or may be a way to meet foreigners on their terms. For many foreigners (including Americans) it may feel strange to only be referred to by their last name, and Japanese people recognize that. It may also sometimes be the case that they’re not sure which is someone’s first or last name!   

Casual speech

Casual speech is called “tameguchi” (the origin of “tame” is unclear, but “guchi” refers to your mouth). It includes slang and other casual expressions that you may not learn in a textbook, but is still commonly used in the real world.

If you know about the dictionary form or other short-forms for verbs (such as V-ru, V-ta, V-nai, and V-teiru), these are the forms you’ll use for casual speech. For example:

りんご を 食べる
ringo wo taberu
= I eat apples / I will eat an apple

日本 に 行った
nihon ni itta
= I went to Japan 

たばこ を 吸わない
tabako wo suwanai
= I don’t smoke cigarettes

本 を 読んでいる
hon wo yondeiru
= I’m reading a book

In the absence of another verb, the ending of a sentence will depend on the last word of the phrase. If the last word is an i-adjective, either past or present, nothing is added. The sentence ends on the i-adjective:

ケーキ は おいしい (present tense i-adjective)
keeki ha oishii
= Cake is delicious

昨日 は あつかった (past tense i-adjective)
kinou ha atsukatta
= It was hot yesterday

When the last word is a na-adjective or a noun, add “da” for present tense or “datta” for past tense:

猫 が 好き (だ) (present tense na-adjective)
neko ga suki (da)
= I like cats

いい 休み だった (past tense noun)
ii yasumi datta
= It was a good vacation

Although present tense sentences that end in na-adjectives or nouns should end with “da” by proper rules, you may often hear people drop the “da”. 

Honorifics with casual speech

You can also use either someone’s first or last name with casual speech, although using their first name would demonstrate a more casual/friendly relationship. With casual speech there is more variation in the honorifics commonly used:

(name)-kun: Usually used to refer to a male friend, especially if they’re the same age or younger. More common with children and teenagers.

(name)-chan: Usually used to refer to a female friend, especially if they’re the same age or younger. More common with children and teenagers. This is the most “cutesy” sounding of the common honorifics.

No honorific: Dropping an honorific entirely implies a rather close relationship.This is the most common choice for adult friendships, since “kun” and “chan” can come off as childish.

Honorific and humble speech

Honorific speech is “sonkeigo” (literally “respect language”) and humble speech is “kensongo” (literally “humble language”). As previously alluded to, honorific and humble speech are used for very formal situations. They’re typically used in workplace settings, such as for interviews and talking with your customers or boss. 

If you’re only planning to travel in Japan or make Japanese friends, it’s unlikely you’d ever need to use honorific or humble speech yourself. However, it is still useful to learn for the purpose of listening; after all, as a tourist you would typically be a “customer”. And if you’re planning to work or go to higher education in Japan, depending on your boss or teacher you may be expected to use them. 

What sticks out about these modes is the unique verbs. Many of the most common verbs have an honorific or humble speech equivalent that is completely different than the V-masu or V-ru forms. The charts in the following sections should help you get started on learning them.

For less common verbs there are special grammar constructions, but those follow relatively set rules. 

For jobs that often employ young people and immigrants, such as restaurants and convenience stores, employers sometimes put a list of standard formal phrases behind the counter for workers to reference. This is because they understand that honorific and humble speech are a common point of struggle for these groups. 

Honorific verbs

Remember that these verbs are used when referring to someone else:

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Here are some real life examples:

いらっしゃいませ!
irasshaimase!
= Welcome! (said when you enter a store or restaurant; more literally “come in!”)

ご注文 は 何 に なさいますか?
go-chuumon ha nani ni nasaimasu ka?
= What would you like to order? (more literally “what will you do for your order?”)

ご覧ください
go-ran kudasai
= Please take a look (around)

Humble Verbs

Remember that these are used when referring to oneself:

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Here are some more real life examples:

電車 が まいります
densha ga mairimasu
= The train is coming

いただきます!
itadakimasu!
= Let’s eat! (said before you eat; more literally “I humbly receive this meal”)

リディア と 申します
Ridia to moushimasu
= My name is Lydia (more literally “I am called Lydia”; never use honorifics with your own name!)

Honorifics with humble speech

When speaking to customers or special guests, the honorific you will use is “(name)-sama”. Since this mode is used to show utmost respect, you will use it together with someone’s last name (or full name). Customers are also commonly referred to as “o-kyaku-sama” (kyaku = customer). 

For people in special positions such as teachers and bosses, you will refer to them by their title. You can either just call a teacher “sensei” or “(name)-sensei”. A department head will be called “buchou” or “(name)-buchou”, and a company president will be called “shachou” or “(name)-shachou”.

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Formal prefixes

The two formal prefixes are “o” and “go”. Their purpose is simply to make a word more formal. 

Some nouns often take a formal prefix, such as “o-namae” (name), “o-hashi” (chopsticks), and “go-chuumon” (food order). “O” is the more common prefix with nouns. There is not a set rule for which nouns accept a formal prefix, however, so if you’re unsure it’s safer to not include it. For the sake of consistency they are more important to try to include when speaking formally, but can be used when speaking at any level of formality.

Formal prefixes are also part of some special grammar constructions for honorific speech. One construction is “(formal prefix) + (verb stem) + ください”. Which formal prefix you use depends on the following word. Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that verbs made by combining two kanji will take “go”, and the others will take “o”. For example:

お使いください
o-tsukai kudasai
= Please use it

ご注意ください
go-chuui kudasai
= Please be careful

Real-world application

It bears repeating that, since Japanese is not your native language, you wouldn’t be expected to speak it perfectly. This includes correctly and consistently using the “modes”. Nevertheless, it’s definitely beneficial to be exposed to the different modes of Japanese to increase your understanding and flexibility with the language. In a classroom you typically focus on simple formal Japanese, but if you go to Japan or watch Japanese media you’ll frequently hear casual, honorific, and humble speech. 

If you’d like to make Japanese friends, I would highly recommend practicing casual speech. Unfortunately that may be difficult in a formal school environment since that’s not the correct “mode” for that setting. However, with a one-on-one tutor you can customize your learning to suit your specific goals. Look on Wyzant to find a tutor who will be a good match for you!

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