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日本語 Japanese Respect Language

Respect language—the special style of polite spoken or written Japanese—is involved almost every exchange of Japanese between one person and another,

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“Respect language”, better known by most students as keigo, is a difficult topic for a learner of Japanese to get their head around. Most beginner textbooks barely touch on it, and while some of the grammatical forms may be explained in higher level grammar books the most difficult part is not in forming the sentences, but knowing in what situations they should be used.

The strength of Japanese Respect Language, in my view, is that it tries to place in context, as the subtitle would have it, “when, why, and how” one should use keigo.

The author is the late P.G. O’Neill, who was Professor of Japanese at SOAS in London, and the teaching material was originally tested on students who already had 250 to 300 classroom hours of instruction.

It is therefore not suitable for the beginner, but accessible to any learner who already has a decent grasp of basic grammar, including causative and passive verb conjugations. I would judge the minimum level as somewhere between JLPT N4 and N3. However, it would be useful as well for more advanced students as well, particularly those who have had little to no previous formal study of keigo.

Example sentences and exercises are produced with two versions – one using kanji and kana, the other in romaji – and with an English translation. This means that in theory a lack of vocabulary or kanji knowledge should not be a problem, although for the most part the example sentences do not contain particularly esoteric vocabulary.

The first chapter is an introduction to the basic concepts, particularly looking at the situations where neutral or respectful language would be used. These are provided in a dizzying array of combinations depending on who you’re talking to and about. The associated diagrams did not, I found, provide much clarity, but simple examples of situations (“A boy talking to his teacher about his father.”) help.

The second chapter, “Polite and Respectful Words” tackles things such as お and ご prefixes, forms of address for family members and cases such as the use of 方 (kata) in place of 人 (hito). The explanation is followed by reference tables showing the neutral versus polite forms, and a short test.

A short word on the tests, which there are several of throughout the book: these primarily take the form of “fill-in-the-blank” exercises which require either the production of the correct keigo form, or a decision of whether respectful or neutral language should be used. Particularly for the latter purpose, situational examples are provided, “one shop assistant talking to another” or “a secretary introducing a new member of staff to the manager”.

The style of the questions provides a good review – the answers are provided directly after, often with additional explanation or references back to the text.

The bulk of the remainder, chapters 3 through 8, covers various forms of verb, with one short chapter following discussing adjectives.

Of particular note is Chapter 6, which looks at permissive constructions – e.g. “Could I have you wait a moment?” or more complex cases such as “I got my teacher to let my friend go too.”

Particular care is given throughout in separating out the parts of the language which show respect to the person you’re talking to, and those which show respect to the person you’re talking to, and

Finally there is a section for review purposes (“Practice Readings”) which consists of reading passages (e.g. letter from a student to a teacher). These are to be completed with the correct forms as well as annotated to show which type of form was used, and what the neutral version would be. The answer key provides references back to the appropriate pages for review.

There is also a short “final exam”, which for some reason is the only section of the book provided solely in romaji.

One potential quibble – while this is described as an “updated” version published in 2008, it is not clear what was changed in the text from the original edition of 1966 or the first Tuttle edition of 1983.

In summary, this is an excellent introduction to keigo for a upper-beginner to intermediate learner. It also works as a stepping stone for a more advanced learner to tackling the wide range of material aimed at native speakers on this subject.
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P.G. O’Neill
Tuttle Publishing
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$19.95 (RRP)

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