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Horizontal and vertical politeness

Timelyn

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My sensei has been telling us a pretty strange concept about politeness in the Japanese grammar. I would like to here your thoughts on her explanation (I'm having a hard time finding it on the web with the names she used for the concepts).

She basically told us there were two forms of polite distance in the verb forms and such: vertical and horizontal. When the other person is an equal in ''class'' but still a stranger you use horizontal politeness. When it is a superior/inferior in ''class'' you use vertical politeness.

Outside of books and official grammar, how is this actually used in Japanese? Does it even make any sense?

She also told us that a wife would speak to its husband using vertical politeness, being her the one considered ''inferior''. She didn't even flinch when explaning it, but we all found it pretty sexist. It makes me doubt if she actually explained the concept to us properly. If so, how is this seen by the Japanese?

In Spanish there are some sexist grammar situations and they are currently being a source of constant (and heated) debate.
 

mdchachi

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It's true. There is "normal" polite that you would use for equals. And then there are other forms of politeness you would use towards your seniors -- one that elevates them and one that deprecates you. And still other forms you would use towards inferiors. I'm not sure if it's truly a feeling of superiority these days or not. For example you might use this latter form towards children.
And there is casual speech which you would use with friends/family/equals. If you use it with others it becomes rude.
All of this is completely embedded and a living/viable part of the language. That being said, if you don't master it but can still communicate in "normal" speech everybody you meet will be astonished at your language mastery.

As for as the spousal dynamic -- I think you're likely to see the polite vertical speech in the company of others but casual/friendly speech at home. But I've only been married once and haven't watched enough dramas to get an in-depth feeling for this point.
 

Toritoribe

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Probably your teacher is talking about polite language vs. respectful language, as already explained.
e.g.
ちょっと待ってもらえませんか vs. しばらくの間お待ちいただけませんか
Honorific speech in Japanese - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

She also told us that a wife would speak to its husband using vertical politeness, being her the one considered ''inferior''.
I don't agree with this. It's very uncommon, at least nowadays (it would be more common before WW2, though).
 

madphysicist

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As for as the spousal dynamic -- I think you're likely to see the polite vertical speech in the company of others but casual/friendly speech at home. But I've only been married once and haven't watched enough dramas to get an in-depth feeling for this point.

I've watched an awful lot of dramas and from that I'd say it really depends on the couple and the dynamic that already exists between them before they got married. But I don't claim any in-depth knowledge here.

@Timelyn
I think if you search for "keigo" and "teineigo" online or look at the link @Toritoribe provided you will find all the information you could want about different speech levels and more.

In terms of seeing men and women interact with each other, it's worth bearing in mind that

a) Women tend to use more formal speech in general - I don't think this is necessarily because they're seen as "inferior" (though it may be something of a hangover from past eras) but more because they don't want to appear unladylike by using casual expressions. Which, yes, is still a sexist idea in that it reinforces gender stereotypes, but is not quite as bad as it may seem.

b) I would say for the majority of straight couples, the husband or boyfriend is older. Age is one of the most important factors in what kind of speech you use towards someone, so it may be the wife or girlfriend was just used to speaking to him more formally before they got together.

Gender is embedded in the Japanese language in a very different way to European languages. Usually you are expressing your own gender through the way you speak, and rarely referring to other people's genders. One good thing about this I suppose is that the speaker defines their own gender rather than imposing a gender on someone else, if you see what I mean. You don't normally have the he/she/zie problem.
 

Timelyn

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I couldn't have asked for better answers, thanks a lot!

I think if you search for "keigo" and "teineigo" online or look at the link @Toritoribe provided you will find all the information you could want about different speech levels and more.

That was pretty helpful, now I see I can find plenty of information when searching for polite vs. humble grammar forms instead of that vertical/horizontal concept my sensei told us.
 

Toritoribe

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Note that humble language(謙譲語 kenjōgo) is just a type of honorific language(敬語 keigo), and it's different from respectful language (尊敬語 sonkeigo), as in the wikipedia I linked above.
 

Majestic

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Navigating the social hierarchies in Japan is a required skill, because, as mentioned above, hierarchy is embedded into the language, and functioning as a rational adult in Japanese society means mastering the use of polite and humble language. It is not only a sign of maturity, but it is also an indication of manners, of upbringing, of trustworthiness, etc... So I think the idea of "verticality" is a useful tool for conceptualizing this. So, this is a way of saying, "Your teacher isn't wrong on this". But maybe something got lost in the translation.
 

Timelyn

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Note that humble language(謙譲語 kenjōgo) is just a type of honorific language(敬語 keigo), and it's different from respectful language (尊敬語 sonkeigo), as in the wikipedia I linked above.

Ok, so I think I’m going to take a step back from this issue and wait until I have a solid basic level because I’m finding it so troublesome to distinguish between when to use a level of politeness/honorification or the other.
 

mdchachi

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Ok, so I think I’m going to take a step back from this issue and wait until I have a solid basic level because I’m finding it so troublesome to distinguish between when to use a level of politeness/honorification or the other.
That's why your teacher is keeping it simple. Now that you've stared into the depths of the complexity, you can take a step back and learn one thing at a time.
 

Toritoribe

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It's sometimes hard even for native speakers to use honorific language perfectly properly.😅
 

nice gaijin

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Not to mention that honorifics is still a changing landscape, I took a keigo class some years back and a linguistic authority in Japan had just formally established two new divisions of keigo to bring the total number up to five: teineigo, teichougo, kenchougo, sonkeigo and bikago.

Then there's certain phrases that get used in customer service which are technically wrong but have become commonplace. We called it "combini-keigo," as it was often used by convenience store clerks.

More info here: Honorific speech in Japanese - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 

Mike Cash

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It's sometimes hard even for native speakers to use honorific language perfectly properly.😅

After reading the chapter on keigo in this book I was pleased to be able to notice a shop clerk misusing keigo (二重敬語). Before I had always assumed native speakers just always get this stuff right all the time.
 

Toritoribe

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Young new workers often seem to struggle to use correct 尊敬語 and 謙譲語 in business scenes, which they would have never used before. Business keigo tends to be more and more "respectful" recently, especially in shops.
 
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