The ability of Japanese people to use profanity, mainly when directed at other people, is less objectionable than the English equivalent. The delivery and tone of one’s speech, rather than any particular word or phrase, usually betray one’s intentions.

Different speech patterns are required in formal and informal contexts. Japanese contains standards that determine formal and casual styles of speech, as opposed to the more flexible approach taken in English. 

Knowing when to use a more official or casual tone is essential for fluent Japanese conversation. The Japanese language has a long history and a culture that values respect, politeness, and social status. Knowing when and how to switch from professional to casual speech may considerably impact the outcome of any conversation, whether it’s a business meeting, a chat with friends, or a visit with an elderly relative.

This blog post will discuss why picking up on these differences is essential and how they affect the flow of conversation in Japanese. Learning the subtle differences between formal and informal Japanese speech can help you better understand Japanese culture and succeed in various social situations. Get ready to study the finer points of Japanese etiquette and small talk!

Overview of Japanese Language and Communication

There are primarily four different ways of expressing oneself in Japanese:

Formal and Simple Language

Formal, simple language is often used when communicating with strangers or acquaintances. It’s also satisfactory for communicating with most of your professors or colleagues. Use simple formal speech to be respectful and “safe” when you don’t know how formal you should be. 

Informal Conversation

Good friends utilise informal language when conversing with one another. Using informal language and honorifics is one possible indicator of a friend-to-friend relationship. 

Honorific Speech

You employ honorific language when you want to offer someone the utmost respect. It is customary to use it when conversing with clients and superiors at work, but you may also be expected to do so when speaking to some teachers or persons of a more senior age. It has its own set of grammatical constructions and vocabulary words. You’d also have to be consistent with your use of honorific prefixes.

Expression of Humility

Using humble language signals that you hold a lesser status than the other person. Humbleness is highly valued in Japanese society. It is possible to hear both humble and dignified speech in the same discourse. Humble speech is used to describe oneself, while dignified speech is used to describe another.

How Significant Are Various Kinds of Speech?

These forms of expression are highly significant to Japanese culture. Being too relaxed around someone you don’t know can come across as unfriendly. If you suddenly become formal with a friend, they may worry that something has happened between you. Furthermore, your employment prospects may suffer if you cannot effectively use honorific and humble speech.

However, this should not make you overly cautious about using proper Japanese. Because they understand that you are not a native speaker, Japanese people are often quite understanding of language barriers. They are more likely to be pleased to learn that someone else has taken an interest in learning.

If you’re starting, the most crucial thing is to give talking a shot. Could you do this while consistently utilising standard formal or colloquial Japanese? The most important thing is to be understood and to be able to communicate effectively, even if you can’t avoid speaking a “mixed” kind of Japanese. 

Switching between the different “modes” is crucial if you plan to engage with the same Japanese people regularly. Using the incorrect level when interacting with Japanese people might create a subtle barrier that makes it difficult to make friends or collaborate with them.

While you can still express yourself adequately, your partner may feel something is “off” in the relationship. You could want to work on your “mode of speech” to make those interactions feel more natural.

Formal Japanese

It makes sense for students of Japanese to start with the standard form of the language. Always assume the least amount of familiarity possible, especially with someone you don’t know well or with whom you’re unfamiliar. When making a first impression, it’s preferable to refrain from exhibiting too much respect rather than not enough. As you learn more about the other person or develop a deeper relationship, you might modify how you communicate with them. The fact that the Japanese language has so many gradations of politeness is further evidence of the country’s emphasis on status and respect.

Teineigo 

Polite language,” or “Formal,” is a literal translation of this term. A more formal style that also utilises fewer abbreviations. Due to its prevalence among adults who are not related to one another, this is the mode you will begin mastering initially. It’s also the proper way to address a superior.

You’ll soon learn how to employ the polite copula (to-be word) “desu” and the polite verb suffix “-masu” to distinguish formal speech, and you should also avoid using contractions while speaking formally. You’ll also hear the honorifics “o” and “go” quite often.

Kudaketa Nihongo

Words like “slang,” “informal,” and “casual” may be appropriate here. A more informal version with more slang and abbreviations. The verb ends are very regular, and contractions and slang are widely used. Speech that is less formal, and hence less predictable, is called “informal.” This is why you’ll learn to speak in a more casual style as you progress through your education.

Informal communication amongst close friends (who would be of equal rank) will naturally differ from that of a superior or subordinate. Using straightforward language devoid of obviously informal characteristics is another typical example of an intermediary writing style.

Keigo

It is more polite than indigo and means “honorific language.” This tone is appropriate for addressing someone much higher up the corporate ladder.

The second linguistic distinction of politeness in Keigo concerns the identity of the person being addressed. The former, known as (sonkeigo), is reserved for use when addressing a superior or discussing matters directly linked to them. In contrast, the latter, known as (enough), is reserved when discussing matters directly related to oneself.

Keigo, the most sophisticated speech style, is taught last because it is not as essential in the beginning. Keigo’s fundamentals are easier to learn than they might first appear (mostly only a few additional verb conjugations that are straightforward and a handful of irregular forms that are more challenging).

Business honorifics are crucial but are rarely covered in formal education. Companies instead instruct workers in proper communication methods with customers and upper management.

In a moment, we’ll go into greater detail on the mechanics of formal Japanese. For the time being, it is sufficient to know that once a student of Japanese has mastered the fundamentals of more formal Japanese, informal Japanese absorbs these notions before adjusting when speaking to individuals who are more familiar or of equivalent status.

Informal Japanese

As we saw with the formal register, Japanese incorporates respect and deference within the language. In contrast, friends, relatives, and children use informal Japanese, yet it is still customary to show more deference to one’s elders and superiors. When opting for a more casual tone, the pronouns used will reflect that.

Pronoun Usage

Everyone uses the same pronoun in English. In English, we always use the same form of “you”, regardless of who we are addressing. If you’ve taken Spanish before, though, you might recall that “t” means “you” in a more casual context, while “used” is more official.

The Japanese word for “t” that you and your cousin of the same age use in your chat is “ta”. It gets even more convoluted in Japanese, but this informal “you” shows how respect and rank are ingrained in the language.

Kimi 

Men use them to refer to someone of lesser social standing. Neither harsh nor casual, yet better suited to more formal settings because it emphasises differences in rank.

Omae

Appropriate for casual settings or when addressing those of lesser social standing. This word has a harsh, abrupt quality that can be misinterpreted as disrespectful.

Anta 

An abbreviation of the more formal anata, this term is extremely casual and is often used in a harsh or reprimanding tone.

For a beginner in Japanese, deciding whether to use formal or casual speech can seem daunting. Still, once the learner has mastered the fundamentals of formal Japanese and made some mental shifts regarding respect and status, the choice becomes more apparent.

The Differences Between Formal and Informal Japanese

There are linguistic systems that distinguish both male and female subjects and formal and informal pronouns. Both are common in Japanese, and the language also features many honorifics demonstrating respect for various social statuses and relationships. Longer sentences are also common in honorific speech, which is something native English speakers will recognise. When speaking to a superior or an older adult, we expand our vocabulary and reduce slang usage. We avoid using slang and shorthand that is universally understood amongst our peer group but could be taken the wrong way by a more senior member of society.

You’ll need to practise mentally switching gears to become fluent in Japanese registers in conversation. You can use online tools to hone your abilities, but not before you master the basics.

How to Carry It Out

Here are a few instances of respectable titles in Japanese. The formal versions of both messages have the more lengthy courteous phrasing. The informal version might be considered a shortened rendition of the same idea. Verbs can also shift in meaning based on context and interpersonal dynamics.

There are two types of question-asking situations: the first, between friends, and the second, at a formal meeting between subordinates and superiors.

  • Hi there! Could I ask a question?
  • However, if I may ask (a question), I would be quite grateful.

The first is the standard and polite way to ask for help. The latter is reserved for written communication and can be found on things like posters and flyers.

  • Kindly help me out here.
  • We would appreciate it if you could help us out in some small way.

Formal and Informal Speech: Cultural and Social Implications

Degree of Politeness

Different “levels of politeness” are reported to exist in Japanese society. It’s not quite a scale, more of a spectrum, as you might expect. 

The grammar of the Japanese language is distinctive because “politeness” or “formality” is built in from the get-go. 

Formal English is distinguished by its use of alternative vocabulary and more elaborate constructions. Even in Japanese, many verb forms express different levels of formality.

The Role of Societal Factors in Politeness

One is the speaker’s familiarity with the listener or the psychological distance between them. 

The rule of thumb is to use casual, informal language around close friends and family and more formal, polite language with acquaintances and strangers. 

Broadcasts on radio and television, which are aimed at a broader audience, also use formal language.

The other consideration is rank, which means precisely what you think it means. 

Depending on one’s social standing in Japanese society, one may be higher or lower than another.

When there is no hierarchy between the speakers, as when conversing with a friend or a stranger, the level of familiarity between them will dictate the tone of voice used. If one of the speakers is lower in status than the other, they may speak more casually. 

Alternatively, the speaker of greater rank may use formal speech. In comparison, the speaker of lower rank may use even more polite speech, known as honorific speech, depending on the nature of their relationship. 

Therefore, the basic level of politeness is determined by familiarity and status.

Honorifics

So, how can we improve the politeness of our words? The use of honorifics is one technique you’ll begin employing right away.

Towards things that are relevant to the speaker or audience, the honorific prefix “o” (not to be confused with the particle “o”) is employed. 

So while you might introduce yourself with your name (name), you would nearly always enquire about the other person’s o-name. General nouns often begin with “o,” especially when they have a cultural connotation, as in o-sake (rice wine) and o-tera (temple). Sometimes, the “o” becomes almost detachable from the root word, as in ocha (tea).

Another situation where the honorific is practically part of the word itself is in the prefix “go,” as in gohan (cooked rice). 

What, then is the distinction? Put, “o” is more commonly used for words in Japan, whereas “go” is more commonly used for those in China.

Using the letters “o” and “go” appropriately is often a challenge. When a prefix is commonly attached to a noun, you can treat it as though it were always a part of the noun itself. 

You can get a feel for how and when to use the prefix by occasionally studying words containing it. 

Technically, you could affix them to any noun, but doing so would be frowned upon because it sounds awkward. It’s best to stick to the common usage of “o” and “go” in phrases.

Conclusion

The four main modes of expression in Japanese are keigo (formal and plain language), genki (informal dialogue), keigo (honorific speech), and genki (humble speech). 

Conversations between close friends often utilise more casual language and honorifics, while formal Japanese is reserved for more official situations or when speaking with strangers. 

It is common practise to address clients and superiors with honorific language as a sign of utmost respect in the workplace. 

Using humble language to describe oneself sends the message that you view yourself as less important than the other person.

The Japanese culture places great value on these modes of expression. 

Being too casual towards a stranger gives off the impression that you don’t care, and failing to appropriately use honorific and humble speech might hurt your professional prospects. 

You shouldn’t let that make you shy away from using appropriate Japanese, though. People in Japan tend to be tolerant of those who are still learning the language and enthusiastic about those who show an interest in doing so.

Formal Japanese, which literally translates to “honorific language,” is the proper way to address a superior in an organisation. 

The second language distinction in Keigo’s politeness is related to the addressee’s status. Since Keigo, the most refined form of speech, is not initially crucial, it is taught last.

The vocabulary of casual Japanese is respectful and deferential. Although it is acceptable to speak more casually with peers and younger family members, it is nevertheless polite to show more respect to one’s elders and superiors. There is a distinction between formal and informal pronouns in Japanese, and this distinction influences how the language is used. Certain pronouns, such as “ta” and “kimi,” are reserved for use in formal Japanese and convey a sense of prestige and deference. 

Traditional Japanese honorifics, such as “omae” and “anta,” are used to show deference to various social ranks and connections.

Depending on the nature of their relationship, people of higher and lower ranks may use formal or honorific language, respectively. 

Familiarity and social standing set the bar for basic courtesy.

Content Summary

  • Different speech patterns are required in formal and informal contexts.
  • Japanese contains standards that determine formal and casual styles of speech, as opposed to the more flexible approach taken in English.
  • Knowing when to use a more official or casual tone is essential for fluent Japanese conversation.
  • The Japanese language has a long history and a culture that values respect, politeness, and social status.
  • Knowing when and how to switch from professional to casual speech may considerably impact the outcome of any conversation, whether it’s a business meeting, a chat with friends, or a visit with an elderly relative.
  • Learning the subtle differences between formal and informal Japanese speech can help you better understand Japanese culture and succeed in various social situations.
  • Use simple formal speech to be respectful and “safe” when you don’t know how formal you should be.
  • Using informal language and honorifics is one possible indicator of a friend-to-friend relationship.
  • Humbleness is highly valued in Japanese society.
  • It is possible to hear both humble and dignified speech in the same discourse.
  • These forms of expression are highly significant to Japanese culture.
  • However, this should not make you overly cautious about using proper Japanese.
  • Because they understand that you are not a native speaker, Japanese people are often quite understanding of language barriers.
  • Could you do this while consistently utilising standard formal or colloquial Japanese?
  • The most important thing is to be understood and to be able to communicate effectively, even if you can’t avoid speaking a “mixed” kind of Japanese.
  • Switching between the different “modes” is crucial if you plan to engage with the same Japanese people regularly.
  • Always assume the least amount of familiarity possible, especially with someone you don’t know well or with whom you’re unfamiliar.
  • As you learn more about the other person or develop a deeper relationship, you might modify how you communicate with them.
  • A more formal style that also utilises fewer abbreviations.
  • It’s also the proper way to address a superior.
  • You’ll soon learn how to employ the polite copula (to-be word) “desu” and the polite verb suffix “-masu” to distinguish formal speech, and you should also avoid using contractions while speaking formally.
  • Speech that is less formal, and hence less predictable, is called “informal.”
  • This is why you’ll learn to speak in a more casual style as you progress through your education.
  • Using straightforward language devoid of obviously informal characteristics is another typical example of an intermediary writing style.
  • Keigo It is more polite than indigo and means “honorific language.”
  • The second linguistic distinction of politeness in Keigo concerns the identity of the person being addressed.
  • Keigo, the most sophisticated speech style, is taught last because it is not as essential in the beginning.
  • As we saw with the formal register, Japanese incorporates respect and deference within the language.
  • In contrast, friends, relatives, and children use informal Japanese, yet it is still customary to show more deference to one’s elders and superiors.
  • When opting for a more casual tone, the pronouns used will reflect that.
  • In English, we always use the same form of “you”, regardless of who we are addressing.
  • It gets even more convoluted in Japanese, but this informal “you” shows how respect and rank are ingrained in the language.
  • For a beginner in Japanese, deciding whether to use formal or casual speech can seem daunting.
  • Still, once the learner has mastered the fundamentals of formal Japanese and made some mental shifts regarding respect and status, the choice becomes more apparent.
  • There are linguistic systems that distinguish both male and female subjects and formal and informal pronouns.
  • Both are common in Japanese, and the language also features many honorifics demonstrating respect for various social statuses and relationships.
  • When speaking to a superior or an older adult, we expand our vocabulary and reduce slang usage.
  • We avoid using slang and shorthand that is universally understood amongst our peer group but could be taken the wrong way by a more senior member of society.
  • Degree of Politeness Different “levels of politeness” are reported to exist in Japanese society.
  • The grammar of the Japanese language is distinctive because “politeness” or “formality” is built in from the get-go.
  • Formal English is distinguished by its use of alternative vocabulary and more elaborate constructions.
  • The rule of thumb is to use casual, informal language around close friends and family and more formal, polite language with acquaintances and strangers.
  • Broadcasts on radio and television, which are aimed at a broader audience, also use formal language.
  • Depending on one’s social standing in Japanese society, one may be higher or lower than another.
  • When there is no hierarchy between the speakers, as when conversing with a friend or a stranger, the level of familiarity between them will dictate the tone of voice used.
  • Towards things that are relevant to the speaker or audience, the honorific prefix “o” (not to be confused with the particle “o”) is employed.
  • When a prefix is commonly attached to a noun, you can treat it as though it were always a part of the noun itself.
  • You can get a feel for how and when to use the prefix by occasionally studying words containing it.

FAQS About Learning Japanese Language

What Are the Two Speech Styles in Japanese?

Two speech styles in Japanese, known as the polite or desu/masu form and the informal or the da form, function similarly to the T/V pronominal system. Both styles are expressed in different verbal, nominal and adjectival endings and signal the interpersonal relationships between speakers.

What Is the Difference Between Formal and Informal Conversation With Examples?

Formal communication is the exchange of information between two or more individuals in a structured and professional manner. It is often used in the workplace or in any environment where there is a need for clear and organised communication. In contrast, informal communication is more relaxed, open, and casual.

Do Japanese Have Formal and Informal?

There are two types of speech in Japanese: the formal and the informal. Formal speech, such as keigo (honorific language), is usually what those studying Japanese learn first in textbooks.

How Do You Say Yes in Japanese Informal?

Ee (ええ) Ee is a nice way to say a casual “yes” in Japanese. It’s a variation on hai you can use with friends and family, but that might not be appropriate for work, depending on the situation. It’s an informal way to say yes that is typically used by adults.

Is Arigato Formal or Informal?

“Arigato” is also a phrase that you will hear often. This is a casual way of saying “thank you”, usually used toward family, your partner and friends who are the same age or younger than you.

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