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Development Of Honorifics Within Cultures Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2297 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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How does social hierarchy affect linguistic politeness and the development of honorifics within cultures. Japanese, Chinese & English will be examined.

Politeness is a cultural phenomenon. What is considered polite in one culture can be quite rude or just simply strange in another. An honorific on the other hand is a word, title or expression, which conveys politeness under certain cultural norms when addressing or referring to another person (Brown, 1987). In languages such as Chinese, honorifics operate under a ‘self-denigration Maxim’ where one either elevates the other party’s status and therefore conveying esteem or respect, and/or denigrating the self and thus elevating the relative status of a second or third person (Gu, 1990). To do otherwise is seen as being ‘arrogant’ ‘boasting’, or ‘self-conceited’. In some languages such as Japanese, honorifics are also often used together with varying systems of honorific speech, which are grammatical or morphological ways of encoding the relative social status of speakers (Haugh et. al., 2003). Agha (1994) goes on to suggest individuals who use more honorifics are further educated and mature, and therefore, of higher social status. Thus it can be hypothesized that politeness is intrinsically intertwined with the speakers’ cultural understanding and subsequent social status. This paper will explore how social hierarchy affects politeness through the changing use of honorifics. Chinese, Japanese and English will be examined to gain a wider understanding of this phenomenon.

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The closest Chinese translation of ‘politeness’ is 礼 貌, meaning ‘polite appearance’. 礼 貌 is derived from the archaic Chinese word禮”禮. To have a better understanding of the modern conception of 礼 貌, it may be helpful to review the classical notion of 禮”禮 formulated by Confucius. Confucius lived at a time when there was constant war between feudal states, partly due to a rapidly deteriorating slavery system. The former aristocratic social hierarchy was shattered, and chaos practically reigned over the land. One of the measures Confucius advocated towards stability was to restore 禮”禮. This 禮”禮 does not mean politeness; it refers to the social hierarchy and order of the slavery system of the Zhou Dynasty, which was regarded by Confucius as an ideal model of any society. In order to restore 禮”禮 it is necessary to 正名 i.e. rectify names. To 正名 is to put each individual in his/her place in the web of relationships that create community, and behaving accordingly to his/her social position so as to ensure social harmony (Taylor, 2003; Warren, 1980).

This is important because:

“if ming is not properly rectified, speech cannot be used appropriately; if speech is not used appropriately, nothing can be achieved; if nothing is achieved, li cannot be restored: if li is not restored, law and justice cannot be exercised: and if law and justice are not exercised, people will not know how to behave.” (Confucius, zilu <子路>, quoted by Yang (1987))

Thus speech had to be used appropriately in accordance with the user’s status in the social hierarchy so that禮”禮could be restored. For instance, a servant was required to call himself or herself 奴才 (slave), while addressing his/her master as å¤äºº (great man) or 主子 (master). Deviation from this usage, in Confucius’ view, would disrupt the established social order, hence creating social chaos. An inferior’s violation of this usage, at that time, would have been considered as being 犯上 (offending the superior). This was a serious breach of 禮”禮which could result in the severe punishment of the offender (Gu, 1990).

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the feudal system, which has overseen China for over 5000 years, was abolished. A new order of social structure, the communist system was adapted where ideologically, everyone is an equal. Politeness and its role in this new way of life among the people were drastically changed as the pre-existing social hierarchy was viciously torn down. Consequently, many classical terms, which sounded either too denigrative or elevative in the contemporary political atmosphere, became obsolete.

Examples of classical and contemporary denigrating and elevating honorifics from Gu (1990) include

(Attachment 1)

After the communist revolution, honorifics are only used for formal or volatile circumstances. Extreme honorifics such as the ones mentioned above are saved for TV shows and situations of extreme emphasis. A prime example of modern use of the ‘self-denigration maxim’ is extracted from Gu (1990) below.

(Attachment 2)

Gu (1990) explains as thus:

“When M refers to S’s surname [I], he elevates it as ‘precious surname’, whereas in mentioning his own surname [4], he denigrates it by calling it ‘worthless surname’. S, on his part, though he does not denigrate his surname in response to A’s enquiry [2], denigrates instead himself as ‘little brother’ (implicating that he is inferior to M). In his enquiry about M’s surname, on the other hand, S exhilarates it as ‘respectable surname’ [3].”

It is evident that the distance between self-denigration and other elevation was much larger in ancient China than that in modern China. Elevated honorifics are rarely used outside formal occasions; however the ‘self-denigration maxim’ still underlines linguistic constructs in Chinese social interaction.

The ‘self-denigration maxim’ is also present in the Japanese politeness or teineisa known as rei. As the Japanese language was greatly influenced by Chinese, some parts copied directly such as the Kanji system, there are bound to be similarities pertaining to social hierarchy and its role in politeness. Rei is a Japanese version of the original Chinese 禮”禮, however slightly diverged from the original concept. In spoken Japanese, with an honorific o-prefix, o-rei is commonly used in such expressions as o-rei wo suru (to do rei) meaning to express rei as an action; to give a gift to someone whom one is indebted to, or to bow (with no o-prefix). Also o-rei wo iu (to say rei) means to verbally express rei. It is often associated with using the arigatou thanking speech formula, and other speech formulae for apology, such as sumimasen, moushiwake arimasen (Ohashi, 2008).

Before World War II, Japan was a Feudal society which placed extreme emphasis on class distinctions and social hierarchies. The variant factor which differentiated Japanese with China’s changing attitude to politeness was the lack of a violent cultural revolution. Japan’s transition from a monarchy to the democracy it is today, saw little change in the populace’s feelings towards social hierarchy. Therefore we see a broad array of honorific used for addressing or referring to people beyond that of the self-denigration maxim in everyday life. Third-person honorifics such as ore-sama and name+suffix referring to one-self are rarely used outside of popular culture. Commonly seen honorifics are generally gender-neutral and suffixed to first names as well as surnames.

Some common affixual honorifics are as follows:

Nominal(common): -san

The minimal politeness necessary when there is a lack of familiarly between the speakers.

Diminutive(common): -chan, -kun

Where the addressee is usually that of a lower social status or has a close familiarity with the speaker.

Elevative: -sama, -sempai, -sensei, -shi

­Where the addressee is that or a higher social status or held in great respect by the speaker.

Dropping the honorific – referred to as yobisute – implies a high degree of intimacy, however if used mistakenly or out of such boundaries, social backlash can occur as this is a serious breach of teineisa. Okamoto (1999) views the use of honorifics as determined by features of the context. Honorifics are commonly said to be used in reference to the relevant individual who is perceived as distant from the speaker. Other factors such as formality of the setting, means of communication and topic discussed, have also been noted to affect the use of honorifics and honorific speech.

In Japanese, honorifics are also often used together with varying systems of honorific speech, by either grammatically or morphologically changing what is being said. This results in varying ways of saying the exact same thing albeit with varying levels of teineisa. For example, Haugh et al. (2003) illustrates the different ways of saying “today is Saturday” to varying circumstances below.

“(32a) (to a close friend)

Kyoo wa doyoobi da.

today Top Saturday Cop(NonPol)

(32b) (to an acquaintance)

Kyoo wa doyoobi desu.

today Top Saturday Cop(Pol)

(32c) (to a guest on a formal occasion)

Kyoo wa doyoobi degozaimasu.

today Top Saturday Cop(SuperPol) (ibid: 415).”

The last sentence (32c) is what would be referred as keigo. To go a step further, we have three sub-categories of honorific speech: sonkeigo , respectful language; kensongo or kenjōgo, humble language; and teineigo, polite language. Below is a chart from Wikipedia which outlines the various morphological changes in words necessary for varying situations.

(Attachment 3)

To make a mistake in such complex mutilation of language is easy indeed! Due to the complexity of honorific speech, Agha (1994) even suggests individuals who use more honorifics are further educated and mature, and therefore, are of a higher social status. However, one must keep in mind, similar to the many archaic honorifics in Chinese, these specialized forms are rarely if ever used outside extremely formal or special circumstances. Agha (1994) further notes modern Japanese, especially the newer generations, seem to deemphasize hierarchy, where those in higher standing would use honorifics towards their subordinates. The author interprets such use of honorifics as an attempt to reduce the hierarchically defined distance by reciprocating respect. This phenomenon suggests a change in the ideology of honorifics that reflects ongoing social change in Japan.

Modern English has a very few Honorifics, all of which are titles pre-fixing a person’s name. This exhaustive list from Wikipedia is shown below

Ms: default use for women regardless of marital status.

Miss: for use by unmarried women only.

Mrs: for use by married women only.

Mr: for men.

Master: for boys or very young men.

Dr: a person who has obtained a doctorate, such as the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Rev: for Christian clergy

Fr: for priests in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, and some Anglican or Episcopalian groups

The first four are simple variations of standard title. Master is uncommonly heard and the latter three examples are titles of profession. There is also no official honorific speech in modern English, the closest relative to that in Chinese and Japanese would be the languages used towards royalty in old English. The lack of honorifics can be attributed to drastic cultural aversion towards large gaps in the social hierarchy. Most leading western countries operate under some form of democracy, where wars were fought over to take power out of a single person’s hands and spread equally to the populace. Regardless of how effective this is in practice, the people still perceive equality as paramount in social hierarchy; that the leader of state is just another ‘person’ elected by the masses. This is in direct contradiction to thought prevalent in the past when Asian languages were being developed. The head of state, otherwise, emperor was usually symbolized as a divine being with a god-given right to rule. This is similar to European feudal thought towards monarchies; however one has to take into account the time it takes for languages to develop. Indeed if the English monarchy had a history as long as China’s five thousand years, the western world today would be talking in flowery honorifics. Interestingly, in western culture, honorifics are more commonly used in religion, most notably Christianity. Every station in the Christian religion has an honorific, with the Pope associated with ‘holiness’ at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. The development and contemporary usage of such honorifics can be attributed to the continual existence and popular belief of the Christian religion over the last two millennia.

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Ultimately politeness and honorifics reflect cultural values towards social hierarchies. Many of these systems operate under a ‘self-denigration maxim’, to do otherwise is seen as breaching etiquette and may have severe repercussions. Honorifics are also often used together with varying systems of honorific speech, many of which are obsolete in modern society. Not only is politeness intrinsically intertwined with the cultural values, but as discussed, it takes a long period where a stable social hierarchy with clearly distinguished levels exists for the continual development and use of honorifics. Nevertheless, politeness will always be integral to human nature and the manner or form of how we execute civility are fundamentally ever-changing.


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