■絶対敬語: absolute respectful speech, absolute honorifics
□ Respectful speech is important in Japanese to indicate social status and respect. 敬語 or respecful speech is often called honorific speech, but in fact includes humble and polite speech as well. The grammar and words used in 敬語 differ from those in normal speech.
The particular form of 敬語 used in Japanese is known as 相対敬語, which is perhaps best rendered as "relative respectful speech." This is opposed to 絶対敬語 or "absolute respectful speech," which is found in languages such as Korean and older Japanese. (See あははっ 敬語を使おう 絶対敬語.) This difference in modern Japanese makes it difficult to understand who is being talked about when first watching period dramas or reading such novels.
In 相対敬語, the object of respect is determined according to the relationships between the parties involved. A favorite sort of diagram for Japanese textbook writers is one that shows the in group and the out group (particularly for verbs of giving and receiving). Normal or humble speech is used when referring to people in the in group and honorific (or normal) speech is used when referring to people in the out group. Who belongs to the in group and who belongs to the out group is relative between the speaker, the subject and the listener. Compared to yourself, for example, other family members are out group. But if talking to your professor, your family becomes in group and the professor becomes out group.
相対敬語 can quickly become complicated. If you are talking to an acquaintance about your child's teacher, it is normal to use 尊敬語, but what if your wife is the teacher? Your wife would be part of the in group compared to someone outside your family, so she should not receive honorific status. If you use humble words for your child's teacher (your wife), the speaker will probably be puzzled until you explain the situation.
In 絶対敬語, on the other hand, 尊敬語 is used for people who have a higher social status than the person talking. Thus, when talking to a friend your own age, your own parents receive honorific speech.
This is far easier. Even so, when there are two conflicting statuses such as between an older employee whose age holds status and a younger president whose company position holds status, appropriate resolution does not necessarily come easily.
In general, for either 絶対敬語 or 相対敬語, the criterion for respect is based on the 五倫 or the five Confucian relationships.
See http://www.cc.u-ryukyu.ac.jp/~terasima/t3.html for more information on respectful speech in society. See also 敬語.
This entry was created by Benjamin Barrett with suggestions from Matthew Stevens.