Royal language

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Anyone who has studied more than a year of Japanese will have a sense of the elaborate system of honorifics employed in the language.  But there's a very high level of honorific speech that not even advanced students are required to learn, viz., the language used exclusively by the imperial family.

Last month, there was an article in The Daily Beast about MacArthur's translator, George Kisaki, a nisei (second generation Japanese):

"Exclusive: From Internment Camp to MacArthur’s Aide in Rebuilding Japan " (8/8/15)

A brief quote from the article:

Kisaki, when pressed for details of certain events, falters, and states clearly, “I signed an oath never to divulge what I learned during that time.” He was present at one of the few rare meetings MacArthur had with the emperor, but will not discuss what was said. He noted that MacArthur had respect for the man but Kisaki said interpreting for the emperor was a nightmare.

"The emperor spoke a whole different other kind of Japanese—a royal dialect, something that only the Imperial Family and the court really used. I had to study up on it to understand what he was saying. It was like learning a second language."

VHM:  emphasis added

I have had two experiences with royal languages other than Japanese.

The first was when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal (1965-67).  I had heard about this special language reserved for addressing the royals, so I studied up on it a bit.  Surprisingly, I actually had an opportunity to use my knowledge of this special language in a most unexpected situation.  I had been posted to a remote town called Bhojpur (about two-thirds of the way from Kathmandu to Darjeeling and roughly five days walk south of Mt. Everest).  One day as I was strolling just south of Bhojpur, much to my astonishment, Prince Birendra came walking along the same path with a small group (about six) of Gurkha soldiers.

We exchanged pleasantries:  he asked what I was doing there and I inquired what he was doing there.  I spoke to him in the politest Nepali I could muster (though out in those circumstances he did not want to stand overmuch on ceremony), but when I referred to his father as Maharajadhiraj Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev (after half a century, I still can rattle that off with great fluency), he was both pleased and impressed.  I was stunned when, many years later, King Birendra was murdered on June 1, 2001 in the Nepalese royal massacre.

Most amazingly, about six months after meeting Prince Birendra outside Bhojpur, I encountered a member of the British Royal family in almost exactly the same spot and nearly identical circumstances (with a small group of Gurkha soldiers).  We introduced each other and spoke to one another without any special formalities.  Forty years later, I met the same prince somewhere else in the world and I started to chat about our earlier encounter, but it was clear that he didn't want to talk about it in front of others (I think that his trek into the mountains of Nepal as a young man was probably against protocol and something that he did on his own).  Consequently, I am not saying his name here.

The second set of instances where I experienced royal language was in watching Javanese shadow play performances.  I have a particular interest in wayang kulit and other types of wayang, especially wayang beber (with pictures on scrolls) and wrote about them extensively in Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis.

In all types of wayang, the dalang (performer) employs an extraordinary range of linguistic registers, from low, earthy colloquial to language that is heavily imbued with Sanskritic and Old Javanese forms, while the very highest register is reserved only for royal personages.  When I attended performances of wayang by Indonesian dalangs, I could tell when they shifted from one register to another because they had a noticeably different sound and cadence, but I didn't understand any of it.

Once, however, in the mid-70s, I attended an extraordinary wayang kulit performance in Paine Hall at Harvard University. Everything that the American dalang said and sang was in translated English, and when he delivered his lines in middle register, I could understand everything.  However, when he shifted into lower and higher registers, his voice was electronically manipulated and modulated in such a fashion that it became more and more difficult to comprehend the higher and lower he went on the scale of politeness versus vulgarity.  The effect was uncanny.  I still remember straining to pick out bits and pieces of the lower and higher registers, and could manage with effort when the dalang was using what would have been mid-levels on the politeness scale of Javanese.  But when he adopted the highest and lowest levels of speech and song, I could comprehend virtually nothing of what he was saying and singing.

To be frank, I must confess that I much prefer American English, where we don't have elaborate honorific language.  I always found it extremely difficult and completely unnatural to employ different levels of graded honorifics when speaking Japanese, and to this day I feel uncomfortable when Chinese refer to me as "nín 您" (honorific "you"), and I absolutely refuse to use it when speaking to anyone.  Such usages just go against the grain for me.

[h.t. Ross Bender, translator and annotator of The Edicts of the Last Empress, 749-770: A Study and Translation of the Senmyō 12-47 in Shoku Nihongi (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), cover available here.  The cover photo is a view of the Takamikura (High Throne) in the reconstructed Daigokuden (Imperial Council Hall) in the Nara palace grounds, completed in 2010 for the 1300th anniversary of the founding of Nara.  If you look at some of the edicts translated by Bender in this volume, you can get a sense of the elevated language employed by high nobility In Japan over a thousand years ago.]


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    Even hunter-gatherer groups can have these registers. Northwest Coast languages, notably Haida, had a high-chiefly register, an ordinary elite/rhetorical register, an ordinary everyday register, and at least one lower register. The last speakers of the very high register died quite a while ago and I believe the elite register is now extinct in Haida too. It was recorded but mostly remains unpublished. I've heard high-register (not highest) Nuuchahnulth oratory and it is incredible.

  2. Chris Kern said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 7:44 am

    Isn't it just that the Emperor used a more literary/archaic form of Japanese in public or official settings, rather than an Emperor-specific dialect? The current Emperor speaks standard Japanese in public, though.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 9:39 am

    Because of that whole "revolution" thing, AmEng has fewer honorifics than many other varieties of English, but BrEng obviously retains special forms of address for royalty/nobility/etc., with I expect a bunch of rather complex (and perhaps occasionally ad hoc) rules for which contexts they are and aren't used in. And issues can arise when dealing in a U.S. context with foreign individuals for whom special honorifics are standard in their home environment. I would like to hope that, e.g., when the present King of Jordan (then the Crown Prince) attended boarding school in Massachusetts as a teenager part of the understanding was that he should not expect either faculty or fellow students to address him as "Your Highness" or whatever, but I don't know for sure how that was handled.

  4. Lai Ka Yau said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 10:11 am

    I don't have any problems with honorifics in general, and stick to traditional letter-writing conventions in Chinese (which means I write a whole bunch of 謙詞 and 敬語). However, nín rubs me the wrong way too. Perhaps it's because of my Cantonese bias – we don't have T/V distinctions in Cantonese – but then I have no problems with vous either. nín just strikes me as odd and un-Chinese, in a sense – the Kangxi dictionary says it's a 俗字. (I know that it is, like vous, originally the plural form in Mandarin.)

    I've been to a couple of talks by Prof. Leo Ou-fan Lee this year, and since he's more comfortable in Mandarin, I spoke to him in Mandarin both times. I tried to force myself to use nín, but it didn't work – I ended up saying nǐ at the end. Perhaps I should just call him jiàoshòu next time…

  5. marie-lucie said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 11:18 am

    Gene Anderson, I think that the Haida and other Northwest Coast groups should be described as "fishers" rather than "hunter-gatherers". "Fisher" cultures, especially those based on migratory fish such as salmon, lend themselves to greater social differentiation than those of hunter-gatherers, which tend to be more egalitarian. Hunter-gatherers have to go after the resources they need, and hunting is a year-round activity, while fishers wait for the migratory fish to come to them at predictable times. Intense periods of hard work catching and processing the fish in the summer give way to periods of leisure in the winter, when the abundance of stored food allows for ceremonials and related activities such as art and oratory, all of which can emphasize social differentiation.

  6. Travis said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

    I think it goes beyond being just an older form of Japanese, to being levels of honorifics. If you look at the Imperial Rescript on Education, or certain other Meiji era documents written in the first-person, as if the emperor is speaking, you'll find the character朕 (chin), a first-person pronoun used only by the Emperor.

    There are also terms like 勅語 (chokugo, the Imperial word, or an Imperial edict), and 御幸 or 行幸 (miyuki or gyōkō, an imperial visit), not used in non-imperial contexts.

    Perhaps more to the point, I wouldn't be surprised if just about everything the Emperor does uses a special honorific verb, different from other contexts. I don't know exactly what those words might be, but I suspect that, for example, the emperor does not 行く (iku, to go [somewhere]), and probably doesn't even 参らせ賜る or anything like that, but uses some other verb… and the same would go for speaking, eating, sleeping, especially in the prewar / wartime / immediate postwar. Today, it might be a bit lessened…

  7. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: As an American who's studied both British English and Japanese, I don't think they're on the same level. The British may use a few more honorifics (although we have some they don't, like "your honor") but the difference in registers doesn't go much farther than that. Compare that to Japanese, where more formal speech actually uses an entirely different set of verb endings, pronouns–as Kisaki said, it's like learning another language, not just a few conventions.

  8. Jon said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 12:46 pm

    It's just been reported in the British press that Diana was not allowed to address Prince Charles by his name until they were engaged. Before that, she addressed him as 'Sir'.

  9. Mark Graham said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

    Nothing valuable to contribute – just thanking you for the very cool post.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    Yes. Point was not to suggest they were on same level only that there's a continuum with many different levels and you don't have to move very far from AmEng to see a change. And there are English honorific idioms that have probably passed from specialized use into obsolescence within living memory (e.g. the using-third-person-in-direct-address strategy of the obsequious sales clerk saying to a female customer "Would Madam be interested in such-and-such" which I suspect is now hard to find outside dialogue of movies with a "period" setting).

    But I expect that only a tiny percentage of the Japanese population ever needed to be able to use or even understand in a passive-competence way the special imperial forms, whereas I think in various other languages such as perhaps Javanese (with many more levels in between the top rung and the bottom one) almost everyone would need to know several different politeness registers even if they were unlikely to have occasion to interact directly with royalty.

  11. Francois Lang said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 2:37 pm

    @ Jon re Diana and Prince Charles: It puts a whole new spin on "To Sir, With Love" :-)

  12. Felila said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

    The South Pacific kingdom of Tonga still has a monarchy, and the Tongan language distinguishes between slang, formality, speech to high chiefs, and speech to the royal family. Different kinship terms, terms of address, verbs, nouns. There is a class of personal pronouns expressing humility and abasement.

    There is a hereditary class of orators, matapule, who know *proper* language and make speeches on public occasions. Since public occasions often involve presentation of gifts/tribute to those higher in rank, there are even special numbers to be used in counting the pigs, yams, etc. given to the chief or the king.

    It wasn't too hard to learn the proper royal language, as it was used in the newspapers and also in the Tongan translations of the Bible. God doesn't have an arm, nima, he has a to'ukupu.

  13. John Coleman said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 5:01 pm

    @Anschel Shaffer-Cohen: UK English certainly *does* have "your honour", as a term of address to judges. The Queen has the royal "we" for "I": it was therefore rather shocking and slightly ridiculous when Margaret Thatcher said "we are a grandmother". The Queen likes to be addressed as Ma'm (rhymes with Pam), a contraction of Madam that is unique for her in UK English.

  14. krogerfoot said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 5:11 pm

    Fascinating. I was probably not the only reader to expect that Prof. Mair's second example of honorific language was going to be his encounter with the member of the British Royal family.

    The Japanese system of honorific/humble usage is certainly complex, but like a lot of language features, its seeming alienness melts away once you begin using everyday language, and it doesn't feel like you're using a separate language-within-a-language. When I use English now with an older native speaker I don't know well, I'm more aware of how much we also adjust our vocabulary and register to signal something similar to what keigo and the rest do in Japanese.

  15. Chris Kern said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 5:36 pm

    Single words don't really make a dialect; the first-person pronoun "chin" was only used by the Emperor (now is not used at all), but there are very few examples of that.

    When Emperor Showa gave the Imperial surrender announcement over the radio, he spoke in a very formal style of Japanese that used archaic grammar and many words and grammatical features influenced by literary Chinese. But it still wasn't an Emperor-specific dialect.

    As far as I know the current Emperor speaks standard colloquial Japanese. Certainly in his addresses and speeches he has done that. He even uses polite humble forms for his own actions. This is actually very similar to the way that the fictional Emperors in Heian-period tales talk; although the Tale of Genji does not record any public or governmental speeches, the speech of four different Emperors is recorded, and they all speak in the standard colloquial language of the period.

    I can't speak for all of Japanese history, but I have never seen any instance where there was an Emperor-specific dialect. A few words, perhaps, but an entire dialect, no.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 6:18 pm

    What MacArthur's translator calls "a royal dialect" sounds to me a lot like an analogue of the Korean 궁중어 宮中語 gungjung-eo "court speech". Korean also has an elaborate system of honorifics, but what really distinguished Korean court speech was the massive amount of special vocabulary used not only for titles but to describe all aspects of court life including food, clothing, housing, and various activities. They used words that for the most part had no relation to the everyday words in regular Korean for all sorts of basic vocabulary.

    Some of those words have crossed over into regular Korean and so are familiar to Koreans, e.g. 수라 水剌 sura for a king's meal, but most remain impenetrable to nonspecialists. The language used in the court apparently retained some old words from the language of Silla (which lasted until 935 AD) and also Mongolian-derived terms from the time that the Goryeo kings married Mongol princesses (1271-1365).

    If you hear even the most elevated forms of English honorific language, you will probably have little trouble understanding what they mean. By contrast, Korean speakers who are not familiar with court speech (basically all of us) will probably struggle to understand huge chunks of it. So I think if you're using only English as a point of comparison, then it might be difficult to appreciate the differences in register that we can have in different languages, and in particular MacArthur's translator's assertion that studying up on the emperor's dialect "was like learning a second language".

  17. Guy said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

    "The Queen likes to be addressed as Ma'm (rhymes with Pam), a contraction of Madam that is unique for her in UK English."

    What's the nearest British equivalent of ma'am as it is used in the US (a general polite form of address for adult women)?

  18. Oliver said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

    I'm glad we don't have honorifics in American English, but I do like honorifics in Japanese to a certain extent. It feels like honorifics convey some helpful social/relationship information in the very courtesy and relationship-aware Japanese culture. (And it's good for comedic/dramatic irony when it fails to do so.) But I'm mostly talking about the usual ones (〜さん、〜くん、〜ちゃん、〜さま、maybe even the more fanciful りん and たん、and どの in historical pieces).

  19. maidhc said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 8:17 pm

    The Imperial Rescript on Education was something schoolchildren had to memorize, so they must have been familiar with the language at least to some extent.

    I believe that when the Emperor announced the surrender at the end of WWII, most people had never heard his voice before, and they had difficulty understanding what he was saying.

    The most extreme case is when the ruling class speaks an entirely different language, as in medieval England. In English all that French eventually percolated down to the common people, so we now speak a mishmash of French and Germanic.

    In China there was a period when the ruling class spoke Manchu, but I don't believe Manchu had a similar impact on Mandarin. Is that right?

  20. Dave Cragin said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    In my many trips to China, I’ve used nin 您 only a handful of times and I've liked the reaction it creates with older individuals. My favorite was in a security line at the Beijing airport.

    There was a petite elderly woman in front of me in the line. She was very nervous. She kept looking around and asking questions, but there was nothing to do but wait. I started talking with her and she instantly calmed down (I’m never bored in China because every situation gives me a chance to practice my Chinese).

    When we got to the metal detector, she went in the left and I went to the right. She was putting her stuff on the conveyor for the metal detector and her back was turned to me when I said “wo hen gaoxing renshi nin” 我很高兴认识您。(nice to meet you). The nin was like electricity. When she heard it, she instantly turned to me with a big smile and she said “wo ye hen gaoxing renshi ni.” 我也很高兴认识你。

    Her line was faster than mine. When I walked out from the metal detectors, I saw, at quite a distance away, the woman vigorously waving to me. She was standing next to an older gentlemen & a younger one – likely her husband & son. She was waving so vigorously, she looked like a kid ready to jump up & down. However, she was likely in her mid-80s and well beyond her “jumping & down days.” I’m fine with using nin 您 when it causes a reaction like this. It was a fun moment.

  21. Ross Bender said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 8:35 pm

    I should note that in the Daily Beast article the translator's name is "Kizaki" — although "Kisaki" in at least one instance. The "za" is simply the voiced form.

    In the 2012 movie "Emperor" starring Tommy Lee Jones as MacArthur, one of the Japanese officials performs a poem that he claimed Hirohito recited to his high ministers BEFORE the war. The official stands and recites the tanka in highly formal Japanese (this comes at roughly 1:00:00 in the film). "It is our hope that all the world's oceans be joined in peace — so why do the winds and waves rise up in an angry rage?"

    The movie ends with Hirohito leaving the palace and going to meet MacArthur, where they speak man-to-man. MacArthur insists on having a photo taken — the famous picture is readily found online.

    Of course Shinzo Abe has just had his way with the pacifist Constitution provided by MacArthur, and now the "Japanese Self Defense Force", which is actually one of the world's largest militaries, can be deployed abroad. Just today, I was stunned to be watching CNN, when a brief video came on featuring JSDF soldiers as part of a UN detachment in South Sudan. The video ended with a picture of Abe.

  22. J. Goard said,

    September 29, 2015 @ 10:44 pm

    "I always found it extremely difficult and completely unnatural to employ different levels of graded honorifics when speaking Japanese, and to this day I feel uncomfortable when Chinese refer to me as "nín 您" (honorific "you"), and I absolutely refuse to use it when speaking to anyone. Such usages just go against the grain for me."

    Interesting. I, on the other hand, found it rather hard to refer to my professors or (elderly) landlord as "you", even when we were speaking English. I think what I usually end up doing, rather than convoluted avoidance strategies, is pausing a little before the "you" and making some kind of gesture together with it, as if it could somehow offset the word's low honorific status.

  23. Rubrick said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 1:39 am

    In one of the more linguistically interesing appendices to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien explains that when Peregrin (Pippin) Took met Lord Denethor, quasi-king of Gondor, he addressed him using the familiar form, because the dialect of Westron spoken by hobbits had long since dropped the honorific. This cause onlookers to assume Pippin must be a person of extraordinary importance in his home country.

    Tolkien wrote that he tried to evoke the difference in register through an inconsistent use of "thou" in the Gondoreans' (?) speech, but that English (into which he was "translating") didn't really provide the difference in register he would have needed to make the contrast obvious.

    Of course, I have no idea how much of this was retconned, rather than being part of the scene as he originally created.

  24. Doreen said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 2:35 am

    @Guy: To women other than the Queen, British speakers wishing to be polite say "madam", though I really only hear this myself from shop assistants, and even from them very rarely. I used to be a "miss", but these days it's usually "madam", *sigh*. If you're a butler in a costume drama, you could say "ma'am" — pronounced [mɑ:m], i.e. basically the way General American speakers pronounce "mom". Supposedly only the Queen is [mæm].

    In England & Wales at least, female judges (district judges, magistrates and some others) whose male equivalents are addressed as "Sir" are addressed as "Madam":

  25. pj said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 3:24 am

    @ Guy

    What's the nearest British equivalent of ma'am as it is used in the US (a general polite form of address for adult women)?

    Madam (direct male equivalent – as in US, I think – sir).

    Though I suspect it's not as widely used as 'ma'am', and it has a distinctly old-fashioned/formal/(sometimes fake) subservient feel to it that most interactions don't require. Waiting staff and the more obsequious/'upmarket' shop assistant might use it. Anyone who knocks at the door and calls you madam is trying to sell you something, or possibly to get you to vote for them.

  26. RJP said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 3:54 am

    An interesting difference between AmE and BrE is in forms of address for members of the government, etc. In the US the President is called "Mr President" and Cabinet secretaries are "Mr Secretary". In the UK, ministers are addressed as "Minister" (the prime minister is addressed as "Prime Minister") and secretaries of state are addressed as "Secretary of State" – never "Mr Secretary" (and never "Secretary" on its own, as far as I know). There are some positions, though, for which the "Mr" is included: for instance, the Speaker of the House of Commons is addressed as "Mr Speaker".

    Another difference is that in the US, ex-Presidents are still called "Mr President". In the UK, former prime ministers and former Cabinet members never retain their titles after leaving office. They do retain the right to use "The Right Honourable" in front of their names, but this is by virtue of continued membership of the Privy Council, and doesn't affect how they are addressed in the second person (nor in the third person the great majority of the time).

  27. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 6:38 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    I remember when I was teaching in Australia more than two decades ago I had a Balinese student who told me that the first sentence he would say to a new acquaintance was the Balinese equivalent of "Where do you sit?", meaning what is your social position? In order to know how to talk to someone with the appropriate register one had to clarify first the social relationship. He also said that this was why many younger people preferred speaking Indonesian because it was egalitarian and lacked the complicated system of honorifics and special vocabulary associated with different social registers. This was also a reason contributing to the decline in number of Balinese speakers.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 6:40 am

    From Bob Sanders:

    Following on to what Bob has just written, several years ago my department had two female ethnic Koreans from northeast China, both of whom were completely bilingual Korean-Chinese speakers and very proud of their Korean heritage. Individual A was older than Individual B, but as a secretary in the department office she had a lower status in the university than did B, who was a PhD student. Despite their complete comfort in interacting with our Korean faculty completely in Korean, they always spoke to each other in Chinese. I asked them why they chose to interact in Chinese despite their obvious pride in their Korean heritage. Both said that by speaking Chinese they could navigate around any hierarchical relationship forced upon them by speaking Korean.

  29. Ross Bender said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    Here are two samples of the current Emperor's speech:

    1) First anniversary of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami

    2) New Year's address

    Very high and formal register, but should be completely comprehensible to a Japanese audience. Perhaps comparable to that of the Queen of England's Christmas Message:

  30. Ross Bender said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 7:11 am

    One more – a performance of the current Emperor's poem in an extremely formal setting: (chanting begins at about 2:25). To my ear it is reminiscent of Noh play chanting (utai).

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 8:36 am

    If I may hijack the thread along the lines Rubrick brought up, does anyone know whether translations of The Lord of the Rings into languages with a familiar-formal distinction ever try to reproduce the hobbits' use of the familiar with everybody, until Pippin learns to use the formal with Denethor? The Spanish translation I have doesn't.

    In general, I imagine these hierarchical distinctions cause some of the greatest problems for translators. How do you decide when two characters who become friends or lovers start using suitable forms?

  32. Joseph F Foster said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    Note re Gene Anderson's post top of this thread, and Marie-Lucie's comment a few down from top, I join the latter. The NW Pacific Coast societies, and in general societies whose primary mode of production is the harvesting of recurring aquatic ~ marine resources are much more like tribal societies, or even chiefdoms, than they are like true foraging (hunter-gatherer) band level societies. They tend to support larger population concentrations, they tend to have unilineal descent [foraging bands almost all have bilateral descent], and an office of headman or even chief. In the case of the Haida whose linguistic registries Anderson tells us about, they had a division into (two) moieties, and you belonged to your mother's moiety and had to marry somebody in your father's. I.e. they had matrilineal descent. The office of "chief" tended to be hereditary, passing from MoBro to SiSo, again a typically matrilineal pattern.

  33. Natalie Solent said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

    John Coleman & Doreen, I must say I'd never heard of the distinction you both cite between "ma'm" (used only for the queen) and "ma'am", which among its other uses is the normal form of address for female officers in the British armed services.I had always thought "ma'm" was just a mis-spelling, or a variant spelling of "ma'am". Perhaps my ignorance of this is explained by my never having met royalty.

    I have met one or two lords, including one who was also a government minister. RJP is right to say that ministers are generally addressed as "minister" but apparently if the minister is a peer in the House of Lords, birth or elevation trumps job and the correct form of address is "my lord". I couldn't bring myself to do it, not out of egalitarian principle but because I thought I'd burst out laughing if I tried it, not a good career move for a junior civil servant who was only there to give a briefing. Other civil servants in his own team seemed quite happy doing it. This was in the 1990s; perhaps things are more democratic now. (His mode of speech to them and to me was entirely polite and unremarkable.) I managed to get through my presentation and subsequent Q&A session without directly addressing him by any name or title. I had practice in doing this – when I was a child I had always felt that addressing the parents of my schoolfriends as "Mrs X" or "Mr Y" was absurdly formal given that I'd known them for years, yet addressing them by their first names was too chummy, so I dodged the issue in the same way as I did years later with this minister. Interestingly, my own children address their friends' parents by their first names without embarrassment.

  34. peterv said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

    "The Queen likes to be addressed as Ma'm (rhymes with Pam), a contraction of Madam that is unique for her in UK English."

    People do indeed address The Queen this way, but what evidence is there that she likes it?

  35. DWalker said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

    @Victor Mair: I think I am having trouble with your phrasing, or else you made a small joke.

    You met a prince (whose name you gave), then you met a member of the British royal family, then "Forty years later, I met the same prince somewhere else in the world … he didn't want to talk about it [our earlier encounter] … Consequently, I am not saying his name here".

    Am I confused, or what? I presume that Prince Birendra's name was the same (or almost the same, modulo some title changes) the second time you met him as it was the first time.

  36. Matt said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 8:00 pm

    People do indeed address The Queen this way, but what evidence is there that she likes it?

    They've still got their 'eads, hain't they?

  37. Lai Ka Yau said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

    @DWalker: I think the unnamed prince was the member of the British royal family.

  38. J. Goard said,

    September 30, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    Re: "thou" in Lord of the Rings

    My favorite literary example is "For Whom the Bell Tolls", in which Hemingway rather brilliantly uses unusual English to remind us that the characters are actually speaking Spanish, and show the various communicative choices it entails.

  39. Noel Hunt said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 2:07 am

    "I always found it extremely difficult and completely unnatural to employ different levels of graded honorifics when speaking Japanese, …"—surely whether a mode of speaking feels natural or not is simply dependent on one's level of fluency. There would appear to be many millions of fluent speakers of Japanese (viz., the Japanese themselves) for whom the use of honorific language is natural.

  40. Levantine said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 5:26 am

    Contrary to what some of the comments seem to suggest, "ma'am" is not reserved only for the Queen in British English; it is also used (albeit with the alternative "palm" pronunciation) when addressing high-ranking women in the army, police force, or prison service (and probably other organisations I don't know about).

    Also, I don't think the present Queen really does use the royal "we": she refers to herself as "I" in her speeches.

  41. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    How do northern English folk (the ones who say [æsk], [kæsl] etc.) pronounce ma'am when not addressing the Queen?

  42. Levantine said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 1:53 pm

    My apologies for repeating Natalie Solent's point — I should have read the comments properly before adding my own.

    Coby Lubliner, I would guess that Northern accents use the same pronunciation in all cases.

    I'm not convinced that British English is more wed to honorifics than American, at least as far as everyday speech is concerned. As a lowly predoctoral teaching assistant in American academia, I was often addressed as "Professor", which would never happen in the UK. I've frequently heard Americans use "sir" and "ma'am" to address strangers in contexts where Brits would simply speak to the person. And then there's the Southernism "Miss [first name]".

  43. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

    I'm not convinced the royal 'we' was ever used in speeches, at least as a regular thing (see for instance 'I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman..'). It is used in official documents, but it's sometimes used in that context by others as well, for instance bishops – so it might be better called a an official 'we'.

  44. Belial Issimo said,

    October 1, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

    The queen uses 'one', not 'we' or 'I', in Tweets.

  45. Nicholas Feinberg said,

    October 2, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    @Belial: That is not, in fact, the Queen. (Though given your name, you might have already known that…)

  46. Belial Issimo said,

    October 3, 2015 @ 12:49 am

    Oh yes, one knew that.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2015 @ 5:41 pm

    @Noel Hunt

    Au contraire, I knew what I was supposed to say and could say it to pass a test, but I just didn't feel comfortable using language that was overtly hierarchical.

    It may surprise you, but I have had many Japanese friends tell me that, after they live in the United States for a decade or more, they themselves feel uncomfortable using honorific language when they go back to Japan for visits, even though they know how to do it.

    This reminds me of what Bob Bauer said (quoted above) about the preference of young Balinese for Indonesian over Balinese.

  48. Florence Artur said,

    October 4, 2015 @ 12:55 am

    @Jerry Friedman: when I was younger and still watched movies (for some reason I almost completely stopped about 15 years ago), in French versions of American movies, couples started using "tu" as soon as they'd had sex and not a second before that. This always felt a bit silly and artificial to me.

  49. Graeme said,

    October 4, 2015 @ 4:47 am

    Guessing I'm not the only academic here. Universities perpetuate honorifics.
    Try asking an East Asian student to drop the 'Professor (your first name)' manner of address. Which feels distinctly odd in a PHD relationship.
    Ironically whilst earnt titles are less objectionable than inherited ones, they are harder for the wearer to grow used to than ones worn from birth.

  50. JQ said,

    October 6, 2015 @ 4:07 am


    I'm East Asian. When I started at university in London, it took some time to get used to the fact that everyone addressed everyone by their first name, especially in emails, regardless of the supposed hierarchy.

  51. Richard Gadsden said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

    In Britain, political jobs are jobs. You can be addressed either by your job ("Minister", "Secretary of State", "Prime Minister"), or by your name (e.g. "Mr. Cameron"), but not both. "Prime Minister Cameron" is not something a native Brit would say. If necessary for clarity, you might say "Mr. Cameron, the Prime Minister", as you might for any other job.

    Only actual titles go before your name, so Baron Healey died recently, but not Chancellor Healey, even though he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer.

    The result is that Americans using political jobs as titles sounds incredibly pretentious to the British ear. When I hear "Speaker Gingrich" or "Senator Clinton" (or "Secretary Clinton") or "Governor Bush" or whatever, it sounds like they're trying to establish an aristocratic class apart from the ordinary citizens. Exactly the opposite of how I suspect Americans see themselves.

    Even "President Obama", and as for "Mister President", well!

  52. Brendan said,

    October 7, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

    Interesting to see so many people finding 您 uncomfortable! I wonder if it's partly a matter of regional variation — nin is pretty common in Beijing, even in relatively informal speech. I suppose it does stick out more in Putonghua than in Beijinghua.

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