Levels of Speaking


One of the trickiest parts of learning Japanese is the understanding of the different levels of speech.  Not only is there a difference between formal and informal speech, but there is also a difference between familiar and polite speech.  In America, we understand these concepts to some extent.  For example we use different language when talking one-on-one to a friend than we would use if we were reporting something on the news, even if we were talking about the same thing.  For example, assume that we had been stung by a bee the day before.  To the friend, we might say, “Man that turkey hurt like a son-of-a-gun,” whereas to the TV audience we might say, “It was painful.”  These sentences are familiar and formal versions of the same idea.  The process happens in English, but it is not part of our grammar.  In Japanese, it is part of the grammar.


A good example of how a polite/familiar duality in the grammar alters the tenor of the language is the usage of the word “kudasai.”  We tend to translate the word “kudasai” as “please” in English.  Hence, the phrase “beer, please” uttered to a host offering drinks would be translated as “biru kudasai.”  But “kudasai” does not literally mean “please.”  It means “give to me.”  Nonetheless, “biru kudasi” does not translate literally as “give me a beer,” which could sound rude in some contexts, because “kudasai” is the polite way of saying “give to me.”  Hence, it translate as, “please give to me ….”  “Please” is not a separate word.  It is part of the grammar.


Aside from the polite way of saying “give to me,” there is also a “really polite” way of saying it, which is O negai simasu.  It translates as something like, “I think you are the greatest thing since sliced sushi, and I would be most grateful if you would give it to me, even though I know fully well that I am undeserving of it.”  As you can see, Japanese can be a highly efficient language in some circumstances.


There are two ways of being polite to someone in Japanese.  One is by using grammar that indicates how wonderful that person is (e.g., the “exalting” tense) and the other is to indicate how much lower you are by comparison (the “self flagellating” tense).  The best way to understand which strategy to use in a given situation is to be re-born in Japan and learn the language as a native speaker.