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PAUL closes in Western Market
By Ella Mitchell, Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

At Phillips Hall lecture, linguistics expert analyzes Japanese language

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Lauren Gomez.

The Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures held a public lecture on Japanese politeness and metaphor at Phillips Hall Friday afternoon.

Alan Hyun-Oak Kim, a professor of linguistics at Southern Illinois University, discussed how Japanese grammar, expressions and words are carefully chosen by speakers to reflect the status differences between speakers and addresses.

1. The ‘puzzle of honorifics’

As a native speaker of Japanese and Korean, Kim has spent much of his life using honorifics – ways of addressing people that express status and respect, like “Mr.” and “Mrs.” – but he admitted that it took him many years to even consider analyzing Japanese honorifics.

“I thought honorifics are only for schoolteachers and citizenship education,” Kim said.

However, as he argued in his book “Grammatical Encoding of Politeness: Systemic Metaphorization in Japanese,” Kim now considers them as a special, independent system within Japanese grammar that is separate from the general Japanese language.

Kim compared honorifics to Himeji Castle in Japan.

“Himeji Castle is the beautiful castle of a local lord. It’s not a powerful person’s castle, but it has its own autonomous authorities,” said Kim.

2. Observations and characteristics of honorifics

As Kim discussed the difference between Eastern and Western languages, he showed the multitude of ways to politely convey the same thoughts or meanings. When translating simple Japanese sentences into English, Kim used examples that showcased a large disparity between the implication of many Japanese sentences and their English translation.

In one example, the sentence “Sensei-ni ome-ni kakaru” literally translated to “I visit me professor,” but it implied that the speaker was trapped in his teacher’s eyes.

These nuances were included in dozens of Kim’s examples, which he considered Japan’s elaborate but socially necessary way to show respect to the speaker’s elders and betters.

3. Perceptions of superior and subordinate

When using honorifics, the speaker always considers the difference between the status, role and age difference with the person they address, Kim said. When speaking to a person who should be considered superior, Kim said that the speaker uses affixes such as ‘desu’ and ‘masu’ to remain humble and reference the addressee’s honor and stature. Similarly, Kim stated that the affix ‘suru’ implies the speaker’s “servitude to the superior’s well-being”.

Kim added that Japanese cannot display the same amount of respect through honorifics to an older sibling as they would the emperor. Instead, speakers adjust the types and amount of honorifics used to reflect the relative stature of the speaker compared to the addressee.

In Japan, Kim said that “politeness expressions are intrinsically metaphorical and they are systemic.”

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