In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Honorifics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals

Linguistics Honorifics
Lucien Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0265


Honorifics are linguistic forms that are used prototypically to express regard or esteem toward an entity worthy of respect, most typically a person of superior social standing. The concept is most frequently used in discussions of Japanese and Korean (typically the Standardized versions of these languages spoken in Tokyo and Seoul), which have highly developed systems of honorifics that include grammaticized verbal suffixes. In these languages, speakers need to make an obligatory choice between honorific and nonhonorific verb endings in every single sentence, depending primarily on social status and intimacy. For instance, when addressing a status superior, Japanese speakers will add masu to the end of every verb and Korean speakers will add -yo or -supnita, whereas these forms are omitted when addressing intimates. In languages without this system of verb endings, lexical substitutions can be recruited for marking honorification. In Standard Javanese, there are numerous lexical distinctions between ngoko (“low speech”) and krama (“high speech”). Thai features a number of speech levels including racha sap (“royal language”), which is used for addressing or referring to the royal family. In the Australian Aboriginal language Dyirbal, speakers switch to specific variations of the language known as “mother-in-law language” and “brother-in-law language” whenever so-called “taboo” kin—namely, the mother-in-law or brother-in-law—is in earshot. In English and European languages, honorifics tend to be limited mostly to respectful titles such as “Sir” or “Ma’am” and special second-person pronouns (e.g., in French, vous is the honorific form of tu [“you”]). Linguists recognize several different types of honorifics. “Referent honorifics” index the relationship between the speaker and referents within the sentence (or otherwise the relationship between different referents). Hearer honorifics (also known as “speech levels” or “speech styles”) directly index the relationship between the speaker and the hearer and do not require the hearer to appear as a sentence referent in order to appear. Bystander honorifics index the presence of specific onlookers at the scene of a speech event. These forms are appropriate for speaking in the presence of the bystander in question but are not necessarily appropriate when speaking about or to him/her. In addition to honorifics, languages may also contain humilifics: linguistic forms that humble or abase the speaker (e.g., “your humble servant”).

General Overviews

Since most discussion of honorifics takes place in the context of Japanese or Korean, non-language-specific general overviews of the phenomenon can be difficult to track down. Shibatani 2006 offers perhaps the most complete cross-linguistic overview of honorific forms and functions, whereas Irvine 2009 looks at the mechanics of honorifics alongside ideologies surrounding their usage. Wenger 1982 is focused mostly on Japanese, but with some cross-linguistic discussion. Chapter 2 of Brown 2011 includes a cross-linguistic introduction to honorifics alongside more extensive discussion of the Korean honorifics system. Martin 1964 offers a classic comparison of Japanese and Korean honorifics, whereas a more updated version can be found in Brown 2008.

  • Brown, Lucien. 2008. Contrasts between Japanese and Korean honorifics. Rivista degli Studi Orientali, n.s. 81.1–4: 369–386.

    Compares Japanese and Korean honorifics, pointing out important differences regarding speech style switching, referent honorifics, and self-humbling expressions. Whereas Korean is more developed in terms of addressee honorifics (speech styles), Japanese is more developed in referent honorifics and humble forms. Available via subscription online.

  • Brown, Lucien. 2011. Korean honorifics and politeness in second language learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Includes discussion of honorifics as a cross-linguistic phenomenon alongside in-depth coverage of Korean forms and their acquisition by language learners.

  • Irvine, Judith. 2009. Honorifics. In Culture and language use. Edited by Gunter Senft, Jan-Ola Östman, and Jef Verschueren, 156–172. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Cross-linguistic overview of the workings of honorifics, including examples from Japanese, Javanese, and multiple African and Australian languages. Argues that links between honorifics and certain types of social structure, while richly attested in the ideological ways that speakers understand the workings of their languages, cannot be attested by closer analysis of actual linguistic data.

  • Martin, Samuel. 1964. Speech levels in Japan and Korea. In Language in culture and society. Edited by Dell Hymes, 407–415. New York: Harper and Row.

    Classic article appearing in a volume featuring several seminal papers by big-name scholars in social and anthropological linguistics. Offers a structuralist analysis of addressee and referent honorifics in Korean and Japanese.

  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. 2006. Honorifics. In Encyclopedia of language and linguistics. Vol. 5. 2d ed. Edited by Keith Brown, 381–390. Oxford: Elsevier.

    Detailed overview of the forms and normative functions of honorifics across multiple languages. Useful source of information on less frequently described honorifics systems such as Tibetan, and the bystander honorifics and avoidance phenomena in Australian Aboriginal languages such as Dyirbal.

  • Wenger, James. 1982. Some universals of honorific language with special reference to Japanese. PhD diss., Univ. of Arizona.

    Classic PhD dissertation on honorific language in Japanese, with hard-to-find information about multiple languages.

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