Horrifying honorifics

Thai and Japanese are just two languages that have countless ways of saying the same thing depending on who you are, who the other person is, their age, provence, job title or social standing. While those two are especially cumbersome, similar systems exist in Vietnamese, Korean, Malay/Indonesian, and to a lesser extent in Chinese.

These levels of speech are codified and identified by district verb forms, endings, and even choice of words and the languages are called difficult. It is often said that Asian languages are especially prone to this form of honorific speech due to societal norms, but that is not correct.

What’s more, many languages without these codifications do the same thing, as I found out moving back to Europe after 30 years in Asia.

In Chinese the more intimate you are, the more you can dispense with polite phrases. In German, if you do that with family it is considered uneducated. We too have different verb forms and choose different sentence patterns. If codified, “I have no clue” and “I am not familiar with” could be considered structural levels of politeness.

I was greatly surprised when I was addressed as Du (tu in French) vs Sie (vous) by strangers — a change that has happened long ago in post-Franco Spain (tu/usted) but it’s now common in more formal German. (It was always a feature of working class milieus and rural settings.)

Americans have greatly simplified their language but even there you express things differently when talking to your mates vs your boss.

In truth, it is not the honorifics that are different but the codification behind them, which in turn has to do more with language than with societal norms and politics.

Now that horrific part about is that these levels of speech don’t such propagate traditions, but enshrine power structures and class affinities. Despite Chinese Communists insisting that they have abolished class, these dividing honorifics are now making a comeback in the one-party state.

That they persist in monarchies, like Japan and Thailand, in emulation of court etiquette is understandable. That they are resourcing in Xi Jinping’s China is a threat to any glimmer of democratic reform, inasmuch such a glimmer has not long ago be extinguished.

Published by Dr. Martin Hiesboeck, Ph D

Futurist, Marketer, Policy Advisor

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