January 7

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The 3 Kinds of Keigo: Sonkeigo, Kenjougo and Teineigo

By Jake Hallows

January 7, 2021


As any Japanese speaker will tell you, one of the tougher parts of the language is understanding how and when to use the various forms of Japanese Keigo (敬語 – Formal language), or honorific speech. Japanese Keigo has three levels of formality: Sonkeigo, Kenjougo, and Teineigo (尊敬語, 謙譲語, and 丁寧語).

You may think that the difficulty of Japanese honorific language is exaggerated. English has different levels of formality too, what’s so hard about it? However, from experience, learning keigo is one of the largest obstacles to perfecting your Japanese abilities.

However, just like with any other aspect of language, once you learn the rules to Keigo it isn’t all that bad, though it does take a lot of hard work and studying. In this article, I’ll walk you through what the levels of Keigo (Sonkeigo, Kenjougo, Teineigo) are, where to use them, and (in my opinion) the best ways to learn them.

Sonkeigo, Kenjougo, and Teineigo: What’s the difference ?

So, as I mentioned earlier, there are three types of Keigo which are all used in different ways and situations. Let’s break them down here.

丁寧語 – Teineigo – Polite language

The bread and butter of Japanese, Teineigo is the most commonly used form of Japanese in daily life. In general, Teineigo is the type of Japanese you use with people that you aren’t close with, outside of formal situations. It’s slightly less formal than the other varieties of Keigo. If you’re unsure of what Japanese to use, then Teineigo is normally a safe bet.

When you start learning Japanese, it’s pretty common to learn Teineigo first. Easy ways to recognize Teineigo are that verbs will often end with ‘Masu’ (ます) and nouns are followed by ‘Desu’ (です).

尊敬語 – Sonkeigo – Honorific language

Sonkeigo is used when describing other’s actions in a very polite manner. As such, you can’t use Sonkeigo to talk about your own actions. It’s a very formal form that is often used in the workplace, especially when dealing with customers or clients.

Generally, people begin learning Sonkeigo after developing a good base of Japanese vocabulary. A large part of Sonkeigo is made up from polite variants of commonly used verbs. There’s no easy method to recognizing these, beyond the fact that they’re generally a lot longer than the normal version would be!

謙譲語 – Kenjougo – Humble language

The counterpart to Sonkeigo, Kenjougo is the polite way of referring to one’s own actions. Again, it is commonly used in the workplace, and isn’t used to refer to other people and their actions.

Kenjougo is normally learnt alongside Sonkeigo as a pair. Kenjougo also has its own polite variants of words, which in general are a lot longer than the standard versions.

When and where should I use it?

Now that we’ve taken a look at what Teineigo, Sonkeigo and Kenjougo are, let’s look at some of the common situations in which you could end up using them in Japan.  

Shopping

First, let’s imagine you’re shopping. The staff working at the shop will most likely be using Sonkeigo and Kenjougo, to show respect to their valued customers. The customers themselves, however, are more likely to be using Teineigo or even casual Japanese as they are paying for a service.

At work

Conversations at the workplace are more often than not done using Sonkeigo and Kenjougo, especially if talking with your boss or customers. However, when talking to colleagues of an equal position that you are close with, it’s not uncommon to use Teineigo.

With friends

When chatting with friends, which form of Keigo do you think you should use? If you answered none of them, then you were correct! Given that Keigo is for formal conversations, it’s very rare to see friends using it with each other.

How do I remember all of this!?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this information, you’re in good company. I found Keigo, particularly Sonkeigo and Kenjougo, a real challenge to get my head around. Between all the new vocabulary to learn, as well as the need to recognize what to use in each situation, it’s easy to get disheartened.

However, there is hope! A lot of Japanese textbooks, especially those aimed at the JLPT (Japanese language proficiency test), focus a lot on this topic. They often have a table of verbs, with the Teineigo, Sonkeigo and Kenjougo forms all alongside each other. I found that by remembering the verbs in sets like this, it seemed to stick in my head for longer.

There are other options too, for those who prefer to avoid hitting the books. There’s a whole host of websites and blogs that have written about the subject, many of which do a great job of introducing the various Keigo variations in a natural way. A quick web search will often give you the answers you’re looking for.

Loads of websites have handy tables like these to help you out!

Don’t give up!

I know that Keigo, Sonkeigo, Kenjougo and Teineigo are hard to understand, but they’re by no means impossible! Provided you study properly, you’ll eventually get there! Good luck!

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