"Polite" Japanese

As you've seen from our lessons so far, we can create a fairly amazing variety of sentences with only a limited knowledge of the grammatical forms that are possible in the Japanese language.

Why don't textbooks or Japanese schools teach any of this?

I'm not sure, to be honest. I've never seen a book or course that did a good job of teaching the casual language that Japanese people use in everyday life. The stuff in books is correct, and it's often very useful if you will find yourself speaking Japanese in formal situations, but it sounds awkward in many other situations.

Anyway, as much as I love talking about casual forms of Japanese, which I think everyone should start with, we all need to be able to speak Japanese politely. Being able to switch being different levels of politeness throughout one's interactions with Japanese people is crucial.

For most of us, when we're just starting out with Japanese, we don't have super-intimate relationships with Japanese people, so we have few opportunities to use casual Japanese. In a cruel twist, this means that more often than not we need to use the more-complicated "polite" forms of Japanese when we are still beginners.

So, yeah, we're gonna start looking at some of the "polite" conjugation patterns. If you've studied Japanese using other books or courses, I'm guessing that a lot — but certainly not all — of this will be review for you.

Oh, and if you're wondering why I keep putting "polite" in quotation marks, it's because I don't know of any perfect word for "polite" Japanese. In English, "polite" means "not rude," right? But in Japanese, "polite" language is contextually appropriate language.

For example, we often label Japanese sentences as "polite" or "formal," but the nuance of the sentences is not that you're well-mannered, necessarily. The nuance is that you are putting distance between yourself and the speaker. Accordingly, using "polite" forms with intimate speaking partners has the potential feel, in a sense, distant. Because you're putting more space between you and the listener.

At the other end of the spectrum, being unable to use "polite" forms when it is culturally or contextually appropriate to do so can make you look like an idiot.

Enough about that, though. Let's get productive...




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