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JAPANESE SPEECH LEVELS AND HOW TO INDICATE THEM IN AN ENGLISH-JAPANESE DICTIONARY PETER A. SHARPE Speech levels reveal the way in which society and language interact more clearly, perhaps, than any other single linguistic phenomenon. They show how social mores affect language and how, as the instrument of expression, language serves to define those mores still further. They are like contours mapping the cultural dimensions of language. In Japanese, the social factors that determine the choice of speech level—social position, in/outgroupness, sex, and age (Martin 410)—are so ubiquitous that they permeate every aspect of discourse from simple greetings to complicated requests for favors. So important, in fact, is a knowledge of the workings of these speech levels, that P. G. O'Neill describes it as "... as necessary to a student of Japanese as a slide-rule to an engineer ..." (vii). How, then, can these levels and their lexical members be shown in an English-Japanese dictionary for English-speaking users primarily intent upon learning spoken Japanese? Before attempting to answer that question, I shall outline the system of Japanese speech levels and the social factors that affect their use. In a pioneer study, Samuel E. Martin demonstrated that speech level distinctions are made in Japanese on the basis of two intersecting axes. His bi-axial model is shown below: 69 70 Speech Levels in an English-Japanese Dictionary Humble Plain. JPolite Neu tral Exalted Fig. 1 . Martin's bi-axial model (409). The horizontal axis he termed the axis of address. Along this axis language is obligatorily coded for plain or polite speech in one of three styles—plain, deferential, or polite. The choice of style depends upon the speaker's evaluation of his relationship with and attitude toward the addressee. If the speaker were addressing an intimate or an inferior, plain style would be used. The plain style is, according to Roy Andrew Miller, "... the language of daily life, colloquial language in its usual and most ordinary sense" (139). Typically, it is used within the family and among workmates and others in situations where differences of social status are unimportant. The polite style is the form most taught to students of Japanese and is characterized by "desu" and "-masu" forms. It has a wider range of coverage than the plain style and is used a great deal on television and radio (Miller 139). It can be described as formal and rather impersonal. The third style—the deferential style—lies between the plain and polite styles. Martin omits it from his model (1) to achieve a neat, binary, opposition between plain and polite styles and (2) because the modern trend is to "eliminate the deferential style from predicates altogether " (Martin 409). The vertical axis is called the axis of reference. Martin restricted its description to verb and copula for the sake of simplicity (409). Along it range a choice of humble, neutral, and exalted expressions. Miller's model (270) has two more Peter A. Sharpe71 expressions—elegant and respectful. Their positions on the axis are, respectively, between exalted and neutral. Miller asserts that for practical purposes the elegant level is the outermost limit of the system (272). Thus, for example, the humble, neutral, respectful, and elegant forms of the verb kaku, meaning 'to write', are, respectively, o-kaki sum, kaku, kakareru, and o-kaki ni nam. Additional derived forms are to be understood as included within these basic forms: thus, nam can signify nam, narimasu, natta, narimashita, etc. The choice of expression depends not as previously upon the speaker's attitude toward the addressee, but upon the speaker's attitude toward the subject of the expression. Although Martin does not make it clear whether "subject of the expression" (409) refers to the grammatical subject of the verb or the topic of the conversation, the fact that verbs of humble and elegant expressions are restricted in their grammatical subjects (O'Neill 41-61) suggests that he may have been thinking of the former. While Martin's bi-axial model provides a useful starting point for the description of Japanese speech levels, it does require a lengthy accompanying explanation. For this reason it may not be suitable for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 69-80
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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