In the question Is there any reason why English doesn’t add respectful words in every sentence? that was asking why there's more respectful language in Korean and Japanese compared to English, the accepted answer was

The primary reason is cultural. Western languages are not steeped in Confucian culture. Filial piety and constantly overtly expressed respect for the elderly, for seniors, and for superiors are not central values in Western cultures. Most Western languages have polite forms (du & Sie in German, tu and Vous in French, for "you"), but English lost that distinction when thee and thou died a couple of hundred years ago. Still, there are polite & impolite ways to speak English. English speakers generally consider using honorifics as obsequious.

This is what I had always assumed, but when I hear someone else describe it, it sounds a little like stereotyping (of asian cultures, and of western cultures) and speculation based on small sample sizes. Has any research been done to confirm the effect of culture on the amount and usage of politeness-related constructs, such as honorific endings, honorific prefixes and different forms of verbs for different politeness levels?

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    You seem to be making the common mistake of lumping politeness, respect, and formality into a single concept. I did a case study of Korean honourifics for a sociolinguistics class an while I did not have a large enough sample size to draw any large conclusions, I found that sentence endings were more dependent on formality than politeness (which was denoted by vocabulary choices), or respect (which was denoted in both vocabulary choices and the use of the 시 particle). English favours non-overt politeness/respect/formality constructs, so it's hard to identify which factor is at work.
    – acattle
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:18
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    Also, it should be noted that language usage reflects social situations. Naturally, societies where status is important will find ways to reflect this in their use of language while societies where status is not important will most likely not spend the extra energy denoting it in their language. You don't even need to compare different languages to see this: do you speak to your boss the same way you speak to your friends? At work status is important. With friends, it is not.
    – acattle
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:27
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    It might be worthwhile to have a look at Politeness Theory, and Pragmatics in general if this is unfamiliar.
    – jlawler
    Dec 24, 2012 at 4:53
  • This assumes that the Japanese language changed with the introduction of Confucianism. One would then for instance expect that a lot of honorific speech would be based on onyomi. Is it the case? If keigo predates the arrival of Confucianism in Japan, then Confucius is not part of the picture (for Japanese). Apr 13, 2019 at 6:19

1 Answer 1


I think, there are several reasons why some languages have developed a broad variety of particles (e.g. Thai) while other have not (nor there are any historical evidences they have ever been).

Of course, Confucian culture made a great impact on this, with its idea of saving one's face and harmonious relations are often at premium. Use of the appropriate polite particle in a sentence can add just the right amount of politeness for human communication.

However, you are right asking the question here. There are researches (1; PDF) that suggest pure linguistic reasons for particles have been more developed in tonal languages.
Indeed, a non-tonal language uses stress and tone to change the feeling and mood of a sentence. Asking someone, "What are you doing?", depending on the tone of the voice, can completely change the meaning from a greeting to a rude command.

A tonal language, where the meaning of a word is determined by the pitch of the voice, uses particles, usually tacked onto the end of a sentence, to convey emotion and feeling. If you tried to express feeling and mood through intonation of voice, it may interfere with the tone (and therefore meaning) of a word.

A side note, Japanese used to be a tonal language. There are relics of tones, like 高低アクセント.

However, in Thai language, even nouns or verbs may change depending on your relation to the listener (e.g. younger versus elder person, monks or royal family members). E.g. to know has polite ทราบ [sâːp] and informal รู้ [rúː] forms.
They don't seem to be derived from tonal nature of the language, but most of the formal words I'm aware of are derived from ancient Pali/Sanskrit background.

So, to summarize the answer to your question:
Many Asian languages had reasons to develop a set of polite particles, primarily because of their tonal nature, but also because of cultural reasons like harmony and saving one's face.

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