Honorifics: Types, Data, and Importance for Linguistic Theory

by Assif Am David, Frankfurt a.M.

Honorifics are a linguistic encoding of social relations in a discourse. Therefore, they are closely related to pragmatic and sociolinguistic phenomena. On the other hand, unlike the latter, they are often highly grammaticalised and require not only pragmatic, but also formal consistency.

Honorifics can be divided into three different axis depending on whose honour (or disrespect) is expressed by the utterance. Comrie first introduced the different axes honorifics can refer to: the addressee (who is addressed by the reference), to the utterance referent (who the utterance is about), the bystander of the discourse (who might be overhearing the utterance) or to a taboo person in general regardless of the discourse. All of these can occur lexically, phonologically or morphologically. When morphological they can occur on nouns, pronouns and verbs and less frequently on adjectives, adverbs and addpositions.

Roughly correspondent to the three categories of honorifics there are three typological sorts of languages according to the use they make of honorifics. Type I is the one common in many European languages, whereby only pronouns and verbal conjugation are distinguished (e.g. Russian, German, Spanish (all Indo-European)). They are morphological honorifics and are mainly present in the verbal domain. They are restricted to sentences in which respect is expressed towards the addressee who is also the referent. If the two are distinct no honorifics are used. In the following German example we can see that both the pronoun and the verbal inflection are marked for honorifics. This occurs due to the fact that the sentence refers to the same person who is also the addressee and is shown respect.


(1) Sie      ess-en.
you.HON   eat-2.HON
You are eating (hon).

(2) Du  iss-t.
you eat-2sg
You are eating.

Interestingly though, this is not the most common type of honorifics in the world’s languages. Considerably more common are addressee and referent honorifics independent of one another which exist in Type II languages (e.g. Japanese (Japonic), Korean (Koreanic), Thai (Tai-Kadai), Javanese (Austronesian), Tamil (Dravidian), Nahuatl (Uto-Aztekan) and Nootka (Wakashan)). They express addressee and referent honorifics separately, whereby the first is usually marked by verbal morphology (but also through nominal morphology and the lexicon), and the latter through the lexicon (but also through nominal and verbal morphology). It is generally assumed that in most cases addressee honorifics evolved from referent honorifics and that referent honorifics are the primitive honorific both socially and linguistically (Brown and Levinson 1978).
In the following example we can see how Korean applies referent honorifics. Here both the choice of the honorific possessive pronoun and a clitic are used to revere the addressee regardless of the referent.


(3) nae chaek-ɯl      ilg-oe.
my  book  -ACC    read-Thematic
I read my book.

(4) chae     chaek-ɯl ilg-     oe          =yo.
my.HON book-ACC read-Thematic =HON.
I read my book (addressee honorific).

Additionally, Korean has referent honorifics which can also be employed regardless of the addressee. In the following example the addressee is not revered, but the referent is. This is shown both in the use of honorific lexemes and by the insertion of a honorific suffix to the verbal stem.

(5) irɯm   -ɯl     mal        hae-ss     -oe.
name-ACC   speech  do-  PAST-Thematic.
She said her name.

(6) soengham-ɯl      malssɯm      ha-sh:y-oe            -ss     -oe.
name.HON-ACC speech.HON do-HON-Thematic-PAST-Thematic.
She said her name (reference honorific).

These two types of honorifics can be combined either because both referent and addressee have to be shown respect or because they are (as in the European case) one and the same person.

(7) soengham-ɯl      malssɯm      ha-sh:y-oe            -ss     -oe           =yo.
name.HON-ACC speech.HON do-HON-Thematic-PAST-Thematic=HON.
She said her name (addressee and reference hon).

The distinction of honorific lexemes from plain lexemes is common in Type II languages and unknown in Type I. Some languages like Thai, Korean and Javanese even go further and distinguish different levels of honorifics.

An example from Javanese: the verb “come” is teka in plain speech dugi in first level honorific and dhateng in second level honorific. This can lead to to extremely complicated systems of honorifics distinguishing multiple different levels of formality, politeness and reverence. These are typical of highly hierarchic communities although it has been argued that many highly hierarchic societies do not resort to linguistic honorifics to express their social hierarchy (Irvine 1998).

Type III languages are languages which involve a special sort of honorific speech called avoidance speech. It is sometimes called mother-in-law speech after what is common in Australian Aboriginal languages, although avoidance speech does not necessarily involves the mother-in-law.  It can be found in various societies with complex taboo systems. In avoidance speech the linguistic form has to be adjusted in the presence of the taboo person, typically the in-laws or the husband. Avoidance speech is therefore bystander honorific, although it can sometimes extend to any speech and thus become a taboo honorific. Avoidance speech is not as common as the two other types of honorifics but it can be found around the world in a great variety of languages (e.g. Mongolian (Mongolic),  Chukchi (Chukchi-Kamchatkan), Oromo (Afro-Asiatic), and Zulu (Niger-Congo) (Algonquian), Dyirbal (Pama-Nyungan), Bunaba (Bunaban)). Avoidance speech is the most extreme form of honorifics, often affecting not only the lexicon and morphology, but also phonology.

In Oromo, for example, a married woman is not allowed to pronounce any word that starts with the same phonemes or syllable as the names of her husband, his father, his brothers, his clan and his two best men under any circumstances. This may be carried out by the use of special terms that are usually more general in their denotation than the plain language terms. If this does not suffice to avoid all the taboo opening syllables either the first phoneme is changed to /s/ or /ʃ/, or the first syllable is changed to /som/. Thus a woman who has to avoid the following taboo names: Kaliil, Galgalu, Gurre, Dose and Argoo, will change the sentence:

(8) kaleessa  galgala harre   gurrach:a gurra lamaan dosa waa argitani?
yesterday night   donkey black       ear    two     split  have seen-you?
Have you seen my black donkey with two split ears yesterday night?

(9) sommeessa ch’alasaa shumaara surraach:a surra lamaan hant’alafa waa shargitani?
yesterday    night       donkey       black         ear   two      split           have seen-you?
Have you seen my black donkey with two split ears yesterday night (taboo honorific)?     (adapted from Tesfaye 2003)

The change can be explained by lexical substitutions (shumaara instead of harre for “donkey”), phoneme substitution (surra instead of gurra for “ear”) and syllable substitution (sommeessa instead of kaleessa for “yesterday”). This complex avoidance speech does not take the place of other honorifics. In Oromo referent honorifics exist additional to avoidance speech!

The next example is from Bunaba avoidance speech (adapted from Rumsey 1982). In Bunaba avoidance speech should be used in the presence of the mother-in-law (bystander honorific). Avoidance speech is achieved through the use of special vocabulary and different affixes. Avoidance speech also involves valency changing: all transitive verbs in normal speech become intransitive in avoidance speech.

(10) gumun-ga   -yilunag.
hold-   PRS -I.them.
I hold them.

Will become:

(11) gumun-ga-  mal-gangini-birangi
hold-   PRS-HON-I       -regarding them
I hold them (bystander honorific).

Or possibly:

(12) gumun-ga-  mal-gangini
hold-    PRS-HON-I
I hold (bystander honorific)

Hence, whereby plain speech in (10) has an obligatory marking of the direct object, making “hold” a transitive verb, honorific “hold” is an intransitive verb with no obligatory mentioning of the patient.
As we could see from this short survey of honorifics in different languages, honorifics are a complex phenomena affecting both lexicon and grammar. They are often studied from a sociolinguistic point of view and less often as a grammatical category. Since in some languages honorific marking has to consistently occur in different components of grammar (verbs and nouns, phonology and lexicon, morphology and lexicon) the question arises whether honorifics too should be considered an agreement category. Sentence (13) is ungrammatical (indicated with the “*”) because of an improper honorific agreement.

(13) Korean (adapted from Choe, 2004):
* ai      o      -shy-oess-oe.
  child  come-HON-PST-Them
  The child came (referent honorific).

Agreement categories, also called phi-features (person, number and gender), are morphological categories of both nominals and verbs. They constitute an important component of both morphological and syntactic analyses in such questions as the derivation-inflection and agglutination-synthesis distinctions, binding, anaphora resolution and head-complement agreement. The inclusion or exclusion of honorifics in the phi-features could result in a change of our understanding of agreement, as unlike the three standard phi-features (person, number and gender) honorifics are socially determined, rather than arbitrarily. This would lead to an agreement triggered by social context that would either have to be accounted for by a formal theory, thus allowing a uniform analysis of agreement, or would change our concept of agreement to a more fuzzy one.


On honorifics in general:

  • Agha, A. (1994). “Honorification”. Annual review of anthropology. 23: 277-302.
  • Irvine, J. (1998). “Ideologies of honorific language”. In: Schieffelin, B.; Woolard, K. and Krostrity, P. (eds.). Language ideologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1979). “Social structures, groups and interaction”. In: Scherer, K. and Giles, H. (eds.). Social markers in speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1978). “Universals in language usage: politeness phenomena”. In: Goody, E. (ed.). Questions and politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lakoff, R. (1973). “The logic of politeness; or minding your P’s and Q’s”. In: Corum, C.; Smith-Stark, C. and Weiser, A. (eds.). Papers from the ninth regional meeting Chicago Linguistic Society.

Some specific cases:

Pohnpeian (Austronesian):

  • Keating, E. (1998). Power sharing: language, rank, gender and social space in Pohnpei, Micronesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Javanese (Austronesian):

  • Wolfowitz, C. (1991). Language style and social space: stylistic choice in Suriname Javanese. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
  • Errington, J. (1988). Structure and style in Javanese: a semiotic view of linguistic etiquette. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tongan (Austronesian):

  • Philips, S. (1991). “Tongan speech levels: practice and talk about practice in the cultural construction of social hierarchy”. In: Blust, R. (ed.). Current Pacific linguistics: papers on Austronesian languages and ethnolinguistics in honour of George W. Grace. Canberra: Australian National University.

Samuan (Austronesian):

  • Duranti, A. (1992). “Language in context and language as context: the Samoan respect vocabulary”. In: Duranti, A. and Goodwin, C. (eds.). Rethinking context: language as an interactive phenomenon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Japanese (Japonic):

  • Prideaux, G.D. (1970). The syntax of Japanese honorifics. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Loveday, L. (1986). Explorations in Japanese sociolinguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Korean (Koreanic):

  • Cho, Y. (2008). “Strategic use of Korean honorifics: functions of ‘partner-deference sangdae-nopim’ “. In: Weigand, E. (ed.). Dialogue and rhetoric. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Uehara, S. (2011). “The socio-cultural motivation of referent honorifics in Korean and Japanese”. In: Panther, K. and Radden, G. (eds.). Motivation in grammar and the lexicon. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Kannada (Dravidian):

  • Bean, S. (1978). Symbolic and pragmatic semantics: a Kannada system of address. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nahuatl (Uto-Aztecan):

  • Andrews, R. (1975). Introduction to Classical Nahuatl. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Thai (Tai-Kadai):

  • Iwasaki, S. and Ingkaphirom, P. (2005). A reference grammar of Thai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

On avoidance speech:

Oromo (Afro-Asiatic):

  • Tesfaye, W. (2007). “Laguu in the Oromo society: a sociolinguistic approach”. In: Amha, A.; Mous, M. and Sava, G. (eds.). Omotic and Cushitis language studies. Collogne: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag.

Bunaba (Bunaban):

  • Rumsey, A. (1982). “Gun-Guma: an Australian aboriginal avoidance language and its social functions”. In: Heath, J.; Merlan, F. and Rumsey, A. (eds.). Languages of kinship in aboriginal Australia. Sydney: University of Sydney Press.

Guugu Yimidhirr (Pama-Nyungan):

  • Haviland, J. (1979). “How to talk to your brother-in-law in Gugu Yimidhirr”. In: Shopen, T. (ed.). Languages and their speakers. Cambrdige (Mass.): Winthrop Publishers.

On honorifics and agreement:

Choe, J. (2004). “Obligatory honorification and the honorific feature”. Studies in generative grammar. 14,4: 545-559.