Linguistic hierarchy: How language shows respect
By Jennifer Alvarez and Julie L. Parenteau, Ph.D.
Learning a second language is not only about learning vocabulary and sentence structure. It is also about learning culture. In this post, we talk about forms of respect inherent in different languages. While some cultures are more hierarchical in nature, others are less hierarchical, and their languages reflect those differences. We have taken examples from English, French, Spanish, and Japanese to demonstrate these concepts. While reading, consider the words you use in everyday life. Think about how your native language compares and then ask yourself two important questions: 1) how does your native language reflect hierarchy and 2) what does that say about the importance (or lack thereof) of hierarchy in your native culture?
Let’s begin with English! English spoken in the Southern region of the United States shows respect when speaking to others in positions of authority or elders by using Sir (for men) or Ma’am (for women). People in the Northern United States tend to use the terms Mr. or Mrs. in front of the person’s last name instead. However, referring to people simply by their first name has become the norm throughout much of the U.S.
Hello (formal): Hello, ma’am or sir/Mr. Smith.
Hello (informal): Hello.
You’re welcome (formal): You are welcome, ma’am or sir/Mrs. Smith.
You’re welcome (informal): You’re welcome.
How are you? (formal): How are you, ma’am or sir?
How are you? (informal): How are you?
The French language also distinguishes between formal and informal settings, showing respect for strangers, those in positions of authority, and elders. The “tu” form is used in informal situations, while speakers use “vous” to refer to people in formal settings. Both mean “you,” but “vous” shows a deeper level of respect for your conversational counterpart. Both the subject pronoun and the verb change to reflect this. Below are a few examples of everyday phrases in both a formal and informal setting in French.
Please (informal): S’il te plait.
What is your name? (formal): Comment vous appelez-vous?
What is your name? (informal): Comment t’appelles tu?
How are you? (formal): Comment allez-vous?
How are you? (informal): Ça va?
A fellow Latin-based romance language, Spanish, like French, differentiates between a formal “you” and an informal “you.” When in an informal setting, such as with friends or family, use the “tu” form. When speaking to strangers, someone in a higher position such as a manager, as well as older adults, use “usted.” Again, note that the verb ending is also different to reflect the change in subject use. Some everyday phrases that are used in the Spanish language are listed below to show both formal and informal usage.
How are you? (formal): ¿Cómo está usted?
How are you? (informal): ¿Cómo tú estás?
What is your name? (formal): ¿Cómo se llama usted? OR ¿Cuál es su nombre?
What is your name? (informal): ¿Cómo te llamas? OR ¿Cuál es tu nombre?
Where are you from? (formal): ¿De dónde es usted?
Where are you from? (informal): ¿De dónde tú eres?
Japanese has two types of “respect languages.” The context of the situation and the identity of the person to whom you are speaking are the criteria used to determine which type of language is spoken. The two types of “respect languages” are: “sonkeigo,” which translates to respectful language, and “kensongo,” which is the use of modest or humble language. Following are a few examples.
Sonkeigo, the respectful language, is used when talking about superiors and customers. This type of language is never used to refer to one’s self. This language is only used when referring to someone else. It is necessary to use different verb conjugations when using this type of respect language. To show respect to an elder, for example, one may change the word “suru,” meaning “do,” to “hasaru.” Altering the verb in this way shows deference or respect despite the fact that the two words have the same meaning.
Kensongo, the modest or humble language, is used to describe one’s actions or the actions of someone in a group such as customers in a business. Kensongo is used to describe situations in which someone is speaking of an action that took place while assisting another. For example, the word carry, which is “motsu,” is changed to “mochi shimasu” because the term is being used to retell a story in which that person helped someone carry something.
“I had to motsu the books.” This is adequate because someone is talking about a personal action they did for themselves. Alternately, that sentence would read, “I had to mochi shimasu the books for the customer today” if the person did the action for someone else.
Understanding how language shows respect for authority is important for everyday conversations, but is also extremely important for business transactions. Whether or not you make an attempt to speak the other language in negotiations, make sure that you are aware of hierarchical protocol prior to engaging the other party. Showing such deference will go a long way.
For more language learning tips to help you through your cultural adaptation process, contact Global Perceptions, your relocation specialist in Puerto Rico.