Understand Better Keigo: Japanese Honorific Prefixes お and ご

Rules of Japanese Honorific Prefixes
Frequent Expressions

Japanese Polite Prefixes

When learning the Japanese respectful speech called Keigo, the attention is often focused on verbs construction and the social relations between a speaker and a listener. However, Keigo covers more than set expressions and situational examples, and in particular Japanese uses Honorific Prefixes.
Most of you might know that the Japanese honorific prefixes お (O) or ご (Go) can be added to some nouns.
Among all rules of Keigo, there is a special one that deserves all our attention. Despite being often reduced to 2 or 3 lines in textbooks, learners are often deprived of the ability to enjoy the concept and explanation of the said rule. Have you ever heard of its the name and what we can consider a subdivision of Keigo?
Beautified Speech
The word beautification is the art of making words more polite by adding Japanese Honorific Prefixes to noun or to the Polite Form of Verbs. In the ears of Japanese people, the adjunction of “O” and “Go” adds beauty to one’s words and manner.

However, for Japanese learners, this construction can be a bit tricky.

Rules of Japanese Honorific Prefixes

In general, the difficulty resides in knowing when to correctly and consistently use the Japanese Honorific Prefixes. In order to correctly place お or ご, it is necessary to understand the distinction between 音読おんよみ, the Chinese reading, as well as 訓読くんよみ, the Japanese reading.

  • Before a native Japanese word, you should place an お. The prefix お can be attached to a noun but can also be attached to a verb stem for the grammatical construction of Keigo.
  • Before a Sino-Japanese word, you should place ご. The tough part comes in when you have to figure which words comes from China.
  • However, note that there are exceptions whereby a Sino-Japanese Word has an お attached to it instead of a ご:
      • Tea: “o-cha” (おちゃ)
    • Get well: “o-daijini” (お大事だいじに)

Frequent Expressions

To further understand the readings and origins of the Japanese vocabulary is not an easy task. Our best advice would be to actively listen to natives speaking Japanese and thereafter memorize which words come with お and which words come with ご.
The set expressions frequently heard when in Japan are easy to remember.

  • 願いします (please)
  • 待たせしました (sorry for keeping you waiting)
  • 協力をお願いします (we ask for your cooperation)

One important group that you can easily remember is the family vocabulary. When referring to somebody else’s family, you should try to place an お before the noun. This in turn changes the reading of the kanji at the same time:

Your Family Somebody else’s Family
Father ちち とうさん
Mother はは かあさん
Older Sister あね お姉さん
Older Brother あに お兄さん

Although creating a list of all the existing combination of nouns with the prefixes would be quite a challenge, you may find the ones below very common:

  • 菓子かし: sweets
  • みず: water
  • くすり: medicine
  • 野菜やさい: vegetable
  • さかな: fish
  • たまご: egg
  • はん: rice, meal
  • さけ: alcohol
  • 財布さいふ: wallet
  • 帽子ぼうし: hat
  • 写真しゃしん: picture
  • くるま: car
  • 手紙てがみ: letter
  • 時間じかん: time

As you may have noticed, the Japanese honorific prefixes are only attached to native Japanese words or words borrowed from Chinese. As a general rule, katakana words – loan words from other languages, are excluded. However, do not be surprised, if you hear some Japanese saying おビール (beer) or おトイレ (toilet), おタバコ (tobacco).
Also, if you are looking to address someone else, here are some honorific titles such as San, Sama, Kun and Chan you can use!

Click to tweet and share this article with other Japanese learners!

Coto Japanese Academy is a unique Japanese Language School in Iidabashi Tokyo, we offer relaxed and fun conversational lessons for all levels of Japanese learner. Coto Japanese Academy prides itself on its community atmosphere and fun lessons that focus on creation of opportunities to speak and learn Japanese. If you are interested in studying Japanese in Tokyo – please visit our contact page here.

Start taking Japanese lessons and master Japanese honorific prefixes!

Test your Japanese level!

Do a self-test to see which course fits you.

Check your level