Understand Better Keigo: Japanese Honorific Prefixes お and ご
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?
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 音読み, the Chinese reading, as well as 訓読み, 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” (お茶)
- Get well: “o-daijini” (お大事に)
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.
- お願いします (please)
- お待たせしました (sorry for keeping you waiting)
- ご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|
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:
- お菓子: sweets
- お水: water
- お薬: medicine
- お野菜: vegetable
- お魚: fish
- お卵: egg
- ご飯: rice, meal
- お酒: alcohol
- お財布: wallet
- お帽子: hat
- お写真: picture
- お車: car
- お手紙: letter
- お時間: 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).
Learn more about how to use of complex polite phrases in our Business Japanese Course.