Understand Better Keigo: Japanese honorific prefixes O and GO

Posted by on April 25, 2016 – Japanese Study
Japanese honorific 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 o or 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, depriving learners of enjoying the concept and explanation of said rule. Have you heard what is the name of 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. To the ears of Japanese people, the adjunction of “o” and “go” adds some beauty to one’s words and manner. However, for Japanese learners, this construction is a bit tricky.

Rules of Japanese honorific prefixes

The difficulty resides in knowing when to correctly and consistently use the Japanese honorific prefixes. In order to correctly place o or go, it is necessary to understand the distinction between 音読おにょみ, the Chinese reading and 訓読くんよみ, the Japanese reading

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

Understanding the readings and the origins of the Japanese vocabulary is not an easy task. Our best advice would be to listen carefully to native speakers and to gradually memorize which words with o or go. 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’s else family, you should care to place お before the noun, changing in the same time, the reading of the kanji:

Your Family Somebody’s else 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 will find below very common one:

  • 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).

Learn more about how to use of complex polite phrases in our Business Japanese Course.

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