lifestyle

Swearing in Japanese: Why formal and informal speech is important

10 Comments
By Mina Otsuka

Compared to English, Japanese people’s capacity to use expletives—especially toward other people—doesn’t have the same offensiveness. It’s usually not a single word or phrase that conveys the meaning, but the delivery and tone of speech that reveals one’s intentions.

There are, of course, some words that are considered “naughty” on their own, such as kuso (s*t), chikusho (damn) and you could also call someone baka or aho *(idiot) to curse or use insults. There’s more to Japanese than the vocabulary, however, when it comes to communication, and that is the level of formality in the language used—especially when it comes to profanity.

As a native Japanese speaker, I would say that “watching your mouth” means knowing what type of speech you should use and when it’s most appropriate to use it.

Keigo and tameguchi

There are two types of speech in Japanese: the formal and the informal.

Formal speech, such as keigo (honorific language), is usually what those studying Japanese learn first in textbooks. However, the exaggerated speech they hear or read in Japanese popular culture—like anime, manga or movies—sounds completely different and is rarely used in real life. Thus, it’s hard to get a sense of swearing, or the use of “bad language,” compared to English usage.

Honorific keigo Japanese shows respect and politeness to strangers, seniors and anyone in higher social positions. Age plays a significant role in Japanese society, and you can easily make someone frown by using the condescending tameguchi form, the casual language used among people of the same age.

When tameguchi is used by a person speaking to someone younger, it’s usually considered OK even when they are meeting for the first time, but it’s a big no-no when the situation is the other way around. Some people use a mixture of keigo and tameguchi to express affection or willingness to be closer and more open to the person they’re addressing.

For example, when I talk with my close colleagues at work, I sometimes say things like, “Onaka-suita. Ohiru-ikimasenka?” (I’m hungry. Can we go for lunch now?). My first sentence is a blunt statement, but the second sentence is a question in keigo.

Most people would probably use keigo if they expect a response from the other person, but they might use informal speech to make statements or comments about something. Thus, language varies greatly in relationships depending on how well people know each other and whether each party agrees to be treated in the way they are.

For swearing, the switch between keigo and tameguchi is one way you can make a Japanese person feel uncomfortable. However, when a foreigner uses tameguchi, almost all Japanese people take it as a type of “error” in the use of the language, so it doesn’t give them the intended attitude.

Vulgar adjectives

When you take the plain form of Japanese and make it sound a bit vulgar, you might be able to get close to “swearing.” 

Click here to read more.

© GaijinPot

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

10 Comments
Login to comment

Japanese doesn't have swear words per se. But there are words to express frustration, and there are ways to piss people off with words, so the capability still exists in Japanese to express what we do in English with swear words, they just have a different way of expressing these things.

Every language has insult words and inflammatory talk. They all have ways to express anger and frustration and induce it in orders as well.

Pukey2June 25  03:12 pm JST

Interesting to note that Quebecois resorts to words related to the church like txbxrnxk and cxlxssx

They do. I've been there and in Quebecois French there are interjections like 'bread and wine!' that have roots to Quebec's Roman Catholic traditions and heritage. It's similar to a few phrases in English that aren't as common as they once were but are still used sometimes, like 'Mary, Jesus and Joseph!' or 'Motherogod!' or perhaps 'ChristAlmighty!'.

And the term that you'll hear in some very old movies - 'Judas Priest!'? That term is now used as the name of a rock band I grew up listening to.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Interesting to note that Quebecois resorts to words related to the church like txbxrnxk and cxlxssx

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Interesting article, she stated it quite well I thought.

I've seen two Japanese people arguing, and interestingly their levels of keigo went up, while their tone was clearly aggressive and angry. I've often thought of this, and how the usage of the incorrect level of language for the situation, was almost a way of saying 'I'm calmer than you', expressing a 'f-you' in its own way.

Japanese doesn't have swear words per se. But there are words to express frustration, and there are ways to piss people off with words, so the capability still exists in Japanese to express what we do in English with swear words, they just have a different way of expressing these things.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I find it hard to believe that there is no means of insulting a person in any language, perhaps there is slang this polite and well educated lady is unaware of?

She's a native Japanese speaker.

Also she's right.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

bass4funkJune 24  07:32 pm JST

I think German or most of the Scandinavian languages have some of the best curse words, but yeah, Japanese curse words just doesn’t have that umpf! Tame indeed. But to be honest, was never a big fan of swearing, I think there’s no need to curse if you have a large enough vocabulary….I guess, maybe….

albaleoToday  01:21 am JST

English has been renowned for its propensity to profanity or swearing

But its swear words are largely related to sex (or sexual organs), religion, and bodily functions. Perhaps that suggests English-speaking countries are more hung up on such matters.

It's not the same in all languages. In German, terms like 'S.O.B.' have no meaning whatsoever because that 'B' word ('Hunderin') is never used on a person. It's never negative, it means simply 'a female dog' and nothing more. The Russian language has no negative or curse words for sex or lovemaking, they don't have the 'F' word at all. I've heard that Chinese swear words are nearly all sex-related. And then there's the (in)famous story about how a popular video game had to get its Romanization changed from the original 'PUCKMAN'.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

English has been renowned for its propensity to profanity or swearing

But its swear words are largely related to sex (or sexual organs), religion, and bodily functions. Perhaps that suggests English-speaking countries are more hung up on such matters. I've found those things are more openly talked about in Japan, and cursing is more direct. "You idiot" may look weak on paper to English speakers, but hearing it from truly angry people in Japan can be quite scary.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I would have thought any language that lacked a means of letting off steam would be very frustrating for the speakers.

English has been renowned for its propensity to profanity or swearing, and the variety has changed and adapted over centuries as ideas and attitudes changed. Now alas fairly limited in choice as not much is deemed off limits, though in Shakespeare’s time there was a rich language of insult and “flyting” contests were held in pubs where contestants vied to insult the other in as varied and inventive a manner as possible. In medieval times the French slang name for the English was based on their favourite oath, “goddamns”. Some oaths of that time have survived to this day though much lessened in impact “bloody” (by our lady) and blimey (god blind me) are two that spring to mind.

I find it hard to believe that there is no means of insulting a person in any language, perhaps there is slang this polite and well educated lady is unaware of?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I think German or most of the Scandinavian languages have some of the best curse words, but yeah, Japanese curse words just doesn’t have that umpf! Tame indeed. But to be honest, was never a big fan of swearing, I think there’s no need to curse if you have a large enough vocabulary….I guess, maybe….

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Swearing in Japanese, compared to other languages including those of European languages, and even other Asian languages like Mandarin and Cantonese are really tame. However, when that Japanese translator was asked how to say in Japanese the phrase which the fat guy said in that Hollywood Access tape and she said there's no equivalent of that P word in Japanese she was lying through her teeth.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Useful article. I have so much fun switching back between the two - the startled look on my coworkers faces is worth the price of admission.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites