The Language of Courtesy
Nothing more truly shows the courtesies and formalities of the nation than the language itself. Innumerable phrases with many and delicate shades of meaning abound for every act. There are honorific terms of varying significance to be applied to people of every rank, to objects possessed by a superior and to articles of dress and food belonging to another. There are, on the other hand, humble terms to be used on one's self, or of one's own family, when addressing outsiders.
One does not eat or dress or go about or perform many acts in the same word as another. A man speaks of his own wife, using an entirely different word from that which he would use for the wife of a third person, and this again may be a different and less polite word than the term he would use for the wife of the person addressed.
The language may be roughly divided into three divisions —the language to superiors, the language to equals and the language to inferiors—but it is, of course, a delicate matter on many occasions to decide in which language to speak, whether to use all the honorable prefixes and long terminations, or to cut every sentence off short, as in the language to inferiors.
The general rule in most cases is that in speaking to equals one employs, for courtesy's sake, the language for superiors, and to certain inferiors, such as servants of other people, to workmen and tradesmen, the language of equals, while the rougher and less polite language is rarely used except to one's own servants, and very frequently by ladies not at all.
It is impossibly to go into the details of the ceremonials which accompany weddings, funerals, birth rejoicing and the entertainments of various sorts, interesting as many of them are. Many of these have changed, and will change more in this transition period, but let us hope that it may be long before Japan will become too busy for its pretty courtesies, its long, stately bows and graceful speeches, which are one of the most charming things in this land of the orient. —Sacramento Daily Union, 1897
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