The Honorifics and Politeness Levels of Javanese, Chinese, and Japanese

The honorifics are used to convey respect when used to address or refer to a person with higher social status (Brown & Levinson, 1987). It is claimed that speakers of some East Asian languages including Korean, Japanese, and Chinese are often required to employ the honorific forms when interacting with those with higher status (Lu et al., 2014). Japanese honorific system ‘keigo’ has various levels of politeness and these functional categories can make it easier to perceive underlining principles of the system (Barešova, 2015). It consists of three categories including sonkeigo (‘deferential speech’), kenjōgo (‘humble speech’) and teineigo (‘polite speech’), or the relatively new categories including teichōgo (‘formal polite speech’) and bikago (‘refined speech’) in addition to the traditional 3 categories (Barešova, 2015). Japanese honorifics including these categories are currently widely used by Japanese speakers although the classifications may vary. As one of the examples of honorifics, Chinese people may say something before asking a question such as qingwen or laojia, both of which mean ‘Excuse me’, which are used to soften the request (Lu et al., 2014).

Although there are different classifications in regards to the politeness of Javanese language, there are two main categories of the speech levels in terms of the politeness: Ngoko, which is considered as the low-level of the politeness and Krama, which is the high-level (Wajdi, 2015). Javanese language can, however, have more categories in terms of its politeness levels. Poedjosoedarmo (1979) and Errington (1988) (as cited in Sukarno, 2010) suggest that there are three levels: Ngoko, Krama Madya, and Krama Inggil. Ngoko may express the lowest level of politeness and it is considered as the basic level. When people speak Krama Madya, it is considered politer than speaking Ngoko. People speaking Krama Inggil may sound the politest. Due to this complex honorific systems, the number of younger Javanese people who use Javanese have declined and they are more likely to use Indonesian language instead, which has more simple system (Wijayanto, 2015). An Indonesian member in our exploratory research group told us there are four categories including Ngoko Lugu (the most impolite form), Ngoko Alus (the polite form), Krama Lugu (the politer form), Krama Alus (the politest form) explaining there are other categories such as Madya in addition to them (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Categories of Javanese Language (suggested/created by the Indonesian partner, Luluk).

Although it is suggested that Chinese speakers are required to use honorifics (Lu et al., 2014) as well as Korean and Japanese speakers, the exploratory study conducted in the Online Intercultural Exchange course revealed that Chinese students tend to think that they do not use honorifics or polite expressions depending on the social status of the addressees. Their perception indicated that their interactions remain the same in the interaction with those with higher social status and the lower status. This is different from another East Asian language, Japanese, in that the speech of Japanese speakers tends to vary depending on the social status and the age of the addressees. These two languages are different from the Javanese language in that Javanese language has multiple distinctive ‘languages’ within the language instead of having different ‘varieties’ within a language. One feature which makes Javanese language systems distinctive is that there may not be necessarily a mutual understanding between speakers of one language and another. A speaker of Ngoko, for example, may not understand what a Krama speaker is talking about because some young generation Ngoko speakers may not know Krama form very well according to our Indonesian partner. This communication difficulty is unlikely to happen in Chinese or Japanese interactions since many Chinese speakers tend to communicate similarly regardless of the social status and most of adult Japanese speakers can recognise and employ all or at least many of the honorifics. 

As the current study conducted in Online Intercultural Exchange course revealed, the categories within Javanese, Chinese, and Japanese languages based on the politeness may be different from each other. This may indicate that learners should recognise the fact that they may need to learn the different systems of honorifics or the polite language when they learn new languages.


Barešova, I. (2015). On the categorisation of the Japanese honorific system Keigo, Topics in Linguistics15(1). doi:

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universal in language usage. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Lu, A., Zhang, H., He, G., Zheng, D., & Hodges, B. H. (2014). Looking up to others: Social status, chinese honorifics, and spatial attention. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 68(2), 77-83. 

Sukarno. (2010) The Reflection of the Javanese Cultural Concepts in the Politeness of Javanese. K@ta, 12(1), 59-71.

Wajdi, M. (2015) Code-crossing: Hierarchical politeness in Javanese. e-Journal of Linguistics, 7(1). 1-16.

Wijayanto, A. (2015). Language choice performed by Javanese children and teenagers at Kalasan subdistrict, Yogyakarta Indonesia. Kajian Linguistik dan Sastra, 19(1).14-20