Grammatical Features Inventory


Anna Kibort

What is 'respect'

'Respect', or 'address', is one of the overt linguistic expressions of politeness. It indicates the speaker's social relation (including familiarity with) and attitude to the addressee and sometimes also to third persons.

The most widely accepted explanation of the reasons for the occurrence of linguistic politeness, including 'respect' or 'address', is Brown & Levinson's (1987) theory based on the social-psychological notion of face. In Brown & Levinson's account, face is a 'public self-image', a part of the personality of each individual which corresponds to the way the individual wants to be seen and treated by others in the society. According to Brown & Levinson, linguistic expressions of politeness arise because there are numerous types of speech acts and utterances that may threaten the face desires of the addressee. For example, the main functional motivation for developing polite referential expressions which use plural or third person forms with reference to a single addressee is the avoidance of the most direct linguistic reference to the addressee: a second person singular form, which is the most face-threatening.

Expressions of 'respect'

It is reasonable to assume that every language has ways of expressing politeness, but only some languages have special linguistic forms to express different degrees of respect towards the addressee or third persons. Like the category of 'person' for example, 'respect' is fundamentally a relational concept, therefore, based on Shibatani's (1994) description of honorific systems, we can identify three loci of special linguistic forms of respect:

  • Referent. Politeness is encoded through linguistic forms that express respect towards nominal referents. Politeness systems using such forms are the most widespread, and the historical development of some honorifics systems (e.g. Japanese) indicates that this is the most basic form of honorifics. The respect forms in this category include:
    • titles (such as honorary titles used together with proper names in English or German; or honorific endings attaching to names in Korean or Japanese),
    • polite pronouns (special pronominal forms - often across the whole person paradigm, as in Javanese; pronoun substitution - e.g. plural for singular; or pronoun avoidance and substitution of title, kin term, etc. for pronoun),
    • nominal honorifics (or, honorified nouns, expressing respect either directly towards the referent, or indirectly towards the owner/creator/recipient of the referred object; these are much less common than titles or polite pronouns),
    • verbal honorifics (sometimes called 'subject honorifics': honorifics expressing respect towards the referent of the subject or actor nominal and found on the verb; these include: verbal affixes, suppletive verbal honorific forms as inJapaneseKorean, and Tibetan, honorified nominalisations as in Japanese, and honorified predicate adjectives as in Japanese).
  • Note that in some languages with elaborate honorifics, the forms listed above may also have humbling counterparts. Humbling forms include: humbling first person pronominals, as in ThaiKorean or Japanese; and humbling verbal forms, sometimes called 'object honorifics' (these include: verbal affixes, suppletive humbling verbal forms, and humbling prefixed nominalisations as in Japanese). The honorific and the humbling strategies may be combined in one utterance - this also applies to 'subject honorifics' (honorific verbal forms, controlled by the subject nominal) and 'object honorifics' (humbling verbal forms, controlled by a nonsubject nominal), which can be combined for example in Tibetan.
  • Addressee. Politeness is encoded through linguistic forms that express the speaker's respect towards the addressee. In the case of honorific second person pronouns, the reference honorific function and the addressee honorific function converge, but some languages have special addressee-oriented honorific forms. These include:
    • special words of address (such as the English sir and ma'am),
    • special particles (e.g. Tagalog poThai kha (female), khrap (male); Tamil nkalii),
    • special verbal endings (e.g. Korean -sumniJapanese -mas).
  • Again, since respect for the referent and respect for the addressee are independent systems, one can occur independently of the other in a language that has both (e.g. Japanese).
  • 'Avoidance' language. Politeness is encoded through the use of a different language variant in the presence of, or addressing a 'taboo' kin or a superior. Examples include the so-called 'mother-in-law' or 'brother-in-law' languages of Australia, e.g. Dyirbal has the 'everyday' language variant, Guwal, and a 'mother-in-law' variant, Dyalnguy, which must be used by the speaker when a taboo relative, e.g. a parent-in-law of the opposite sex, is within earshot. Avoidance languages may have fewer words, more generic words, and have other linguistic features characteristic of languages with honorifics. 

Regardless of whether honorifics are expressed morphologically as affixes, suppletively, or as special words, it is interesting to note that "to a considerable extent honorific expressions are iconic to the relevant social and psychological distances: the longer the form, the politer the expression. In the case of avoidance languages and some honorifics languages, physical distance accompanies honorific speech" (Shibatani 1994:1605).

A widely adopted linguistic politeness strategy is blurring or defocusing the actor (particularly if the actor is the addressee), and this seems to be achieved most commonly through what Shibatani calls 'oblique referencing' (1994:1604-1605), i.e. avoiding direct reference. Among the methods of oblique referencing are: the use of locational nouns and deictic expressions; shifting person (e.g. from second to third); shifting number from the singular to the plural (including the use of plural agreement on the verb); shifting case marking from the ordinary forms to special oblique markers (e.g. Shibatani notes that Korean particles k'e and k'eso are special honorific dative and ablative (archaic) particles; and in Japanese epistolary style, the normal nominative case particle ga for the subject nominal is replaced by the dative particle ni as a way of showing respect to the referent of the noun); the passive construction; circumlocution-type honorifics (as in Japanese nominalisations used with honorific and humbling forms); and shifting tense (e.g. from the present to the past, as in English Could you...?Would you...?).

The status of 'respect' as a feature

We first distinguish respect as a condition on other features from respect as a feature in its own right. As was mentioned in §2 above, in many languages respect is expressed through the conventional use of certain other features, usually number, sometimes person, or even tense. In Russian, for example, respect is shown by the speaker through the use of the plural form of the second person (vy 'you (PL)') even when addressing a single interlocutor. InPolish, to show respect, the speaker addresses the interlocutor in the third person (singular or plural), using the common nouns/nominal phrases such as 'lady/madam' (pani), 'gentleman/sir' (pan), 'ladies' (panie), 'gentlemen' (panowie), or 'lady/ies and gentleman/men' (państwo) to refer to the addressee/s. The agreements with the polite pronouns or nouns are then syntactic or semantic, depending on the target (Corbett 1983:51-56; Corbett 2006:230-233).

Such manifestations of respect are not regarded a morphosyntactic feature. Not only is there no unique exponent of it, but more importantly there is no independent reason (such as for example the outcome of resolution rules) for needing a respect feature in Russian or Polish. Furthermore, the variability of the agreement according to target suggests that respect in these languages is rather a condition on agreement, but not a morphosyntactic feature.

Another expression of respect is through words or expressions that convey esteem or respect and are used in addressing or referring to a person. In languages with multiple honorifics, these have been sometimes analysed in terms of agreement, thus suggesting that respect is a morphosyntactic feature. However, this is not justified in the languages where each honorific can be determined on pragmatic grounds and they agree only in the sense that they tend to be used in the same pragmatic circumstances (Corbett 2006:137) (see §6 below).

Positing a respect feature is justified when the grammar needs to refer to it directly, for the purposes of agreement or government. As argued by Corbett (2006:138), a clear example of respect as a feature of agreement is found inMuna, an Austronesian language spoken on Muna Island (off the southeast coast of Sulawesi). Here we need to specify respect independently of other features (notably number); furthermore, marking on the verb co-varies with the pronoun. The following example (from van den Berg 1989:51, 82) shows the number and politeness markers found on the verb kala 'go' referring to the second person singular and plural (ihintu is a free pronoun which is used for emphasis and distinguishes neutral and polite forms): 

neutral ihintu o-kala ihintu-umu o-kala-amu
polite intaidi to-kala intaidi-imu to-kala-amu

Other examples of languages in which respect is a morphosyntactic feature, found by Corbett (2006:138) are: Bavarian German, where the agreement forms for polite agreement have become differentiated from the original 3rd person forms (Simon 2003, 2004); and Tamil, where there is a distinct form for agreement with honorifics (Schiffman 1999:115-116; for the development of polite forms in Tamil see Rangan & Suseela 2003).

The values of 'respect'

An example of a minimal respect system is the two-value system in Muna (described above), with the values 'neutral' and 'polite' (van den Berg 1989).

A larger system of respect as a morphosyntactic feature is found in Maithili, an Indo-Iranian language spoken in India and Nepal. In the second person, the following distinctions of respect are made: 'non-honorific', 'mid-honorific', and 'honorific'; and in the third person we find: 'non-honorific', 'honorific' and 'high-honorific'. The realisation of the respect feature is fully embedded in a complex verbal paradigm and the details of this system can be found in Bickel, Bisang & Yādava (1999). The following is an illustration of the use of the honorific agreement markers in Maithili (from Stump & Yadav 1988; cited in Corbett 2006:138): 

(1) tohar bāp aelthun
  your.MID_HON father.HON came.3_HON.2_MID_HON
  'Your (mid-honorific) father (honorific) came.'


(2) ham torā beṭā-ke dekhaliau
  I your.NON_HON son-OBJ saw.1.2_NON_HON
  'I saw your (non-honorific) son.'

For a cross-linguistic survey of politeness distinctions in pronouns, including a classification of languages according to the number of politeness distinctions encoded through pronouns, see Helmbrecht (2005). He confirms that multiple politeness distinctions occur predominantly in the languages of South Asia and neighbouring areas. Generally speaking, the best known languages with the most highly developed honorifics systems are Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Javanese and Thai.

Oddly behaving respect markers

According to Shibatani (1994:1604), Japanese has extended its nominal honorific prefixes o-/go- to other uses where no respect for the referent (the addressee, or the possessor of the designated object) is intended. Thus, the prefixes may be attached to nouns designating what belongs to the speaker or to no particular person, e.g. watakusi no o-heya (I GEN HON-room) 'my room', o-biiru (HON-beer) 'beer', o-nabe (HON-cooking_pot) 'cooking pot'. This particular use of honorific prefixes is particularly common among women, and is referred to as bika-go 'beautification language' in Japanese. Shibatani explains it by reference to the notion of 'demeanour': appropriate honorific usage in Japan is regarded as a mark of good breeding, and this idea appears to be taken to an extreme level with regard to women. Hence, in order to present themselves as cultivated persons of good demeanour, women use (or are encouraged to use) honorifics with a wide range of nouns (though, most commonly, nouns designating domestic matters such as household goods and foods), except only the nouns designating highly personal objects belonging to the speakers themselves, such as body parts.

Problem cases

Is respect a morphosyntactic feature in Korean? Respect in Korean, which is dependent on social distinction, is expressed through a system of honorifics and verbal endings belonging to one of the several 'speech levels' (paradigms indicating the level of formality). Pollard & Sag (1994:96-101) treat it in terms of agreement, but others have given alternative analyses. For instance, Choi (2003) considers data from conjoining and argues for a pragmatic acccount.

Is respect a morphosyntactic feature in Japanese? The extensive system of Japanese honorifics has also prompted conflicting analyses. Boeckx & Niinuma (2004) treat Japanese honorification as agreement, while Bobaljik & Yatsushiro (2006) argue against this.

Key literature
  • Brown, Penelope & Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: CUP. (§4.5.1 Respect - pp. 137-138)
  • Helmbrecht, Johannes. 2005. Politeness distinctions in pronouns. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Mattew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 186-189.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1994. Honorifics. In: Asher, R.E. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 1600-1608.
  • Berg, René van den. 1989. A Grammar of the Muna Language (Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Institut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 139). Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Bickel, Balthasar, Walter Bisang & Yogendra P. Yādava. 1999. Face vs empathy: the social foundation of Maithili verb agreement. Linguistics 37:481-518.
  • Bobaljik, Jonathan D. & Kazuko Yatsushiro. 2006. Problems with honorification-as-agreement in Japanese: A reply to Boeckx & Niinuma. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 24(2):355-384.
  • Boeckx, Cedric & Fumikazu Niinuma. 2004. Conditions on agreement in Japanese. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 22(3):453-480.
  • Brown, Penelope & Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Choi, Incheol. 2003. A constraint-based approach to Korean partial honorific agreement. In: Griffin, W.E. (ed.) The Role of Agreement in Natural Language: TLS 5 Proceedings, 157-166. Available at:
  • Corbett, Greville G. 1983. Hierarchies, Targets and Controllers: Agreement Patterns in Slavic. London: Croom Helm.
  • Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Helmbrecht, Johannes. 2005. Politeness distinctions in pronouns. In: Haspelmath, Martin, Mattew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie (eds) The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 186-189.
  • Pollard, Carl & Ivan A. Sag. 1994. Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rangan, K. & M. Suseela. 2003. A comparison of agreement system in Old Tamil and Modern Tamil. In: Ramakrishna Reddy, B. (ed.) Agreement in Dravidian Languages. Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies. 28-50.
  • Schiffman, Harold F. 1999. A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1994. Honorifics. In: Asher, R.E. (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 1600-1608.
  • Simon, Horst J. 2003. From pragmatics to grammar: tracing the development of respect in the history of the German pronouns of address. In: Taavitsainen, Irma & Andreas H. Jucker (eds) Diachronic Perspectives on Address Term Systems. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 85-123.
  • Simon, Horst J. 2004. Respekt - die Grammatik der Höflichkeit im Bairischen. In: Gaisbauer, Stephan & Hermann Scheuringer (eds) Linzerschnitten: Beiträge sur 8. Bayerischösterreichischen Dialektologentagung, zugleich 3. Arbeitstagung zu Sprache und Dialekt in Oberösterreich, in Linz, September 2001. Linz: Adalbert-Stifter-Institut. 355-370.
  • Stump, Gregory & Ramawater Yadav. 1988. Maithili verb agreement and the control agreement principle. In: Brentari, Diane, Gary N. Larson & Lynn A. MacLeod (eds) CLS 24: Papers from the 24th Annual Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society: Part II: Parasession on Agreement in Grammatical Theory. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. 304-321.


How to cite:
Kibort, Anna. 2008. Grammatical Features Inventory: Respect. University of Surrey.