April 14, 2016


There's a lot to be said for the simplicity of Japanese grammar: no gender, no determiners, and no plurals. Well, aside from all the exceptions. And even the exceptions are pretty straightforward. But when it comes to counters and the dizzying array of honorifics, not so much.

Honorifics may be linguistic leftovers from feudal times, but they are very much alive in the Japanese language today. Awareness of social rank is the glue that holds Japanese society together, and these ubiquitous noun suffixes are a key way of identifying the status of the person in question.

Honorifics fall along a sociolinguistic arc from abstract class markers to literal professional titles. Keep in mind that when referring to a person with a higher status, the title becomes a pronoun. Imagine a press conference where the reporters started with "Mr. President" and never said "you."

That's perfectly grammatical in Japanese. After first mention, dropping the subject from a sentence is perfectly grammatical too.

Thanks to the spread of popular culture, people outside Japan are familiar with -san and -sensei. Equally common inside Japan are honorifics like -senshi ("player") for athletes and -anaunsaa ("announcer") for newsreaders and MCs.

To be sure, an "honorific" doesn't always honor the person it's attached to. As the "innocent until proven guilty" thing never really caught on in Japan, a person arrested by the police can look forward to having the press attach -yougisha ("suspect") to his name until his case is adjudicated.

However neutral -yougisha was intended to be, in the public mind it now means "guilty as hell" (a good example of the "euphemism treadmill").

With the Japanese press covering the U.S. election season with great gusto, and the participants providing a lot of fodder for the mills of mass media, we're also hearing a good deal about Trump-shi.

This particular honorific (氏) is applied to candidates for public office.

The Asahi explains "The Donald" (including his hair).

It also identifies individuals who deserve a status higher than a mere -san but whose social rank isn't clear given the available context. This makes it a common substitution for -san in literary titles. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is usually translated as "Jekyll-hakushi and Hyde-shi."

This flexibility makes it easy to swap in background information on the fly. Ben Carson is an M.D. (-sensei or -hakushi) but a -shi when running for office. Cruz, Rubio, and Sanders are generally labeled as -shi in screen captions and -jouin'giin ("senator") in reportorial commentary.

And when a claim to fame is in the past? Bill Gates-shi is a former CEO (which, in Japanese, is "CEO"), plus the "former" prefix (moto-) makes him "Bill Gates 元CEO." Or for the more recent past, the zen (前) prefix. Bill Clinton is a moto-president while his wife is the zen-secretary of state.

To the dismay of the Republican establishment, Trump-shi shows no signs of becoming a zen-candidate anytime soon. And even more worrisome, he could actually become Trump-daitouryou.

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