My mother tongue, Korean, and its neighbor Japanese have postpositions for expressing honoring the opposite in each sentence when we say to seniors or strangers if these are younger than the speaker. While English has no such postpositions or whatever that is to attached to each sentence.

Now I have a question. When you English native speakers say to seniors or strangers if these are younger than you, do you think that you are honoring the opposites by saying at times some respectful words, just like in the math we calculate A * (X + Y + Z) into A * X + A * Y + A * Z? Or is there any reason not to use the words that the two languages do?

  • 9
    Voting to close as non-constructive. Is there any reason why Korean and Japanese do add respectful words in every sentence?
    – Frantisek
    Dec 24, 2012 at 0:37
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    You are wrong, sir. English very much has such words, sir. If you can't think of them, I humbly suggest that you think harder, sir. Cheerio!
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 24, 2012 at 0:46
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    Sir and ma'am are alive and well in Texas. They are widely used in business and family situations.
    – MetaEd
    Dec 24, 2012 at 1:07
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    @Listen: I read the question in its entirety. I wonder why you would suggest otherwise. Or label my comments improper, for that matter. And yes, I use sir in daily life. As do others. If nobody used the word, it wouldn't exist.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 24, 2012 at 1:08
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    Listenever: I believe @RegDwighт is saying the same thing I am, more or less, albeit in a more lighthearted way.
    – J.R.
    Dec 24, 2012 at 1:16

5 Answers 5


As previous answers indicate, English does have terms that show respect. For example, I'm in the habit of saying "Yes, sir," even when I am addressing someone younger than I. Occasionally I'll also say "Yes, ma'am," out of respect for a woman who may be near my age or older.

Don't neglect the nonverbal aspects of showing deference and respect. Bowing is a gesture used in some cultures, whereas in American culture a simple nodding of the head will suffice (although even in America, someone might, in the presence of a president, for example, bow slightly).

Proxemics, the study of the use of space to communicate various things, including respect, tells us that respect--in America, for example--is sometimes revealed when people keep their distance and refrain from unnecessary touching--by hugging, for example.

Yes, Americans in general are loath to overdo the showing of respect. We're all so egalitarian in our perspectives. Nevertheless, Americans do show respect in a variety of ways, albeit less formally than, say, Koreans or Japanese.

I hope this helps.

  • O you give me the egalitarian view on the ways of showing respect. I couldn’t get the more helpful answer than yours. I thank you very much.
    – Listenever
    Dec 24, 2012 at 2:53
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    What America do you live in?
    – Robusto
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:21
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    @Robusto Where they don't ask those kind of questions. lol
    – Kris
    Dec 24, 2012 at 4:24
  • +1 Though I don't think people mean 'America' every time they say 'English' -- note that the OP is a Korean-speaker -- asking about the English language in its broader sense.
    – Kris
    Dec 24, 2012 at 4:28

It's not really an English thing, because so many cultures speak English, and each culture has its own ways of showing deference and respect. For example, there are parts of the southern U.S. where it's very common for someone in their 20s to refer to elders as "sir" or "ma'am". I've also heard a lot of enlisted soldiers and marines do the same thing (I'm not talking about how they address senior officers, I'm referring to how they address civilians.)

Several other titles exist in other "subcultures." It's not unusual for a waitress to call a customer "hun" (short for "honey"), for example. Although widely regarded as a term of affection, rather than respect, I'd bet that most of these waitresses would swear they are trying to be friendly, which could be regarded as a kind of respect.

But you are correct when you say that English, as a whole, does not have this construct built into the language. Yet there are ways to use the language to attain that same result.

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    People in the service industry nearly always use sir or maam to address the customer.
    – tchrist
    Dec 24, 2012 at 2:33

The primary reason is cultural. Western languages are not steeped in Confucian culture. Filial piety and constantly overtly expressed respect for the elderly, for seniors, and for superiors are not central values in Western cultures. Most Western languages have polite forms (du & Sie in German, tu and Vous in French, for "you"), but English lost that distinction when thee and thou died a couple of hundred years ago. Still, there are polite & impolite ways to speak English. English speakers generally consider using honorifics as obsequious.

  • So can I understand your words as the math calculation?
    – Listenever
    Dec 24, 2012 at 1:06
  • Re: "English lost that distinction when thee and thou died a couple of hundred years ago." yes, that is true, but I think you've taken the wrong lesson from it Did English ever have a formal version of 'you'?
    – Mitch
    Dec 24, 2012 at 2:42
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    @Listenever Obsequious is one of the more careful ways of describing our impression of such. It also seems insincere, cloying, fake, and is generally considered offensive. The word toadying also comes to mind. It’s like somebody who wants something from you constantly showering you with false praise as though it were some sort of bribe to mollycoddle your ego. It’s totally transparent, and frankly stinks. Nobody likes a brown-noser or an ass-kisser, and that’s what this comes off as.
    – tchrist
    Dec 24, 2012 at 2:45
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    @BillFranke I forgot the part about how tiresomely dillydallying it all seems, like extra cruft that just gets in the way of things by delaying and delaying and delaying.
    – tchrist
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:03
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    @tchrist: Yes, that's also true. That's why I tell my clients to say everything as briefly and to-the-point and neutrally as possible. Say "thank you" once at the beginning and don't tell the reviewers or editors how "respected" they and their journal are because they already know and don't care about the authors' opinions on that topic. Etc., etc., etc.
    – user21497
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:20

While in all languages there are ways of being more or less polite, languages differ in the extent to which politeness is grammaticalized. Japanese and Korean are somewhat curious from a cross-linguistic perspective because they use different inflectional endings on verbs to show different levels of politeness. If you are speaking either of these languages, you have to choose a level of politeness for every sentence you say, because the verb will not be complete if one of the inflectional categories is not chosen.

Some other languages have grammatical affixes used to show politeness. In Urarina, a language spoken in Peru, an enclitic =tɕe must be added to the verb in conversations between members of the opposite sex, or between male in-laws. (Olawsky 2006:534) Classical Nahuatl (formerly spoken in Mexico) uses a suffix -tzin (an honorific marker) on verbs and prepositions when someone of lower social status speaks to someone of higher social status. The word meaning "on", for example, can be said itech (normal), or itechcopatzinco (polite).

More common are languages where grammatical politeness distinctions are restricted to pronouns. This includes many languages of Europe. See the map in WALS to get an idea of how common it is for languages to have different forms of pronouns depending on the politeness context. English until recently distinguished between an informal second person singular pronoun thou, and a polite version, you.

In this case I think it is better to ask why Korean and Japanese do have special politeness-indicating inflection on their verbs than to wonder why English does not. Surely there are some cultural factors involved, but it would be hard to speculate what kind of cultural organization would be required to make a language likely to have verbal suffixes for politeness.

  • Maybe Koreans and Japanese are inherently more polite than everybody else?
    – Mitch
    Dec 24, 2012 at 3:34
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    @Mitch “Inherently”? Like in DNA? All cultures have their own idea of what does or does not constitute good manners, and you cannot judge how well-mannered representatives of one culture are using the standards of a different one. This is not a language issue.
    – tchrist
    Dec 24, 2012 at 4:46
  • @Mitch probably the way to put it is that at the time the verbal system(s) developed into their modern forms, Korean and Japanese people were by custom more inherently mindful of social distinctions than other communities.
    – user31341
    Dec 24, 2012 at 4:57

The English language has a long tradition of subverting honorifics. Robert Caro writes of the U.S. Senate in the 1940s, when courtesy was extremely formal and elaborate:

addressing a fellow senator in the second person was still “almost an unforgivable sin. It must always be in the third person. [. . . But] Alban Berkely advised a freshman, “If you think a colleague is stupid, refer to him as ‘the able, learned and distinguished senator,’ but if you know he is stupid, refer to him as ‘the very able, learned and distinguished senator.’

And 350 years earlier, in Romeo and Juliet, the use of ‘sir’ rather exacerbates than tempers the hostility between servants of rival houses:

Sampson: Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.


Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson: I do bite my thumb, sir.
Abraham: Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Sampson (to Gregory): Is the law of our side if I say ay?
Gregory: No.
Sampson: No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you sir; but I bite my thumb, sir.
Gregory: Do you quarrel, sir?
Abraham: Quarrel, sir? No, sir.
Sampson: If you do, sir, I am for you: I serve as good a man as you.
Abraham: No better.
Sampson: Well, sir.
Gregory (to Sampson): Say 'better'; here comes one of my master's kinsmen.
Sampson: Yes, better, sir.
Abraham: You lie.
Sampson: Draw, if you be men! Gregory, remember thy swashing blow.
(They fight)

Honorifics haven't much chance of surviving such uses as those.

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