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famiresu keigo
konbini keigo
famiresu keigo / konbini keigo
Honorific Japanese used by staff at family restaurants and convenience stores.
One of the interesting features of the Japanese language is the existence of keigo, or honorific language, which is used by speakers to deprecate themselves while elevating their interlocutor. Keigo evolved over the centuries as one of the ways in which people could express respect for those above them in a particular hierarchy - the respect of a student for a teacher, for example, or of a retainer for his master. In modern times keigo has become less prevalent, especially among younger generations, but it is still used by employees when addressing their bosses, for instance, and by shop and restaurant staff when speaking to customers. But when phrases and expressions that evolved centuries ago are put in the context of a modern restaurant or convenience store, some illogical and strange-sounding structures emerge.

The keigo used by waiters and waitresses in family restaurants - nicknamed famiresu keigo - has recently been the subject of some controversy. Keigo has always tended to reflect the assumption that the more indirect speech is, the politer it becomes, but some of the keigo spoken by service-industry workers is not so much indirect as incomprehensible.

Order coffee in family restaurant in Japan, and the waiter or waitress may bring the beverage over saying, "Kohi no ho o o-mochi shimashita" ("I have brought the one that is coffee"). When delivering a plate of curry and rice, a customer may be told something like "Kochira kareraisu ni narimasu" ("This becomes curry and rice"). As these examples illustrate, famiresu keigo - also known as konbini (convenience store) keigo - is apt to leave customers scratching their heads as to what exactly the staff mean.

In the phrase about bringing "the one that is coffee," the problem stems from the use of the Japanese word ho. This is normally used to emphasize one thing as opposed to another. But using it to modify coffee, when no other item is competing for the listener's attention, sounds plain strange. Ho can also be used to obscure detail, but why a waiter would want to obscure the details of a cup of coffee?

In the second example, the use of the verb narimasu (become) is common in famiresu keigo. Yet taken literally, it would seem to indicate that the curry and rice used to be something different and had just metamorphosed into the meal ordered by the customer - a most bizarre implication.

Most employees in family restaurants and convenience stores are young part-timers, who are generally not accustomed to speaking a lot of formal language outside of their jobs. In many cases, their managers provide them with training manuals instructing them on what to say to customers. But these generally contain just a few short and commonly used keigo phrases and do not instruct workers on how to respond properly to situations that commonly occur in modern stores and restaurants.

It is true that language constantly evolves to reflect the times. Yet for Japanese who learned keigo several decades ago and are used to hearing grammatically correct honorific Japanese, coping with the mangled expressions of staff at family restaurants and convenience stores is a trying experience.