Lost in Translation: Hierarchies in Asian Languages

By: Cheryl

– Exploring unique Asian linguistic features in Asian Heritage Month

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

The reformation of modern languages has a heavy stress on pronouns. There has been attention devoted to the genders of the pronouns we use, studies and opinion articles have been written, and online debates are provoked for rounds after rounds. However, in the often-overlooked corner, there’s another linguistic feature of pronouns that those who speak English rarely think of: hierarchies.

In the Our Language Rights Canada Conference 2023 that took place in February, panelists discussed how English, as the dominant language in Canadian journalism, sometimes fails to deliver when reporting ethnic stories. An example given by the panelists is the pronoun “you” in Hindi. The “you” word in Hindi has three different forms, “tu,” “tum,” and “aap,” each shows a different degree of respect, hierarchy or intimacy. Whenever these pronouns are used, the relationship between the speaker and the listener is implied, even if it’s not explicitly narrated. These differences and implications, however, are often ignored and lost when reporters translate their interviews into English.

Hierarchy is a ubiquitous feature that widely exists in the languages of Asia. When you enter a Korean family restaurant, greet the owner with “안녕 (annyeong),” the informal form of saying “hello,” the owner will reply to you with “안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo),” the standard form of the same word. To the English-speaking ears, the difference between these two greetings might only sound like that of “hello” and “how are you;” but in Korean, the two greetings are determined by their speakers’ roles and can’t be swapped. The owner of a shop will always greet their customers in the standard form because service providers are considered lower in the hierarchy of the Korean language and have to pay their respect to others. If you are giving a speech in public, you might even want to use “안녕하십니까 (annyeonghasimnikka),” the formal form, to show a higher level of respect to your listener.

The system that shows hierarchy is called honorifics. Honorifics can be applied in conversations in the forms of suffixes, particles, pronouns, verbs or titles. With entirely different sets of vocabulary and grammar, Asian languages have an extensive number of ways and latitude from being humble and showing deference, to bragging about one’s status or being demeaning and derogative.

One of the most well-known Asian language for its honorifics is Japanese. Apart from the titles “Mr.”and”Ms.” that can be used to address one’s social equals, there are also titles that imply endearment, utmost respect, respect to professionals, respect to senior colleagues and respect to peers. Even verbs are changed in the honorific polite speech. When speaking about the action of a person of higher status, “寝ますnemasu (to sleep)” becomes “お休みになりますoyasumi ni narimasu (lit.: to become at rest);” and when speaking about one’s self in a humble way, “入りますhairimasu (to enter)” becomes “お入りしますOhairishimasu (lit.: to do entrance).” Learning Japanese requires paying close attention to hierarchy in the language , and children are often praised for mastering their honorifics at a very young age.

The Chinese language used to have arguably the largest and most complex system of honorific and derogatory pronouns. Back in the days when China was an empire, the emperor, empress, dowager empress, concubines, princes, maids and male servants each would have a different first-person pronoun exclusive for their position for the simple denotation of “I.” Civilians, depending on status, gender, age and identity, used pronouns in a wide range from honorifics like “尊驾 (you, lit.: your high carriage),” “阁下 (Your Excellency)” to humble pronouns like “不才 (I, used by male, lit.: this untalented one),” “晚生 (I, used by male, to teachers and senior colleagues. Lit.: I who was born after you),” “老朽 (I, used by senior male, lit.: old and decaying)” or “民女 (I, used by female, to officials. Lit.: this common girl),” etc. After the revolution in China, hierarchical language was considered to be compromising social equity and was therefore abolished. The only surviving honorific pronoun, “您 (you),” now serves as the equivalence of French “vous” or German “Sie.”

It’s remarkable to observe how much significance and power humans have given to languages throughout history while seeing the rise or fall of honorifics in Asia. The simplest vocabularies never fulfill the desire to convey more connotation, and words have to be created and used extravagantly. Even in languages like modern English, where hierarchical pronouns don’t exist anymore, people still have formed an almost undetectable social rule around third-person pronouns – when they’re used on pets and infants. More people today are reluctant to use the standard “it” on babies they know of, and even cats can occasionally earn respect by being addressed as a “he” or “she” if they are attractive. The use of hierarchical language seems to have been rooted in human nature, even though most of the time we never realize it.

More readings on hierarchical Asian languages can be found here:

  • Thai (age oriented),
  • Vietnamese (age and gender oriented),
  • Tagalog (age, gender and authority oriented)
  • Malay (age, gender and authority oriented).

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