Contexts and meanings of Japanese speech styles: A case of hierarchical identity construction among Japanese college students

Yumiko Enyo


Interactants’ non-reciprocal use of Japanese speech styles, i.e., the addressee honorific masu form and the non-honorific plain form, is frequently treated as the salient feature constituting speakers’ hierarchical identities. The hierarchical identities in question in this study are senpai-koohai ‘senior-junior’relationships among Japanese college students. The paper presents analyses that demonstrate that the construction of these hierarchical relationships depends on context. The data derive from nine hours of audio recordings of dyadic and multiparty interactions among college students at the meetings of an extracurricular club. Conceptualizing on-stage and off-stage as frames of talk that function as context in this data set, the study finds that hierarchical identities are not foregrounded during on-stage talk, but can be foregrounded during off-stage talk when the participants’ club roles are not foregrounded; the use of non-reciprocal speech styles that lead to hierarchical identity construction is observed in this situation. On the other hand, hierarchical identities are backgrounded during on-stage talk when the participants’ club roles are foregrounded. The use of the addressee honorific masu form in this situation indexes that the speaker is engaged in a club role, such as discussion leader or participant.

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