Making Sense of “Bikago”

If you’re learning Japanese, you’ve no doubt come across the honorific “o” and “go” prefixes attached to certain words. But how, exactly, are they used – or are there any hard rules governing their usage at all? Read JCMU Japanese language instructor Keiko Melville-sensei’s article below to find out!

Understanding bikago

Are you familiar with 美化語 (bikago)? If you’ve spent some time speaking Japanese, you’ve probably used them at one point or another. These are mainly nouns which use the honorific prefix “o” or “go” and to show politeness and grace.

Bikago are very common in Japanese – in fact, many of them are introduced in beginner’s textbooks, such as Genki I. As such, make sure to pay close attention to how they are used. Here are some examples:

Otera to jinjya ni ikimashita.
I went to a temple and Shinto shrine.

Jinjya de omiyage o kaimashita.
I bought some souvenirs at the shrine.

Omamori o kaimashita.
I bought a Shinto charm.

守り (omamori, lucky charm or talisman)

Otera no soba ni takusan mise ga arimashita.
There were many shops near the temple.

Soko de ocha to osake to okashi wo kaimashita.
I bought tea, sake and snacks there.

Gochisoo sama deshita.
Thank you for the meal.

Amari okane ga aimasen deshita kara, ohiru wa, konbini no obentoo wo tabemashita.
Because I do not have much money, I ate a boxed lunch that I bought at a convenience store for lunch.

Onaka ga ippai ni narimashita.
My stomach is full.

Gogo wa Sakura matsuri wo mi ni oshiro ni ikimashita.
In the afternoon, I went to the castle to see the cherry blossom festival

Oyatsu ni, omochi wo tabemashita.
I ate some rice cakes as a snack.

Gomeiwaku o kakeshite mooshi wake gozaimasen.
I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.

Kono omatsuri no omochi wa oishikute yuumee desu.
The rice cakes of this festival are delicious and famous.

祭 (omatsuri, festival)

Bangohan ni, onigiri wo tabemashita.
I ate onigiri for dinner.

Ban, ofuro ni hairimasenn ga, asa, shawaa wo abimasu.
I will not take a bath at night, but I will take shower in the morning.

The rules of “o” and “go” (or lack of)

Are you wondering why some words in the previous sentences take the honorific prefix “o” instead of “go“? And do you wonder why some of the words don’t use any honorific prefixes at all?

Generally, “o” is used with wago (words with a Japanese origin) and “go” is used with kango (words that originally came from China). However this is only a loose rule, as there are many exceptions to this!

弁当 (obentoo, lunch box) is a kango word, but takes “o” instead of “go

For example, there are some kango that still use “o” instead of “go“, such as:

  • 菓子 (okashi, snacks)
  • 弁当 (obentoo, lunch box)
  • 天気 (otenki, weather)

For other words, there is no honorific prefix. 寺 (otera, temple) takes “o“, but 神社 (jinjya, Shinto shrine) does not use an honorific. 昼 (hiru, noon) takes “o“, but 朝 (asa, morning), 晩 (ban, evening), and 夜 (yoru, night) do not.

Some words, such as 茶 (ocha, tea), 金 (okane, money), and 餅 (omochi, rice cake) are commonly used with “o“. Technically, there is no difference in meaning when the “o” prefix is not used. However, when they are used without “o“, it sounds very crude and impolite.

Sakura mochi
餅 (omochi) and 餅 (mochi) both mean “rice cake”, but the latter sounds impolite

Some words that use the  prefix “o” or “go” such as 手紙 (otegami, letter), 荷物 (onimotsu, luggage), 挨拶 (goaisatsu, greetings) show respect or are used in situations when humility is in order.

住所 (gojyuusyo, address) has the same meaning with or without “go“, to whereas はん (gohan, rice) and ちそう (gochisoo, big meal) have no meaning at all without the “go” prefix. Some even change meaning, such as まえ (mae, front) and おまえ (omae, you).

For some words, the meaning changes depending on whether or not bikago are used. Without the “o”, にぎり (onigiri, rice ball) becomes にぎり (nigiri, nigiri sushi), まもり  (omamori, lucky charm or talisman) becomes まもり (mamori, protection), and しゃれ (osyare, well-dressed) becomes しゃれ (syare, joke).

にぎり (nigiri, nigiri sushi) becomes a different word entirely with bikago

Typically, “o” and “go” do not go with gairaigo (loan words borrowed from foreign languages) such as シャワー (shawaa, shower). However, even this isn’t a steadfast rule: when you enter some Japanese restaurants, you may hear gairaigo in which the prefix “o” is used such as トイレ (otoire, toilet), ビール (obiiru, beer), and タバコ (otabako, cigarette).

One last weird exception, the word ゆっくり (goyukkuri, take your time) is a wago that uses “go” instead of “o“. However, yukkuri itself isn’t even a noun, but an adverb!

Making sense of honorific prefixes

With all of these rules and exceptions to the rules, mastering “o” and “go” is a very tricky feat. This is true even for native Japanese speakers – even I’m still sometimes confused as to when I should and shouldn’t use these honorifics.

As with other aspects of language acquisition, the best way to learn how to utilize bikago is through familiarity with how they are used. When you hear words with the honorific prefix “o” or “go” in Japan, please pay attention as to who uses them and in what kinds of situations.

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