Cross-cultural multimodal politeness: The phonetics of Japanese deferential speech in comparison to Korean

Kaori Idemaru, Bodo Winter, Lucien Brown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Pragmatic meanings are not only conveyed through words alone, but also through how words are produced phonetically. The current study investigated phonetic features that characterize the distinction between deferential and non-deferential speech style in Japanese. The Japanese data were then compared to previously published Korean data collected through the same methodology. The results revealed striking similarities between the two languages: Deferential voice is quieter and breathier, and has less fluctuation of pitch and loudness. The common strategy appears to sound calm and soft. Whereas Korean deferential speech was additionally low-pitched, Japanese did not show a consistent relationship between deferential meanings and pitch. The results diverge from the long-held view that Japanese polite speech is highpitched, and they also deviate from the view that polite speech is universally associated with high pitch. The current findings demonstrate the importance of considering politeness as a complex phenomenon communicated via a number of phonetic cues, rather than a single cue (e. g. pitch). On top of a production study, we performed a perception study which showed that Japanese politeness, just as was shown for Korean politeness previously, can be perceived through vocal cues alone. The results also showed that Japanese female speakers do not necessarily do more to sound polite compared to male speakers, also contrary to previous claims.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-555
Number of pages39
JournalIntercultural Pragmatics
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • multimodal politeness
  • phonetics
  • deferential speech
  • honorifics

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