Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Non-Word of the Day: "Tondemogozaimasen"

A couple weeks ago, my co-worker was talking on the phone and I overheard him say "tondemo-gozaimasen." This seemed really odd at the time, but I couldn't figure out why it was wrong. I thought "tondemonai" was an adjective that meant "absurd" and was used for expressions like "don't be silly" or "of course not"...rather than the negative form of a verb (tondemu?!?). So I guess I had put it in the box in my brain with "kudaranai" and "abunai" and "mottainai" as words that end in "nai" but aren't really negative. Was I missing something?

I asked 3 of my Japanese friends about it, and they all said that it was strange but it didn't really seem ungrammatical per se. One of them suggested that maybe it was because "tondemonai" is inherently casual, so you would never use it in keigo form. Another did some digging and discovered that, yes, it is incorrect.

So I googled "tondemogozaimasen" and came across a really good explanation on a Japanese blog of why it's wrong. I translated the post here for anyone interested:


朝日新聞に載っていたのですが、『日本語力測定試験』なるものが10月25日に全国24ヶ所で行われるのだそうです。まあこの試験の趣旨はここでは割愛させ て頂くとして、掲載されていた問題例の中に興味を引くものがあったので、ちょっと触れてみたいと思います。


●次の文は、Aさんが年上の人にちょっとした贈り物を手渡したところ、その年長者が「(略)何かお返しを(略)」といい、それに対してAさんが口にした言葉で ある。そのなかで敬語の使い方としてまちがっているのはどれか。

①とんでもないことです。 ②とんでもありません。 ③とんでもございません。 ④とんでもない。

On October 25 in 24 places around the country, something called the "Japanese Diagnostic Test" was printed in the Asahi Shimbun. If you'll allow me to dispense with discussing the object of the test here, I think I'll mention something briefly regarding one of the questions included in the test that may be of some interest. I'll quote it here:

In the following sentence,
A has just given a small gift to someone older than him. The older person says "(omitted) how can I repay you{r kindness}? (omitted)", to which A replies _____.
Which of the following expressions is an incorrect usage of the keigo form?

① Tondemonai koto desu.
② Tondemo arimasen.
③ Tondemo gozaimasen.
④ Tondemonai.
(end quote)
 答えは当然の事ながら③の「とんでもございません。」ですが、これって何の抵抗もなく使っている人が多いのではないでしょうか? 新聞には解答だけで、解説 は何も載っていなかったので、お節介にもちょっとここで説明しておきますと、これは敬語として云々という問題ではなくて、こんな日本語は存在しないという根本 的な問題なんですよね。「とんでもない」というのは一語で形容詞ですから、この場合の「ない」は、「くだらない」とか「つまらない」とか「切ない」の「な い」と同じなわけです。つまり、「とんでもございません」というのは、「くだらございません」とか「つまらございません」とか「切なございません」というのと 同じレベルの事なのです。

The answer is of course (3) "tondemo gozaimasen" but aren't there lots of people who use this expression without raising an eyebrow? The newspaper only gave the solution, but didn't print any commentary to explain it. So even though it's being a bit officious, I'll give a brief explanation here, as this isn't just an issue of keigo usage, this is a fundamental issue about something that simply doesn't exist in Japanese. "Tondemonai" is a one-word adjective and, as such, the "-nai" at the end of the word is the same as in 切ない {【せつない】 (adj-i) (1) painful; heartrending; trying; (2) oppressive; suffocating; miserable} or 下らない 【くだらない】 {(adj-i) (uk) good-for-nothing; stupid; trivial; worthless}. That is, saying "tondemo-gozaimasen" would be on the same level as saying "kudara-gozaimasen" or "tsumara-gozaimasen" or "setsu-gozaimasen."

 「とんでもございません」はもちろん、文法的には「とんでもありません」も間違いです。先の問題例では「とんでもありません」は間違いではない事になってい ましたが、「敬語の使い方」で間違っているものを選ぶ問題だったからなのか、あるいは日常語として普通に使われる言い回しなので良しとしているのか分かりませ んが、厳密には間違いです。これも同様に形容詞ですし、しかも「とんでもない」の「ない」は否定・打ち消しの意味ではなくて「甚し(なし=はなはだしい)」の 意味ですからね。それが証拠に「とんでもない事」と「とんだ事」は同じ意味ですよね。
Of course ""tondemo-gozaimasen" is as gramatically wrong as "tondemo arimasen." In the question above "tondemo arimasen" is wrong, but it isn't an incorrect usage of keigo, as the question asked to be selected. In other words, although it's not clear whether it's an expression ordinarily used as a colloquialism, strictly speaking it's incorrect. By the same token, the "nai" in "tondemonai" is not a negative, but an intensifier. As evidence, compare the meaning of "tondemonai" with that of "tonda" とんだ (adj-pn) (1) unthinkable; unimaginable; inconceivable; unexpected; (2) terrible; awful; serious; (adv) (3) (arch) very.


OK, me again. So how *do* you say "tondemonai" in keigo? According to the Kotoba Ojisan, you can say:

"tondemonai koto desu" or "tondemonai koto de gozaimasu."


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