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Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Japan was first being taken seriously as an economic rival of the United States, a cottage industry sprang up detailing Japanese language and culture. Many of those efforts focused on what was perceived as Japanese hyper-politeness and lack of directness in speech. While this has been mitigated over the years by increasing familiarity with Japan, there is still a perception that the Japanese language is particularly difficult when it comes to matters of politeness, a stereotype that somewhat problematically seems to be linked to images of the Japanese as exotic or inscrutable.

I actually don't know much about Japanese. This essay isn't actually about Japanese, but about English. I take Japanese as an example as a language with complicated forms of politeness, but there are several others. But what I want to do is to demonstrate how English could be seen as an exotic, complicated language, and I wanted to do it with a single five word phrase.

"If you would be seated"

So let us describe the grammar of this sentence. First, as you can tell from the first word, it is a conditional. That word if lets us know that this is a statement that is true only under certain conditions. Furthermore, since it includes "would", it is what is called the second conditional: it refers to an impossible future, and to do that, it uses the form of the past tense. The speaker is therefore describing this condition of seating as something that can only happen in an impossible, hypothetical future, so clearly impossible that it must only be referred to as taking place in some sort of negative time. And the person being addressed is not going to sit, themselves. They are going to "be seated", in the passive. They are the recipient of a seating force that can not be explained. And thirdly, if this condition is met, if somehow this inanimate force in the impossible future does cause the person to sit, then what? We don't know, because despite being a conditional statement, there is no logical conclusion to the condition.

People who are strict grammarians might quibble with my definitions. Is "be seated" a passive form, or an adjective? Is the tense used in the second conditional a past tense, or just in the same form as the past tense? The fact that those questions can even come up just highlights how confusing a sentence like this is to a non-native. A native speaker, unschooled in grammar, might say that all of that description is unnecessary, that they know what "If you would be seated" means, that it is a polite command to sit down.

Which is the point, exactly. I think that all languages have polite forms that, when explained from a strictly grammatical point of view, would be laughably complex and evasive. After all, we don't think "In the impossible hypothetical situation in which an unnamed force causes you to sit, a result will occur that I am not going to describe" when we say "If you would be seated". But speakers of Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Arabic, or one of the world's hundreds of poorly understood indigenous languages probably aren't thinking quite so ornately when they say something that, when translates literally, sounds ridiculous.

The basic moral to the story is that while we can exoticize languages, if we were to turn the same lens on our own language, the results may be surprising for us.

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