Javanese speech varies depending on social context, yielding three distinct styles. Each style employs its own vocabulary, grammatical rules. This is not unique to Javanese; neighboring Austronesian languages as well as East Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese share similar constructions.
In Javanese these styles are called:
- Ngoko is informal speech, used between friends and close relatives. It is also used by persons of higher status to persons of lower status, such as elders to younger people or bosses to subordinates.
- Madya is the intermediary form between ngoko and krama. An example of the context where one would use madya is an interaction between strangers on the street, where one wants to be neither too formal nor too informal.
- Krama is the polite and formal style. It is used between persons of the same status who do not wish to be informal. It is also the official style for public speeches, announcements, etc. It is also used by persons of lower status to persons of higher status, such as youngsters to elder people or subordinates to bosses.
In addition, there are also "meta-style" words – the honorifics and humilifics. When one talks about oneself, one has to be humble. But when one speaks of someone else with a higher status or to whom one wants to be respectful, honorific terms are used. Status is defined by age, social position and other factors. The humilific words are called krama andhap words while the honorific words are called krama inggil words. For example, children often use the ngoko style, but when talking to the parents they must use both krama inggil and krama andhap.
Below some examples are provided to explain these different styles.
- Ngoko: Aku arep mangan (I want to eat)
- Madya: Kula ajeng nedha.
- (Neutral) Kula badhé nedha.
- (Humble) Dalem badhé nedha.
- (Honorific - Addressed to someone with a high(er) status.) Bapak kersa dhahar? (Do you want to eat? Literally meaning: Does father want to eat?)
- (reply towards persons with lower status) Iya, aku kersa dhahar. (Yes, I want to eat).
- (reply towards persons with lower status, but without having the need to express one's superiority) Iya, aku arep mangan.
- (reply towards persons with the same status) Inggih, kula badhé nedha.
The use of these different styles is complicated and requires thorough knowledge of the Javanese culture. This is one element that makes it difficult for foreigners to learn Javanese. On the other hand, these different styles of speech are actually not mastered by the majority of Javanese. Most people only master the first style and a rudimentary form of the second style. Persons who have correct mastery of the different styles are held in high esteem.