Question for linguists: origin of -masu form?

Hey folks

Hope this topic doesn’t already exist somewhere, but I got curious about the linguistic origin of our well-known and beloved -masu form.

Does it have anything to do with the verb 増す (to grow, to increase)?
As in: something increases in politeness?
That’s probably a bit of a stretch, but I hope you see where I’m coming from with this question.
Since it seems to follow the same rules as other compound-verbs it stands to reason that ます could have been a stand-alone verb in the past.

Does anybody know more about this?


If you know the classical conjugation of す (modern する), it goes into せぬ in the negative form (which still is expressed similarly as せん in some dialects. Seeing that made me suspicious of the ます → ません conjugation.

I’ve definitely seen some characters in manga/anime who usually speak old fashioned use stuff like まする or ませぬ. Which makes me wonder if ます had something to do with する at some point or another.

I’ve also seen some “old-samurai-speak” text where they used (もう)す instead of ます which made me confused.

Standard Japanese is a bit of a weird one, considering it’s supposed to be based on the Edo dialect of the 19th century, but it has a lot of non-Edo-dialect features, especially in polite speech.

I’m also curious to see a professional linguist explain ます, would definitely be an interesting read.


Great observation. For that matter, in Japanese grammatical analysis, it’s considered a ‘helper verb’ (i.e. something that can’t stand on its own that attaches to forms of other declinable words to add a nuance), and it seems one of its predecessors, まらする, may have meant ‘to give’ on its own.

I don’t, but the dictionaries do. From 大辞林 (Daijirin), 3rd edition, under the remarks for ます:

My translation: A word in existence since the late Middle Ages. Something which came about from 「まゐらする」via forms such as「まらする」「まっする」(or「まいする」)and「まする」. It is also considered to have possibly been subject to the influence of of words such as 「座(ま)す」and「申す」in terms of conjugation, meaning and usage.

So yeah, that might be linked to this.

Well, historically, it had a サ変型活用 (i.e. the same conjugation pattern as する and its classical counterpart す), and even today, it does behave a lot like a collection of forms that act a lot like する.

Sadly, I’m not a professional, but in any case, if you want a detailed explanation, I think the 精選版 日本国語大辞典 on Kotobank is pretty good. Thing is, just like with Daijirin, most of the explanation after the first bit isn’t about etymology anymore; it’s about how usage of the word and its conjugations evolved. Also, the first etymologically-focused section basically says the same thing as 大辞林 does. 大辞泉 (the dictionary on Goo) says that there are other theories of origin involving 申す and so on, but the 参(まゐ)らする theory is the mainstream theory with the most influence.


Looks like no one is 100% but this is their best guess



The book I have on this is Bjarke Frellesvig’s “A History of the Japanese Language”. If you’re after an academic treatment of the history and development of the language I can recommend it. Don’t expect an easy pop-science read, but I found it understandable enough as a non-linguist.

I’m away this weekend but I’ll try to remember to check what it has to say on ます when I get back.


Frellesvig says:

Here OJ == Old Japanese ~700-800AD, LMJ == Late Middle Japanese ~1200-1600, NJ == Modern (‘new’) Japanese ~1600-now. ‘Esopo’ is ‘Esopono fabulas’, the 1593 translation of Aesop’s Fables into then-contemporary Japanese by the Jesuit missionaries.

(Looks like basically agreeing with the 大辞林 quote, with a bit more detail of the progression.)


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