Honorifics of the Korean Language

With its various levels of formality, Korean can be a language that’s hard to master. “When do you use this phrase versus this phrase” is a question I’ve asked myself many times. Of course, you can’t go wrong using the most polite versions of speech, although it would seem a little silly to native Korean speakers if another level of speech is called for. But still, at least you’d ensure you’re being polite. So here’s a very basic primer on the honorifics of the Korean language.

To start, there are two levels of “jondae-mal,” the respectful, polite form of speaking Korean. Then there is one form of common/informal speaking, which is called “ban-mal.”

The deferential polite/formal way of speaking is the most polite in the Korean language. It’s used for those who are older than you, people you are meeting for the first time, and those who are in authority over you, such your employer or teacher. Today it’s probably most commonly used in the most formal of situations (business meetings and when speaking with someone in high authority over you, for example), and is often used together with the standard polite/informal form.  This form ends in “in minda” (ㅂ니다).

The standard polite/informal form is probably the most common form of speech. Since it’s still a polite form of speech this form is used for those older than you, people you’re meeting for the first time, and those in authority over you, as well as those of equal status whom you don’t know well. It is also what you would use with coworkers, even ones you know well since it would be more professional. This form ends in yo (요).

The common/informal style of speech is the most casual and used when you have certain level of comfort with the person to whom you are speaking. Generally it’s used with those younger than you and those you have very close relationships with, such as someone who’s been a friend since early childhood. These days children sometimes use this form of speech with their parents. But a generation ago, that would not have been the case. The parents would have used the informal style, while the children would have been expected to use the polite/informal at the very least. Preschoolers can sometimes get away with using this form as well with his parents and grandparents.

Here’s an example using the standard “hello” greeting.

Deferential Polite/Formal: 안녕하십니까 (annyeong haseumnikka)

Standard Polite/Informal: 안녕하세요 (annyeong haseyo)

Common/Informal: 안녕 (annyeong)

I know this may not seem like a “basic” primer on Korean honorifics, but trust me, if you Google it, you’ll come up with much more in-depth explanations. Below I’ve included a couple of links that might help you better understand the different levels of the Korean language.

This first link is done by KoreanSimplyPut on YouTube.com. He goes over the three ways of saying hello, as well as a few other phrases in this five-minute video. www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z9pbF0063U

This one is a post about the use of language in Korean dramas. If you’ve watched any of these shows, it will help you see some of the variables that go into choosing the formality of speech that you’ll use when speaking Korean. www.dramabeans.com/2010/07/glossary-banmal/

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One thought on “Honorifics of the Korean Language

  1. Hi, I accidentally came by your blog via dramabeans. After browsing through it, I just felt compelled to comment.

    I’m a 20-something Korean American, born in Korea but brought up mostly in the States. Although I have no personal experience with international adoption, I’ve always found it unfortunate that many Koreans are reluctant to adopt, and that so many children have to been adopted overseas. Perhaps unknowingly, I’ve held the misconception that Korean parents would be best at raising Korean children, and that the adopted children would experience identity crisis otherwise.

    However, after reading through your blog, I realized how wrong I was in my thinking and in fact, ignorant. Seeing the extent you and your husband must have gone through to learn about and appreciate your son’s native culture, I was truly and deeply moved. Not because of your knowledge (which is very extensive), but because of how your love for your son was so evident through it.

    I apologize if I am stepping over my bounds, but I just wanted to express how blessed your son is to have such wonderful parents, and that your family (via your blog) was a blessing to me as well.

    I noticed that you’re a kdrama fan. As a fellow kdrama fan, please feel free to email me anytime if you need any new kdrama recommendations. Also, although it seems like you already have Korean-speaking resources, please feel free to ask me anytime if you have any questions about the language or culture.

    I will continue to look forward to your blog.

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