The Korean language makes extensive use of honorifics and speech levels in its grammar. The Korean language reflects the important observance of a speaker or writer's relationships with both the subject of the sentence and the audience.


Honorifics are used to reflect the speaker or writer's relationship to the subject of the sentence.

Originally, the honorifics expressed the differences in social status between speakers. In contemporary Korean culture, honorifics are used to differentiate between formal and informal speech based on the level of familiarity between the speaker and the listener.

Honorific nouns

When talking about someone superior in status, a speaker or writer must indicate the subject's superiority by using special nouns or verb endings. Generally, someone is superior in status if he or she is an older relative, a stranger of roughly equal or greater age, an employer, a teacher, a customer, or the like. Someone is equal or inferior in status if he or she is a younger stranger, a student, an employee or the like. The use of wrong speech levels or diction is likely to be considered insulting, depending on the degree of difference between the used form and the expected form.

One way of using honorifics is to use special "honorific" nouns in place of regular ones. A common example is using 진지 (jinji) instead of 밥 (bap) for "food". Often, honorific nouns are used to refer to relatives. The honorific suffix -님 (-nim) is affixed to many kinship terms to make them honorific. Thus, someone may address his own grandmother as 할머니 (halmeoni) but refer to someone else's grandmother as 할머님 (halmeonim).

Honorific verbs

All verbs and adjectives can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -시- (-si-) or -으시- (-eusi-) after the stem and before the ending. Thus, 가다 (gada, "to go") becomes 가시다 (gasida). A few verbs have suppletive honorific forms, used when the speaker is referring to him/herself in polite situations.

Honorific forms of address

Pronouns in Korean have their own set of polite equivalents (e.g., 저 (jeo) is the humble form of 나 (na, "I") and 저희 (jeohui) is the humble form of 우리 (uri, "we")). However, Korean language allows for coherent syntax without pronouns, effectively making Korean a so-called pro-drop language, thus Koreans usually avoid using the second-person singular pronoun, especially when using honorific forms. Third-Person Pronouns are occasionally avoided as well, mainly to maintain sense of politeness. Although honorific form of 너 (neo, singular "you") is 당신 (dangsin, literally, "friend" or "dear"), that term is used only as a form of address in a few specific social contexts, such as between two married couples or in an ironic sense between strangers. Other words are usually substituted where possible.

Korean speech levels

Main article: Korean speech levels on Wikipedia

There are seven verb paradigms or speech levels in Korean, and each level has its own unique set of verb endings which are used to indicate the level of formality of a situation. Unlike "honorifics"—which are used to show respect towards someone mentioned in a sentence—speech levels are used to show respect towards a speaker's or writer's audience, or reflect the formality or informality of the situation.

The names of the seven levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative form of the verb hada (하다; "to do") in each level, plus the suffix che (체), which means "style". Each Korean speech level can be combined with honorific or non-honorific noun and verb forms. Taken together, there are 14 combinations.

  1. Higher levels
    • Hasoseo-che
    • Hasipsio-che
  2. Middle levels
    • Haeyo-che
    • Hao-che
    • Hage-che
  3. Lower levels
    • Haera-che
    • Hae-che

These days, some of these speech levels are disappearing from use in everyday life. Hasoseoche, which is used only in movies or dramas set in older eras, is barely used by modern Koreans, and hageche exists almost only in novels.

Korean pronouns

Main article: Korean pronouns on Wikipedia

Korean pronouns pose some difficulty to speakers of English due to their complexity. They also change depending on the social distinction between the speaker and the person or persons spoken to. In general, Koreans avoid using second person singular pronouns, especially when using honorific forms.

For each pronoun there is a humble/honorific and an informal form for first and second person. In the above table, the first pronoun given is the humble one, which one would use when speaking to someone older or of high social status. dangsin (당신) is also sometimes used as the Korean equivalent of "dear" as a form of address. Also, whereas uses of other humble forms are straightforward, dangsin must be used only in specific social contexts, such as between two married partners. In that way, it can be used in an ironic sense when used between strangers, usually during arguments and confrontations. It is worth noting that dangsin is also an honorific third-person pronoun, used to refer to one's social superior who is not present.

Basically, there are no pure third-person pronoun systems in Korean. Instead of pronouns, personal names, titles, or kinship terms are used to refer to third persons in both oral and written communication. For this reason, repetitive use of names or titles in a discourse is allowed in Korean, which is very different feature from other languages such as English. For translation and creative writing, there is restrictive use of third-person pronouns "geu-nyeo" (그녀) and "geu" (그). The first has been coined in the combination of the demonstrative "geu" (그) [geu] 'that' and 녀(nyeo) 'woman' to refer anaphorically to a third person female. A gender-neutral third person pronoun, geu (그), which was originally a demonstrative, meaning 'that' could mean she or he. However, it has increasingly been interpreted as a "male" pronoun.

Although, in recent years, the pronoun geu-nyeo (그녀) is slowly gaining ground as a female counterpart from the influence of translations from European languages, it is almost restricted to specific styles of written language because Korean generally uses subjectless or modifier+noun constructions.

Korean has personal pronouns for the 1st and 2nd person, with distinctions for honorifics, and it prefers demonstrative pronouns in the 3rd person, which make a three-way distinction between close, distant, and previously mentioned.


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