Korean Honorifics
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Korean Honorifics

Korean honorifics
Revised RomanizationNopimmal / gyeongeo
McCune-ReischauerNop'immal / ky?ng?

The Korean language reflects the speaker or writer's relationships with both the subject of the sentence and the audience. Korean grammar uses an extensive system of honorifics to reflect the speaker's relationship to the subject of the sentence and speech levels to reflect the speaker's relationship to the audience. Originally, the honorifics expressed the differences in social status between speakers. In contemporary Korean culture, honorifics are used to differentiate between the formal and informal speech based on the level of familiarity between the speaker and the listener (register).

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 (jinji) instead of ? (bap) for "food". Often, honorific nouns are used to refer to relatives. The honorific suffix -? (-nim) is affixed to many kinship terms to make them honorific. Thus, someone may address his own grandmother as (halmeoni) but refer to someone else's grandmother as (halmeonim).

Base noun Honorific English translation
? (harabeoji) ? (har-abeonim) grandfather
(halmeoni) (halmeonim) grandmother
(abeoji) (abeonim) father
(eomeoni) (eomeonim) mother
? (hyeong) (hyeongnim) a male's older brother
(nuna) (nunim) a male's older sister
(oppa) ? (orabeoni) a female's older brother
(eonni) a female's older sister
(adeul) (adeunim) son
? (ttal) (ttanim) daughter

Honorific verbs

All verbs and adjectives can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -?- (-si-) or -- (-eusi-) after the stem and before the ending. Thus, (gada, "to go") becomes (gasida). A few verbs have suppletive honorific forms:

Base verb/adjective Regular honorific English translation
(gada) (gasida) "to go"
(batda) ? (badeusida) "to receive"
(jakda) ? (jageusida) "(to be) small"
Base verb/adjective Suppletive honorific English translation
(itda) (gyesida) "to be"
(masida) (deusida) "to drink"
(meokda) (deusida) "to eat"
(meokda) ? (japsusida) "to eat"
(jada) ? (jumusida) "to sleep"
? (baegopeuda) (sijanghasida) "to be hungry"

A few verbs have suppletive humble forms, used when the speaker is referring to him/herself in polite situations. These include (deurida) and (ollida) for (juda, "give"). (deurida) is substituted for (juda) when the latter is used as an auxiliary verb, while (ollida, literally "raise up") is used for (juda) in the sense of "offer".

Honorific forms of address

Pronouns in Korean have their own set of polite equivalents (e.g., ? (jeo) is the humble form of ? (na, "I") and (jeohui) is the humble form of (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 a sense of politeness. Although honorific form of ? (neo, singular "you") is (dangsin, literally, "friend" or "dear"), that term is used only as a form of address in a few specific social contexts, such as between people who are married to each other, or in an ironic sense between strangers. Other words are usually substituted where possible (e.g., the person's name, a kinship term, a professional title, the plural yeoreobun, or no word at all, relying on context to supply meaning instead).

Spacing spelling convention

The National Institute of Korean Language classifies nim/ssi/gun/yang as dependent nouns that follow a proper noun, and they prescribe that a space should appear between a noun and its dependent noun. (e.g. Jihye nim ?) This is not to be confused with the affix -nim used with common nouns, since affixes are written without spaces. (e.g. seonsaengnim )

-A / -ya

Korean has the vocative case markers which grammatically identify a person (animal, object etc.) being addressed so that they eliminate possible grammatical ambiguities. -a or -ya (Hangul, ?) is a casual title used at the end of names. It is not gender exclusive. If a name ends in a consonant -a is used (e.g. Changsub-a ), while -ya is used if the name ends in a vowel (e.g. Jihye-ya ). -a / -ya is used only between close friends and people who are familiar with each other, and its use between strangers or distant acquaintances would be considered extremely rude. -ya / -a is only used hierarchically horizontally or downwards: an adult or parent may use it for young children, and those with equal social standing may use it with each other, but a young individual will not use -a or -ya towards one who is older than oneself.

Middle Korean had three classes of the vocative case but practically only -? / -? is remaining in everyday life. -? / - is only used in literature and archaic expressions, and -? has completely disappeared. See Korean vocative case for more information.


Ssi (?, ?) is the most commonly used honorific used amongst people of approximately equal speech level. It is attached after the full name, such as 'Jeon Wonwoo ssi'' ( ?), or simply after the first name, ''Wonwoo ssi'' ( ?) if the speaker is more familiar with someone. Appending ssi to the surname, for instance ''Jeon ssi'' (? ?) can be quite rude, as it indicates the speaker considers himself to be of a higher social status than the person he is speaking to.[1]

Nim, -nim

Nim (Hangul) (by itself after a proper noun) is the highest form of honorifics and above ssi. nim will follow addressees' names on letters/emails and postal packages. -nim (as an affix) is used as a commonplace honorific for guests, customers, clients, and unfamiliar individuals. -nim is also used towards someone who is revered and admired for having a significant amount of skill, intellect, knowledge, etc. and is used for people who are of a higher rank than oneself. Examples include family members (eomeonim & abeonim ), teachers (seonsaengnim ), holy men (e.g. pastors - moksanim ), and gods (haneunim / hananim ).


Seonbae (, ) is used to address senior colleagues or mentor figures relating to oneself (e.g. older students in school, older/more experienced athletes, mentors, senior colleagues in academia, business, work, etc.). As with English titles such as Doctor, Seonbae can be used either by itself or as a title. Hubae (, ) is used to refer to juniors.


Gun (?, ?) is used moderately in formal occasions (such as weddings), for young, unmarried males. gun is also used to address young boys by an adult. yang (?, ?) is the female equivalent of gun and is used to address young girls. Both are used in a similar fashion to ssi, following either the whole name or the first name in solitude.

Less common forms of address

  • Gwiha (, ) can be seen commonly in formal letters, often used by a company to a client.
  • Gakha (, ) is used only in extremely formal occasions, usually when addressing presidents, high officials, or bishops and archbishops. Somewhat avoided nowadays due to its connotations to Imperial Japan.
  • Hapha (, ) was used to address the father of the king who was not a king (Daewongun), or the oldest son of the crown prince.
  • Jeoha (, ) was only used when addressing the crown prince.
  • Jeonha (, ) was only used when addressing kings, now mostly used to address cardinals.
  • Pyeha (, ) was used only when addressing emperors.
  • Seongha (, ) is used when addressing popes, patriarchates or the Dalai Lama; the equivalent of the English word "His Holiness" or "His Beatitude".
  • Nari () or alternatively, naeuri (), was used by commoners in the Joseon Dynasty to refer to people of higher status but below daegam (, ), English equivalent of "His Excellency".[2] The honorific is of native Korean origin.

Relative honorifics

When speaking to someone about another person, you must calculate the relative difference in position between the person you're referring to and the person you are speaking to. This is known as apjonbeop () or "relative honorifics".

For example, one must change the post positional particle and verb if the person you are speaking to is a higher position (age, title, etc.) than the person you are referring to. "?, ? ? ? ? (bujangnim, I gwajangnimkkeseoneun jigeum jarie an gyeshimnida)" This means, "General Manager, Manager Lee is not at his desk now", with the bolded parts elevating the manager higher than the general manager, even though they both are in a higher position than you. The general manager would be offended by the fact that you elevated the manager above him. Most Koreans perfect this while working at their first company job as it is confusing even for them.

See also


  1. ^ Ri, Ui-do () (2005). Proper Procedures for Korean Usage ( , Olbareun urimal sayongbeop) (in Korean). Seoul: Yedam. p. 182. ISBN 89-5913-118-0.
  2. ^ http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=33802

Further reading

  • Sohn, Ho-min (2006). Korean Language in Culture and Society. University of Hawai'i Press: KLEAR Textbooks.

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