Sunday, March 05, 2017

Honorifics: Not as Complicated as You Think


Dear Korean,

How do you address your seonbae when you're not at work? I mean I know I will still refer to him/her as seonbae and at the beginning we will both use formal language, but what happens if he/she wants to drop the honorifcs? If we are, for example, out for a drink and we want to talk in a casual manner what happens if my seonbae is younger than me? Will they now call me unnie/nuna? And if so, aren't they supposed to use honorific language towards me?

Really Confused Polish Girl

Honorifics in Korean language confuse most non-Koreans. They are generally aware that honorifics exist in Korea, and there are certain rules as to how the honorifics are used. Because honorifics--at least, the kind that is as complicated as Korea's--don't really exist in most languages, it is difficult for non-Koreans to imagine how honorifics are supposed to be used in real life. They can try to learn the rules, but it only confuses them more because they can easily come up with a situation where two rules conflict with each other--like the questioner here.

In reality, honorifics is not that complicated. As a practical matter, there is only one default rule: between two adults, polite speech is used, especially if they are meeting for the first time. The age difference between the two adults does not matter. The social relationship between the two adults does not matter. Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time.

If you have room in your head for one more rule, here it is:  if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them. These are the only two rules that you really need to know about honorifics. 

Seeing how this plays out in real life situation makes it much easier to understand. Below are some real life situations that TK encountered recently.

Scenario 1.  TK teaches a graduate school class for non-U.S. attorneys. Some of TK's students are Koreans, and converse with TK in Korean. Can TK drop the honorifics to his Korean students, because he is the teacher and they are his students? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 2.  At the same graduate school, TK sometimes works together with a research fellow, who is a Korean woman older than TK. TK refers to the research fellow as seonbaenim [upperclassman] and uses the polite speech, because she began working for the graduate school before TK did. Can the research fellow then drop the honorifics to TK, because TK is her hubae [lower-classman] and younger than she? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. 

Scenario 3.  TK has a close friend RB. RB is older than TK, so TK refers to him as hyeong [older brother], and RB drops the honorifics to TK. One day, RB introduces another one of his friend, JS, to TK. JS is the same age as RB. Can JS drop the honorifics to TK right away? No. Why? Because between adults, polite speech is used. JS is meeting TK for the first time. It does not matter that JS is older than TK, nor does it matter that JS is the same age as RB who has dropped the honorifics to TK.

Scenario 4.  TK, RB, and JS meet for the second time. After a few round of drinks, TK tells JS to drop the honorifics, because JS is RB's friend. JS agrees. Is this ok? Yes, because if two adults want to break away from the default, they can work it out between them

Get the picture? Now, there will be plenty of situations that seem to break the default rule, but that is only because of the second rule: two adults can always work out the level of honorifics they want for themselves. Sometimes the work-out process is explicitly verbal, as in Scenario 4; sometimes, it is a gradual transition where both parties decide over time that their arrangement is ok. What doesn't happen is some kind of complicated mathematics to figure out who deserves the honorifics, based on some kind of rigid and esoteric rules. Koreans have better things to do than that--like actually talking to each other.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I went to the Korean army to do my military service and, oh my God, all these people I met for the first time did not use honorifics. They used the very opposite of honorifics. They made me 대가리박어 which was not polite at all.

  2. When watching kdramas I wonder sometimes why characters who are in love or dating still use 씨 on their names. At what point does that change?

  3. I would add one caveat (from personal experience) to Scenario 4. In my experience, it always has to be the younger person who suggests that the older person can drop the honorifics. It is awkward if the older person proposes to the younger person that they drop the honorifics.

    1. I don't necessarily agree, it's fine if the older person says he or she will drop honorifics when addressing the younger person. What doesn't happen though is the younger person dropping honorifics before being "given permission" by the older person.

  4. Extremely enlightening, and very commonsensical. As I am married to a Korean, I am sometimes at a loss as to demeanor, and this helps (even though I don't speak much Korean yet).

  5. I've always struggled with honorifics and I really appreciate the explanation here. I still have questions about things like using honorifics towards kids/teenagers, or complex social relationships or situations (that I will probably never have to deal with in real life anyway), but that's just me over-thinking things.

    Where I really struggle though is in group conversations. Switching between honorifics and casual language on the fly is hard enough, but I also stress about using certain casual language in front of people to whom I would use honorifics if I spoke to them directly. For instance, if my Korean is right, it's more polite to use 주무시다 instead of 자다 (if that's wrong, then substitute another example where one word is the more polite form of another word). But if I talk about my mother-in-law (to whom I use honorifics) to my wife (to whom I don't) while my mother-in-law is also in the conversation, is it okay to use 자다 or should I use 주무시다? What about vice-versa? These kind of questions give me all kinds of anxiety in group conversations.

    1. You can use 주무시다 because you are talking about a third person action but conjugate it using informal ending 주무셔 cause you are talking to someone you don't use honorifics with. Honorifics, humble language and politeness levels are different things in korean and that's where foreigners get confused because we tend to think honorifics must always come in a formal conversation, and that's not right. Honorofics and Humble language concern vocabulary choice to talk about people's or your own actions, and politeness levels concern the person you are talking to.

    2. *you are talking to someone you don't use formal endings with.

  6. I appreciate this post, so much. This is the simplest explanation I've ever seen for honorific usage, and the most helpful.

  7. "Between two adults, polite speech is used. If you are visiting Korea and you are not entirely sure about your honorific rules, this is all you need to remember. In fact, it is not strange at all for an adult to use the polite speech to a child that he is meeting for the first time."

    Since many foreign workers in Korea (especially native English speakers) are employed as teachers, and may sometimes find themselves communicating in Korean with children, it's important to extend the rule with this:

    - Beyond pre-school or kindergarten age, teachers model polite language for (child) students.

    The upshot is that sufficiently short time that you've known the kid(s) or formality of the teaching situation should cause you, as a teacher, to use polite endings. Banmal with students will come about eventually, in informal interactions, when you've actually known them enough to not be essentially a stranger. Before that, you will probably seem unprofessional, childish and/or shitty at Korean.


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