This is a pretty heavy topic but it’s vital to understand the difference between honorifics and formality levels as well as what each of those concepts individually (especially formality levels) entails to properly navigate the social structure that is built into Korean language and society. The concept and mechanics of using honorifics and different formality levels can be difficult to grasp especially if your native language doesn’t have similar systems, but they are crucial to communicating smoothly with others.
I expect this post to get a bit lengthy, so grab a snack (or three) and click the Read More to proceed~
The concept of honorifics is a bit simpler than that of formality levels as I will explain it, so I’ll tackle this first. The point of honorifics in Korean is to show respect to the referent of your statement. That means, you want to show respect or reverence for the person you are talking about. That person can be your listener or a third person, but you may NEVER use honorifics to refer to yourself. Using honorifics to refer to yourself is elevating yourself to a higher status and seems… arrogant, I guess? Point is, please don’t do it!
Using honorifics is pretty simple. In most cases, you just insert the honorific suffix -(으)시- after the root of the verb but before the final conjugation. Make sure you keep in mind any changes to the root that might occur as a result of adding the honorific infix. For example:
- 가다 + 시 = 가시다
- 적다 + 시 = 적으시다
- 듣다 + 시 = 들으시다 (ㄷ irregular)
There are also some common verbs that have honorific versions:
- 먹다/마시다— 드시다
- 먹다— 잡수시다 (잡수시다 is a bit more honorific than 드시다. 드시다 is the more common of the two.)
- 자다— 주무시다
- 있다— 계시다
- 아프다— 편찮으시다 (편찮다 can be used without the 시 and is still honorific, but it is not commonly used in that way.)
For example, if your grandmother is sick, you can ask her “많이 편찮으세요?” while you would ask a friend “많이 아파?” Or, when you go to visit your uncle, in the morning you can ask him, “잘 주무셨어요?” Let’s say you’re calling your little brother to confirm that mom’s at home. You can ask him, “엄마는 집에 계시지?”
Please note that you can use 반말 with honorifics! Honorifics and formality levels like 해체 and 해요체 (casual and “normal” formality speech) are totally different concepts, and you can still show respect to the referent of your sentence while using a low-formality speech level!
What I will refer to as “formality levels” are what I’ve seen referred to as “politeness levels” in a lot of other places and by some other Korean learners. However, I advise steering clear of making hard-line judgments like “X level = polite” and “Y level = impolite” because a certain level of formality, while polite in some settings, may be impolite in others, and vice-versa.
What are formality levels?
So, what are formality levels, anyway? When I say formality levels, I am referring to different types of sentence endings that actually change depending on two factors: the speaker’s closeness with the subject and the social formality of the situation (also taking into consideration things like age, as that factors in to one’s position in the social hierarchy of a situation).
Let’s use these factors of closeness and social formality to break down three common formality levels: 해요체, 반말 (해체), and 하십시오체.
하십시오체 (-ㅂ/습니다, -ㅂ/습니까, etc.) is low on closeness and high on social formality and thus, can be heard often on the news, in presentations, and in some workplaces. In day-to-day speech, you might hear it when someone is thanking someone else (감사합니다!), or in announcements on the subway.
해요체 (-아/어요 forms) could be said to fall in the middle of the extremes of closeness and social formality. That is, it can be used with people that you aren’t totally close with but don’t want to distance yourself from too much, and in situations that aren’t totally casual but aren’t super formal, either. This is arguably the most useful form to know when learning Korean, as you will be the least likely to offend someone, be they a working colleague, a university acquaintance, or someone you just met, if you use it. Some people also start using 해요체 with their parents as they get older. Using 해체 (반말) with your parents is okay, but some people prefer to use 해요체 to reflect the more adult relationship that develops as they move from being children to being adults.
해체 (-아/어 forms, 반말) hits high on closeness and low on social formality. You are safe using this form between close friends and when speaking to people who are younger than you or otherwise below you in the social hierarchy— that would be people younger than you or who hold a lower position than you. As mentioned above, a lot of people also use this form with their parents. Other situations where you might encounter 반말 include your boss speaking to you and other employees—this is how my school principal speaks to my coworkers and I sometimes! He’s above us in terms of both age and position at the school, so he has the right to speak to us in that manner.
The politeness issue
So, back to the issue of politeness. As seen above, when you use each of these different formality levels depends on your relationship with the listener and the social environment. Ultimately, that means that politeness is determined by using the correct formality level in the correct situation, not by the level itself. For example, if you and your friend always use 반말 but you suddenly start using 해요체 or 하십시오체 with them, they will likely feel uncomfortable and unhappy. 반말 is what is polite in that situation. Meanwhile, if you meet a new acquaintance and after a short getting-to-know-you period you suddenly start using 반말 with them, they could think that you’re being presumptuous about how close you really are, or they could feel like you’re placing yourself above them. Make sure that you know where you stand with your listener! If you don’t know if you should change your formality level, don’t be afraid to ask 🙂
Here’s a video on formality levels if you would rather hear than read about those: