Korean honorifics

Korean Honorifics: Suffixes, Titles, Pronouns, Verbs and More

Keith Richer
Latest posts by Keith Richer (see all)

What Are Korean Honorifics?

There are 3 basic dimensions of honorifics in the Korean language: formality, politeness, and honorificity. This means that the type of Korean you speak could change depending on the situation, the status, or the age of the people involved in the conversation.  To get a better understanding of how these affect the Korean language, let’s look at them individually. Ask yourself….

  •   Formality: how formal is the context? How familiar are the parties involved? How serious is the situation?
  •   Politeness: is politeness important in this situation? Is the listener older than the speaker? Is the listener of higher status?
  •   Honorificity: how much respect does the speaker want to convey? How much respect does the listener deserve?
korean honorifics: korean sebae
Korean Sebae – Illustration by Suzy Chung on Korea.net

In western culture, we do not have these strict sets of guidelines that dictate the words and terms we use. However, this concept is not completely absent from the English language. Imagine you were having a conversation with someone you admired and respected, for example, a politician, a famous genius, or an accomplished CEO.  You would probably adjust your manner of speaking to reflect your respect for that person.

If you had a meeting with the president of your country, even if you hate that president, you would probably speak and behave with elevated manners, compared to how you would speak to a friend or family member. Compare:

  1. To your friend: “Hey buddy, what’s up?”
  2. To the President: “Hello, Mr. President. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.”

This is the general concept of Korean Honorifics, except in Korean culture, the practice is much more common and complex.

Why Do Koreans Use Honorifics?

To show respect to people who are older or of higher status Koreans use honorifics because Korean culture is built on a foundation of Confucianism: which places high importance on social status and age.  

This hierarchy is accepted and rarely challenged. Part of acknowledging this hierarchy is through the practice of using honorifics in communication. By doing so, you are showing the respect that the listener deserves according to their position in the social hierarchy. Wealth, success, accomplishment, and age are considered important characteristics that should be recognized.

Age

This hierarchical culture is followed strictly.  Not only just for differences in status but differences in age as well: even a 1-year age difference is considered enough to warrant honorificity. This article will tell you more about Korean age

In many situations, you will see Koreans become overjoyed when they learn that their conversation partner is the same age. They’ll smile, hi-five, giggle, maybe even hug. As strange as it may seem, this is important to them. 

This is because they can speak freely and comfortably to people of the same age, so they will refer to each other as 친구 (chingu, meaning friend), even if they are not close. But if their conversation partner is older, they must use a more polite and formal way of speaking. If they dont, it could be thought of as disrespectful, embarrassing, or socially insensitive.

This disrespectful situation can also be observed in dramas and everyday life. You may witness a Korean ask another person, Why are you using this language with me? More precisely, Why are you using 반말? The use of 반말 (ban-mal) is strictly for familiar and informal relationships. Using it inappropriately could be disrespectful and make for an interesting situation, but many times it can be used to tease one another or make jokes.

Status

Differences in status or position is another very common reason to use honorifics.  Honorifics are usually used vertically; from lower-status to higher-status, or younger to older.  Examples:

–        Teacher to Student

–        Employee to Manager, or any superior in the company.

–        Child to parent or grandparent.

–        Citizen to Public official.

Commonly, these titles have particular terms that must be used when a subordinate is addressing a senior.  The most common ones are (nim) and (ssi) which are attached to a person’s title or name to signify honorficity.  We’ll take a look at some examples later.

korean honorifics: status comparison in korean culture

Do I Need to Learn Korean Honorifics? 

As a beginner, it is not necessary to use all honorifics correctly in every situation.  But, when speaking with older Korean or people of high status, you should try to imply respect when possible.  You can get by in most conversations without using Korean honorifics. Sometimes, it can even be fun to use honorifics with your Korean friends.

오빠 (oppa), 형 (hyeong)언니 (eonni) and 누나 (nuna) are probably the most common you will hear and use in everyday life, KPOP, and K-Dramas. Koreans love to figure out each other’s age so they can use these honorifics with each other. These honorifics will often be used in place of the person’s name.  So, it could be really helpful to understand these honorifics when you hear other people use them.

Suffixes & Titles of Korean Honorifics

Korean Honorific Suffix 님(nim)

The use of 님(nim) is often attached to people’s names or titles, and it roughly translates into Mr. Name or Mrs./Ms. Name.  

korean honorifics: 님 on Korean instagram
The Korean version of Instagram adds 님 after user IDs.

In western culture, using Mr. or Mrs. may make the listener feel old, and therefore uncomfortable. This is not true in Korea.  is a way to show respect to someone older and is used as the more formal version of a person’s title or relationship.

For example:

–        할아버지 is similar to Grandpa, compared to 할아버님 (which is more formal and respectful) similar to Grandfather.

Sometimes the meaning does not change but simply implies formality and politeness. For example:

–         기사 means Driver기사님 also means Driver but is more polite and formal.  So that latter is used when speaking directly to the subject. 

Korean Honorific Suffix 씨(ssi)

The use of 씨(ssi) is similar to the use of (above) but it is only attached to people’s names (given name, family name, or full name) to represent formality and politeness.

For example, if you are waiting at the doctor’s office, the receptionist may call your name with attached to the end because it is a professional situation, and therefore more formal.  Compare: 

–        Suzy 수지 (informal)  compared to   Suzy 수지   (formal)

korean honorfics: 씨
Image From Online Newsletter of National Institute of Korean Language

Korean Honorifics: Family Titles

You can find a list of honorific family titles in Korean. The general rule is to attach 님 after Korean family member titles to make them honorific titles. 

You would use the honorific titles to talk about the listener’s or other people’s family members. 

You may also use the honorific titles to talk about your own family members in formal situations, but you should never use 아드님 or 따님 to talk about your own children.

Korean Family Title

Korean Honorifics for Family Title  Meaning 

할아버지 halabeoji

할아버님 halabeonim Paternal grandfather
할머니 halmeoni 할머님 halmeonim

Paternal grandmother 

외할아버지 wehalabeoji

외할아버님 wehalabeonim Maternal grandfather
외할머니 wehalmeoni 외할머님 wehalmeonim

Maternal grandmother 

아버지 abeoji

아버님 abeonim Father

어머니 eomeoni

어머님 eomeonim Mother
형 hyeong 형님 hyeongnim

Older brother (of a male)

누나 nuna

누님 nunim Older sister (of a male)
오빠 oppa 오라버니 orabeoni

Older brother (of a female)

언니 eonni

형님 hyeongnim Older sister (of a female) 
동생 dongsaeng 동생분 dongsaengbun

Younger sibling 

아들 adeul

아드님 adeulnim Son 
딸 ddal  따님 ddanim

Daughter 

Note:

  1. It is not a typo but a truth that the Korean honorific for 언니 is 형님. Even many Koreans do not know this fact. This is not a commonly used word after all.
  2. The only honorific title that doesn’t end with a -님 suffix in the table is 동생분. We add the suffix -분 when calling other people’s younger siblings with respect.

Korean Honorifics: Titles for Non-family

The family member titles for siblings can also be used to address non-family people who are older than you.

You can use 선배(님) to address people who are older or more senior than you in a certain context, and 후배(님) to address people who are younger or less senior than you.

Korean Title 

Korean Honorifics Meaning 

형 hyeong

형님 hyeongnim Older male  (to a male)

누나 nuna

누님 nunim Older female (to a male)

오빠 oppa

오라버니 orabeoni

Older male (to a female)

언니 eonni 형님 hyeongnim

Older female (to a female) 

선배 seonbae 선배님 seonbaenim

Somebody older or more senior 

후배 hubae 후배님 hubaenim

Somebody younger or less senior 

korean honorifics: how to address other people (non-family)

Korean Honorifics: Job Titles 

You would also want to use honorific titles to refer to people at work, because you want to show enough respect to your superiors and co-workers on professional occasions. You can simply address them with their job title + 님

Korean Job Title 

Korean Honorifics for Job Title  Meaning 

회장 hwejang

회장님 hwejangnim Chairman 

사장 sajang

사장님 sajangnim CEO 

부장 bujang

부장님 bujangnim Head of department 
과장 gwajang 과장님 gwajangnim

Head of section 

대리 daeri 대리님 daerinim

Assistant manager 

팀장 timjang 팀장님 timjangnim

Team leader 

실장 siljang 실장님 siljangnim 

General manager 

korean honorifics: korean honorific job titles
미생 (Misaeng): a famous K-Drama show about Korean workplace.

If you are a student, you would also use honorific titles to refer to your teachers and professors at school. 

Korean Job Title 

Korean Honorifics for Job Title  Meaning 

선생 seonsaeng

선생님 seonsaengnim

Teacher 

교수 gyosu  교수님 gyosunim

Professor 

As the example of using 기사님 to call your driver mentioned before, you would also use honorific titles to refer to other people around you in the society. Here are more examples of honorific job titles in the society. 

Korean Job Title 

Korean Honorifics for Job Title  Meaning 

작가 jakka

자각님 jakkanim Author 

대표 daepyo

대표님 daepyonim

Representative 

셰프 syepeu 셰프님 syepeunim

Chef 

감독 gamdok 감독님 gamdoknim

Director 

korean honorifics: 기사님
“Mr. Driver, have you not eaten yet?” Image from 스브스뉴스

Pronouns of Korean Honorifics

In Korean, it is normal to use honorifics pronouns even when speaking about yourself in the first-person (“I”) or in the first-person plural (“We”).  This is done to show humility, or imply respect to the listener who may be older of higher status.  You can see the differences in the table below.

Point of View  Korean Pronoun Korean Honorifics Meaning 
1st person 나 na 저 jeo I
1st person  우리 wuri 저희 jeohi We 
2nd person  너 neo 당신 dangsin You 

It’s important to note that when talking about things such as a family, home, car, etc. it is common to use “Our/We” (우리 wuri, 저희 jeoji) instead of “My”.  This may seem a little unnatural at first, but it becomes rather endearing the more you use it.  For example:

–        “My father works for a company”  becomes  “Our father works for a company”

Even though the listener is not part of the speaker’s family, the speaker is implying a collective notion within his or her own family.

korean honorifics: 우리집 means my house
2PM’s title song 우리집 means “my house” but not “our house”. Image from SBS Youtube.

Nouns of Korean Honorifics

Honorifics are so important that Koreans use honorific nouns to show respect when you talk about things related to a person older or higher than you in status. 

As you can see in the table below, the word actually changes entirely. These are also used in official situations or within government work. So it is important to be aware of the different nouns you may hear as a foreigner in Korea.  The most common ones are:

–        Name: 이름 (informal) ↔ 성함 (formal)

–        Person/ People: 사람  (informal)  ↔   (informal)

The key point is to understand that you may hear a different word depending on the situation, so it’s great to be aware of these differences which can help you understand.

Korean Noun

Korean Honorifics

Meaning 

집 jip

댁 daek home

이름 ireum

성함 seongham name

생일 saengil

생신 saengsin birthday
나이 nai 연세 yeonse

age

병 byeong 병환 byeonghwan

Illness or disease 

말 mal 말씀 malsseum

Words (said by somebody)

Korean honorifics: 나이 vs. 연세

Verbs of Korean Honorifics

Often, verbs can be changed to show respect and politeness in your sentences. This can be very important when communicating with people who are older or of a higher status. As you can see in the examples below, often you can make the verb honorific by adding -() after the verb stem. 

The following table illustrates how some regular verbs in Korean are made honorific verbs. 

Korean Verb

Korean Honorifics Meaning 

가다 gada

가시다 gasida To go 
받다 batda 받으시다 bateusida

To receive 

운동하다 undonghada  운동하시다 undonghasida

To do sports or exercise 

But, in some cases, the word changes completely. 

The most common one you will probably be exposed to is the verb EAT먹다 or 드시다.  Often Koreans ask “ 먹었어요?”, which means “Did you eat?”  This is basically how Koreans say, “How are you?” But, when speaking to an older person you should use 식사하셨어요?

The following table provides more examples of irregular Korean honorific verbs. 

Korean Verb 

Korean Honorifics  Meaning 

먹다 

드시다 / 식사하다  To eat 

보다 

뵙다  To see 

말하다 

말씀하다  To speak, say 

있다 

계시다 

To be somewhere or exist 

자다  주무시다 

To sleep

배고프다  시장하시다 

To be hungry 

주다  드리다 

To give

아프다  편찮으시다 

To be sick or be in pain 

korean honorifics: 선배님, 식사하셧어요, 씨
Image from Online Newsletter of National Institute of Korean Language

Useful Phrases with Korean Honorifics

The structure of the first phrase is: verb stem + //여해 드릴게요.  This is commonly used to tell someone that you will do something for them. You can translate it to “I will do … for you.” 

For example:

보고서를 써 드릴게요. 

I will write the report for you. 

If you form this phrase as a question, it will be: verb stem + //여해 드릴까요? This is commonly used to ask someone if they would like you to do something for them? It translates to “Shall I do … for you?”. For example: 

노래해 드릴까요? 

Shall I sing for you? 

Here is a polite way to tell someone to sleep well.

안녕히 주무세요. 

Sleep well. / Good night.

The following phrases are  very common and great things to say when eating with others. 

많이 드세요

Please eat a lot. 

Or 

맛있게 드세요

Please enjoy your meal.  

This can be used to politely tell someone to speak or tell you something.

말씀하세요

Please speak.

This is used to ask if someone is present or available. This phrase is typically used on the phone. 

xx / 계세요?  

Is xx there? 

Korean honorifics: 계시다 vs. 있다

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