The significance of Korean speech levels
Honorifics are very important in Korean and are something you will encounter in Korean literally every day. From when you call a stranger who dropped a purse or a worker in a restaurant to when you talk to your parents or boss, every daily situation is involved with honorifics.
The Confucianism-influenced cultural background
The reason for the importance of honorification in Korean is that it is required by the vertical hierarchy of Confucianism, where age and social status play a big part. An idiom 장유유서(長幼有序) is the one that shows the basis of Confucianism, which means there is a strict order that needs to be followed and obeyed between adults and children. Therefore, it is a huge deal in Korea to show proper respect to older people, which refers to physically older or of a higher social status.
What are the consequences if a Korean person doesn’t use honorific terms properly?
If a Korean chooses the wrong honorific, it can result in humiliation, embarrassment or even offending the listeners.
Sometimes we can hear the news that two men fought each other seriously and its cause turned out that one man started to use an informal/impolite speech manner, which is called 반말 (banmal) in Korean, to the other man.
It is an extreme case, but it gives away how important it is to use appropriate speech levels and honorifics in Korean society.
What are the consequences if a foreigner doesn’t use honorifics properly?
If someone, whether he is a Korean or a foreigner, does not use honorifics properly, whether a Korean or a foreigner, it is easy to offend the listeners. Of course, people understand that it is hard for foreigners to use honorifics rightly, so in most cases, they just laugh it over. But in some cases, for example, if a foreigner says “안녕 (annyeong)”, the most casual version “hello” in Korean, to a university president, the listener could feel embarrassed or even offended.
Formality, Politeness, and Honorificity: What does each govern?
Formality is for the situation/occasion
Formality does not consider the relations between the speaker and the listener, but rather, the situation they are in. For example, a TV announcer usually speaks during news recording (formal situation) with 하십시오체 (formal polite style), but then after recording when talking to a coworker about daily stuff (informal situation), he would speak in 해체(informal impolite style).
Politeness is for the person you’re speaking with
Politeness is related to the relations between the speaker and the listener. Impolite could also mean as familiar or intimate. You speak with the polite form if the listener is older or in higher social status than you, and impolite one if the listener is similar with or lower than you. For example, you would speak to a senior citizen in a store in 해요체 (polite but informal style), but to your siblings in 해체 (impolite and informal style).
Honoficity is for the parties mentioned in the conversation and the person you’re speaking with
Honorificity is not only for the listener but also for the parties mentioned in the conversation. For example, when you say to your mom, “엄마, 할아버지 지금 주무세요”, which means “mom, my grandfather is sleeping now”. Because the listener is the speaker’s mom, you use the polite final verb ending -요, and also because your grandfather is mentioned, you use ‘주무시다’, the honorific form of ‘자다 (to sleep)’.
What are Korean speech levels? Short definitions
There are seven speech levels; Hasoseo-che (하소서체), Hapsyo-che (하십시오체), Haoche (하오체), Hageche(하게체), Haerache (해라체), Haeyoche(해요체) and Haeche(해체). Each level shows a different level of formality and politeness to the audience. Koreans show respect to the person they talk to or about by choosing the appropriate speech level.
There are three factors for Korean honorific speech: subject honorification (주체 높임법), object exaltation (객체 높임법), and addressee honorification (상대 높임법).
Subject honorification is to honor the subject of the sentence and object exaltation is to respect the object. Addressee honorification is used when honoring the audience.
Comparison with English or European languages
The honorific is one of the most difficult parts in Korean to foreigners because there are not many things like this in English or other European languages.
In English, there are not many changes according to situations like age or social rank difference and publicity of the situation. But in Korean, the language changes a lot because of those situations.
What speech elements are affected by speech levels?
As already mentioned, Korean honorification has three kinds, subject honorification(주체 높임법), object exaltation (객체 높임법), and addressee honorification (상대 높임법).
To honor the subject in the sentence, you have to consider if you should add the honorific verb suffix “-(으)시” in the verb or adjective, the honorific particles like “-께서” and some honorific words. In “아버지께서 운전을 하신다”, the subject “아버지 father”, the honorific word of “아빠”, is honored with “-께서” and “-시-” in the verb.
When the object is to be honored by the speaker, certain words will be replaced by honorific ones. For example, “많은 관심 감사드립니다”, which means “Thank you for all your caring”. Here, “드리다” in “드립니다” is an honorific form of “주다 (to give)” for honoring the object “you” in the sentence.
Addressee honorification is to signal formality or closeness between the speaker and the listener. It is reflected in the choice of suffix as a sentence final ending. The sentence endings differentiate sentences into different speech levels. People divide Korean speech levels differently, between three to seven levels. We will consider 7 levels from the wider viewpoint.
The 7 Korean speech levels by definition
Of the following seven levels, the first five are categorized as “formal speech level(격식체)”, and the last two levels, as “informal speech level(비격식체)”.
Korean formal speech levels (격식체)
1) Hasoseo-che (하소서체)
Hasoseo-che (하소서체) is the highest and extremely formal speech level to show the utmost respect for the person you are addressing. It was used when addressing a king, queen, high official, or other members of the royal family in the past.
There is no need to speak this way today and you can see this type of speech in some historical dramas and religious writing such as the Bible, when referring to a deity.
Declarative form: stem + –나이다
알다 + –나이다: 당신의 종을 아나이다. You know your servant.
Interrogative form: stem + –나이까
가다 + –나이까: 주여, 어디로 가나이까? Lord, where are you going?
2) Hapsyo-che (하십시오체)
Hapsyo-che (하십시오체) is a very respectful, polite form of formal speech.
It is commonly used in public speeches, broadcasts, business, and the service industry to speak to customers. It is used to speak to strangers, elders, anyone higher in social rank. It can also be used to speak to people of lower rank when you want to show them respect. The books are written in this form along with Haerache(해라체).
Declarative form: stem + –ㅂ니다
읽다 + –습니다 = 저는 매일 책을 읽습니다. I read books every day.
Interrogative form: stem + –ㅂ니까?
가다 + –ㅂ니다 = 지금 어디 갑니까? Where are you going now?
3) Haoche (하오체)
Haoche(하오체) is used to address people that are in a lower or the same social position. It still maintains a moderate degree of respect. It should not be used when speaking to those ranked above us. Unlike Hapsyo-che (하십시오체), it does not lower the speaker to show humility.
In modern times, it is spoken only among some people of older generations and not used much in real life. You can find this style almost only in historical dramas.
Due to the popularity of historical dramas, young ones sometimes use it online for a humorous effect.
Declarative form: stem + –소/-오
있다 + –오 = 여기 책이 있소. Here is a book.
Interrogative form: stem + –오?
하다 + –오? = 여기서 무엇을 하오? What do you do here?
Hageche(하게체) is a relatively outdated style of formal speech. It implies the speaker treats the audience with respect.
It is used to speak to people who are the same rank or lower by some older people, like a director of a company speaking to lower-ranking employees, a mentor passing down advice to a mentee, between adult male friends or in some novels.
Declarative form: stem + –네
지내다 + –네 = 나는 요즘 잘 지낸다네. I’m doing fine these days.
Interrogative form: stem + –ㄴ/는가?
지내다 + –ㄴ/는가? = 요즘 어떻게 지내는가? What are you doing these days?
5) Haerache (해라체)
Haerache (해라체), also known as “plain form”, is formal speech and it is one of the most commonly used forms.
It is used with those who are of the same or lower rank with no added degree of respect. But it is not considered disrespectful to use this form in the proper situation. For example, in a conversation between close friends or between adults and children.
We can often see this form in the dictionary, textbooks, newspapers, and indirect quotations like “he said that…”
When it used in spoken language, it is to casually describe the present state such as “나 간다 now I am going” and to show exclamations like “아, 슬프다 Ah, it’s sad.”
Declarative form: stem + ㄴ다/-는다
하다 + ㄴ다/-는다 = 내 남동생은 주말마다 축구를 한다 My younger brother plays soccer on weekdays.
Interrogative form: stem + –냐?
하다 + –냐? = 너 지금 뭐하냐? What are you doing now?
Korean informal speech levels (비격식체)
해요체 is an informal, but polite speech. Regardless of the social rank and age of the addressee, it can show respect or politeness.
This is the most common speech style, used in everyday situations, so if we are not sure which speech level to use, it is usually the best choice.
It is commonly used between strangers, between colleagues, and when the addressee is a superior, such as children speaking to their parents, students to teachers.
Almost every sentence ends with –요. Only imperative form ends with –세요.
Declarative form: stem + –요
공부하다 + –요 = 저 지금 공부해요. I am studying now.
Interrogative form: stem + –요?
공부하다 + –요? = 지금 공부해요? Are you studying now?
2) Haeche (해체)
Haeche(해체) is an informal, casual speech with no added degree of respect. It is called “Banmal반말” (informal speech) in Korean.
It is used to speak casually between close friends, siblings, relatives and when addressing younger people. Recently, many children use Banmal to their parents. Also, people use it when they are angry with each other and to insult others.
Declarative form: stem + –아/어/지
하다 + –아/어/지 = 나 지금 게임 해. I am playing game now.
Interrogative form: stem + –냐/니?
하다 + –냐/니/까/나? = 너 지금 뭐 하냐? /하니?
The four commonly used Korean speech levels nowadays: jondanmal and banmal
In modern-day Korea, only four styles of speech -Hasipsio-che (하십시오체), Haerache (해라체), Haeyoche (해요체), Haeche (해체) are frequently used in everyday life. The first three styles are called Jondanmal and the last style is called banmal.
Here is the summary for each speech level with example usage:
- Formal and polite/ 합니다/ Hapsyo-che (하십시오체): used by TV broadcasters, to elders
- Formal and casual/ 한다/ Haera-che (해라체): used in reported speech and written materials
- Informal and polite/ 해요/ Haeyo-che (해요체): used between strangers, colleagues
- Informal and casual/ 해/ Hae-che (해체) or banmal (반말): used between close friends and to younger people
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Common Korean greetings at different speech levels
Let’s introduce some common Korean greetings in formal and informal ways.
1.안녕하세요 Hello/Hi/Good morning/Good afternoon/Good evening
- Formal and polite 안녕하십니까?
- Informal and polite 안녕하세요
- Informal and casual 안녕
It is the most common greeting for any time of day. 안녕하세요 can be used almost to anyone. 안녕하십니까 may sound too formal to use in daily conversations. You need to use 안녕 carefully only to close friends or younger ones.
2. 만나서 반가워요 Glad to meet you
- Formal and polite 만나서 반갑습니다
- Formal and casual 만나서 반갑다
- Informal and polite 만나서 반가워요
- Informal and casual 만나서 반가워
Its literal meaning is “I am glad we met” and can be used any time you meet someone. Or you can just say “반가워요” without “만나서”. If you have prior knowledge of that person, you can add “again 다시” and then say 다시 만나서 반가워요.
3. 요즘 어떻게 지내세요? How are you these days?
- Formal and polite 요즘 어떻게 지내십니까?
- Formal and casual 요즘 어떻게 지내니?
- Informal and polite 요즘 어떻게 지내세요?
- Informal and casual 요즘 어떻게 지내?
It is used with a present tense verb “spend 지내다” and it is asking how you are nowadays. If you want to ask, “how have you been?”, you can slightly change the verb into the past tense and say “어떻게 지내셨습니까/지냈니/지냈어요/지냈어?”. You can use the adverb “well 잘”, instead of “how 어떻게”. There are other Korean expressions and all of them have the meaning of showing a general nuance of the well being of the other.