A Simple Guide to Korean Honorifics

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This is a quick guide on how to understand Korean honorifics to speak polite Korean — and an 80/20 guide to using the right one.

When I started learning Korean using Glossika and flashcards (see our Korean language learning resources), I was immediately super confused about what were very basic sentences.

Sentences that said nearly exactly the same thing — only with a different tone or interlocutor — seemed very different. And I didn’t know why.

It turns out — after months of more study (from other sources) — that the reason is Korean “honorifics”.

The subject of “honorifics” is big in Korean. It’s bigger than just language; it involves understanding hierarchical culture in families, the workplace, and broader society.

Nearly every Korean Drama has a scene (actually, several) where someone complains that someone else is addressing someone in the wrong tone.

Scene from Goblin where they briefly mention Korean honorifics

So Korean honorifics are important to understand.

To understand Korean honorifics, I’ve found it has been important to know

  • When to use honorifics: Who has to use honorifics with whom
  • Honorific verbs and honorific nouns in Korean — the verbs (and occasional nouns) that are used in polite speech
  • Honorific conjugation — how to adjust tone when speaking politely
  • Titles in honorific Korean — how to address people

I’ll go through all these in detail below.

I’m writing this from the perspective of a learner. So while I’ve double- and triple-checked it all, I’m also keeping it in simple, non-technical language. This should be useful for people 6-12 months into their Korean learning journey.

When to use Korean Honorifics

The first thing to understand is when and to whom you have to speak politely in Korean with honorifics.

In general, assuming most people reading this website are 20-50 years old or thereabouts, and non-Koreans (for whom the rules are always a bit laxer), you use honorifics in the following circumstances

  • When speaking to someone significantly older than you — a rough guide I was given is “When someone appears old enough to be your parent”
  • When speaking to an official, e.g. a police officer, or consular staff member
  • When greeting your teacher, a doctor, or another “important person” (for me, this was my coach when studying martial arts in Korean)
  • When greeting your partner’s parents or (more obviously) grandparents

The last one is important to me, for example, greeting my partner’s parents. I can get away with using informal verbs, but it’s just nicer if I use the proper ones. They appreciate it.

A Korean person living in Korea would use honorifics in more situations. Korea has quite a hierarchical society. So Koreans would be cautious of tone in addressing classmates ahead of them, managers, and even people at the same professional level as them, but a few years ahead.

But most of the hierarchical society doesn’t apply to us, language and culture explorers (unless you’ve been in Korea for years and are a middle-ranking manager at Samsung, in which case, you should be telling me a few things…)

Probably the only time you definitely don’t have to use Korean honorifics would be when talking to kids. Just as you wouldn’t say to a child “Would you fancy a cup of tea, my good sir?”, you wouldn’t use that tone in Korean. In fact, it would be odd to do so.

Korean Formal and Polite Verb Conjugations

When I started going through Glossika (and more recently, Speechling), I noticed that sentences that seemed very similar had different conjugations of the verb.

Korean has formality levels in language. This loosely means that you conjugate verbs based on the person to whom or about whom you’re speaking; not the subject of the verb. If you know Japanese, you’ll be familiar with this — it works exactly the same way (I’m told).

In Spanish or French (actually, most major languages with conjugation), you conjugate based on the subject.

For example, take the phrase “We are going to the zoo.” In this phrase, “we” is the subject, so you conjugate ir in Spanish to nosotros vamos, or the aller in French to nous allons.

It’s the same in Arabic (إحنا نروح), Persian (ما میرویم), Swahili (sisi tunaenda), etcetera.

Not so in Korean. In Korean, there is a base way of conjugating “we go”, and you change it depending on the person to whom you’re speaking.

See the below examples for how to say “we are going”. I’ve bold-faced the parts that change.

  • Unconjugated: 우리는 가고있 (ulineun gagoissda)
  • Speaking to someone younger than me and familiar (e.g. a child): 우리는 가고있 (ulineun gagoiss-eo)
  • Speaking to an adult formally (someone you don’t know, but who you have a relationship with): 우리는 가고있어요 (ulineun gagoiss-eoyo)
  • Speaking politely (e.g. to someone notably older than you): 우리는 가고 있습니다 (ulineun gagoiss-issseubnida)

Korean Honorific Formal Verbs

Also known as “polite verbs” or “honorific verbs”, there are some common everyday verbs that you use only when talking about older people or in polite situations.

For example, look at the following two sentences. It’s easy to figure out the pronouns (for “mother” or “they’re”), and which word means “house”. So why is the polite version of the verb “to be” so different?

  • Is mother at home?: 어머님 집에 계세요? (eomeonim jib-e gyeseyo?)
  • They’re at home: 그들은 집에 있어요. (geudeul-eun jib-e iss-eoyo.)

The difference between these two sentences is that the first sentence talks about someone’s mother, who in Korean is mentioned with respect (i.e. in an honorific tone), and the second just talks about a general group of people (in a general tone).

This is a lot like how in English you would respectfully say “My grandfather passed away” rather than “My grandfather died”. Or how instead of “Let’s eat chicken”, to the Queen of England you might say “Shall we feast on fowl?”

Verb meaningKorean verbFormal korean verb
to eat먹다 (meokda)드시다 (deusida)
to sleep자다 (jada)주무시다 (jumusida)
to die죽다 (jukda)돌아가시다 (doragasida)
to be있다 (itda)계시다 (gyesida)
to speak/say말하다 (malhada)말씀하다 (malsseumhada)
to give주다 (juda)드리다 (deurida)
Common Korean honorific verbs

It’s important to learn these honorific verbs — just as it’s important to learn Korean honorific titles, nouns, and other words that change.

There’s a longer list of Korean honorific verbs and nouns here.

Common examples of Korean Honorific phrases

Below are some common phrases that I say regularly in the honorific form. In fact, it would be unusual to say them in any other way!

These phrases combine a few things — honorific verbs, conjugation, and some nouns.

English PhraseStandard KoreanPolite Korean
What is your name?이름이 뭐예요? (ireumi mwoyeyo?)성함이 어떻게 되십니까? (seonghami eotteoke doesimnikka?)
How old are you?나이가 어떻게 되세요? (naiga eotteoke doeseyo?)연세가 어떻게 되십니까? (yeonsega eotteoke doesimnikka?)
Where are you from?어디에서 왔어요? (eodieseo wasseoyo?)어디에서 오셨습니까? (eodieseo osyeossseumnikka?)
Do you have siblings?형제가 있어요? (hyeongjega isseoyo?)형제가 계십니까? (hyeongjega gyesimnikka?)
What do you do for a living?직업이 뭐예요? (jigeobi mwoyeyo?)직업이 어떻게 되십니까? (jigeobi eotteoke doesimnikka?)
Are you married?결혼했어요? (gyeolhonhaesseoyo?)결혼 하셨습니까? (gyeolhon hasyeossseumnikka?)
Do you like it here?여기가 좋아요? (yeogiga joayo?)여기가 마음에 드십니까? (yeogiga maeume deusimnikka?)
Have you eaten?밥 먹었어요? (bap meogeosseoyo?)식사하셨습니까? (siksahasyeossseumnikka?)
Can you speak Korean?한국말 할 수 있어요? (hangungmal hal su isseoyo?)한국어를 하실 수 있습니까? (hangugeoreul hasil su isseumnikka?)
Where do you live?어디 살아요? (eodi sarayo?)어디 거주하십니까? (eodi geojuhasimnikka?)
Korean polite/honorific phrases

Note a few things

  • The “standard” ways of saying these are never rude. Tone can convey politeness, and foreigners are given leeway. But saying things the polite way with honorifics can get better responses.
  • You can say the “polite” phrases in a number of ways, e.g. instead of the 니까 ending, you might use (or hear) the 요 ending.

Wrap up

Korean honorifics are easy to ignore at the outset. It’s tempting to just learn one way of saying things and to try to coast through with that.

But you’ll quickly learn that not only will you hear people speaking to you in polite Korean, but that it will help to “grease the wheels” by using polite speech wherever possible.

Hopefully the above has been useful in your Korean language learning journey.

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