Korean honorifics

Korean honorifics
Hangul 높임말 / 경어
Hanja none /
Revised Romanization nopimmal / gyeongeo
McCune–Reischauer nopimmal /kyŏngŏ

The Korean language reflects the important observance of a speaker or writer's relationships with both the subject of the sentence and the audience. Korean grammar uses an extensive system of honorifics to reflect the speaker's relationship to the subject of the sentence and speech levels to reflect the speaker's relationship to the audience. Originally, the honorifics expressed the differences in social status between speakers. In contemporary Korean culture, honorifics are used to differentiate between formal and informal speech based on the level of familiarity between the speaker and the listener.

Honorific nouns

When talking about someone superior in status, a speaker or writer must indicate the subject's superiority by using special nouns or verb endings. Generally, someone is superior in status if he or she is an older relative, a stranger of roughly equal or greater age, an employer, a teacher, a customer, or the like. Someone is equal or inferior in status if he or she is a younger stranger, a student, an employee or the like. The use of wrong speech levels or diction is likely to be considered insulting, depending on the degree of difference between the used form and the expected form.

One way of using honorifics is to use special "honorific" nouns in place of regular ones. A common example is using 진지 (jinji) instead of (bap) for "food". Often, honorific nouns are used to refer to relatives. The honorific suffix -님 (-nim) is affixed to many kinship terms to make them honorific. Thus, someone may address his own grandmother as 할머니 (halmeoni) but refer to someone else's grandmother as 할머님 (halmeonim).

Base noun Honorific English translation
할아버지 (harabeoji) 할아버님 (hal-abeonim) grandfather
할머니 (halmeoni) 할머님 (halmeonim) grandmother
아버지 (abeoji) 아버님 (abeonim) father
어머니 (eomeoni) 어머님 (eomeonim) mother
(hyeong) 형님 (hyeongnim) a male's older brother
누나 (nuna) 누님 (nunim) a male's older sister
오빠 (oppa) 오라버니 (orabeoni) a female's older brother
언니 (eonni) a female's older sister
아들 (adeul) 아드님 (adeunim) son
(ttal) 따님 (ttanim) daughter

Honorific verbs

All verbs and adjectives can be converted into an honorific form by adding the infix -시- (-si-) or -으시- (-eusi-) after the stem and before the ending. Thus, 가다 (gada, "to go") becomes 가시다 (gasida). A few verbs have suppletive honorific forms:

Base verb/adjective Regular honorific English translation
가다 (gada) 가시다 (gasida) "to go"
받다 (batda) 받으시다 (badeusida) "to receive"
작다 (jakda) 작으시다 (jageusida) "(to be) small"
Base verb/adjective Suppletive honorific English translation
있다 (itda) 계시다 (gyesida) "to be"
마시다 (masida) 드시다 (deusida) "to drink"
먹다 (meokda) 드시다 (deusida) "to eat"
먹다 (meokda) 잡수시다 (japsusida) "to eat"
자다 (jada) 주무시다 (jumusida) "to sleep"
배고프다 (baegopeuda) 시장하시다 (sijanghasida) "to be hungry"

A few verbs have suppletive humble forms, used when the speaker is referring to him/herself in polite situations. These include 드리다 (deurida) and 올리다 (ollida) for 주다 (juda, "give"). 드리다 (deurida) is substituted for 주다 (juda) when the latter is used as an auxiliary verb, while 올리다 (ollida, literally "raise up") is used for 주다 (juda) in the sense of "offer".

Honorific forms of address

Pronouns in Korean have their own set of polite equivalents (e.g., (jeo) is the humble form of (na, "I") and 저희 (jeohui) is the humble form of 우리 (uri, "we")). However, Koreans usually avoid using the second-person singular pronoun, especially when using honorific forms, and often avoid the third-person pronouns as well. So, although honorific form of (neo, singular "you") is 당신 (dangsin, literally, "friend" or "dear"), that term is used only as a form of address in a few specific social contexts, such as between two married couples or in an ironic sense between strangers. Other words are usually substituted where possible (e.g., the person's name, a kinship term, a professional title, the plural 여러분 yeoreobun, or no word at all, relying on context to supply meaning instead).


-ssi (Hangul: 씨, Hanja: ) is the most commonly used honorific used amongst people of approximately equal speech level. It is attached at the end of the full name, such as Kim Cheolsu-ssi (김철수씨) or simply after the first name, Cheolsu-ssi (철수씨) if the speaker is more familiar with someone. Appending -ssi to the surname, for instance Kim-ssi (김씨), can be quite rude, as it indicates the speaker considers himself to be of a higher social status than the person he is speaking to.[1]


-nim (Hangul: 님) is the highest form of honorifics, generally used for someone who is revered to have a significant amount of skill, intellect, knowledge, etc. In the past, and less commonly used today, this title was used for parents (e.g. mother and father – eomeo-nim 어머님 & abeo-nim 아버님), teachers (seonsang-nim 선생님), holy men (e.g. pastors – moksa-nim 목사님), and also used to address the Christian God (hana-nim 하나님) and the traditional Korean gods such as the one who resides in heaven (haneu-nim 하느님).

Seonsaeng-nim (선생님, Hanja: 先生), commonly translated as "teacher", has much more formality and is used to show respect to the addressee. It also doesn't have to mean that they are the person's teacher, but simply someone who is significantly more knowledgeable than the other.

However, children, mostly teens, can be found using the honorific of 'Ssem', as it is the result of saying 'seonsaeng-nim' in a shortened way.


-ya or -a (Hangul: 야, 아) is generally used for children. It is not gender exclusive. If a name ends in a consonant -a is generally used (e.g. Gangcheol-a 강철아), and if the name ends in a vowel -ya is generally used (e.g. Cheolsu-ya 철수야). These are also used between very close friends and people who are familiar with each other. When two people meet for the first time, it's sometimes awkward because age is a significant form of social hierarchy. There have been times when students ask to be called Hyung, Nuna, Unni, or Oppa, simply because they are older by a few months. In extreme cases, school children would even fight over hierarchy because one was born a day earlier.


Seonbae (Hangul: 선배, Hanja: 先輩) is used to address senior colleagues or mentor figures, e.g. students referring to or addressing more senior students in schools, junior athletes more senior ones in a sports club, or a mentor or more experienced or senior colleague in a business environment. As with English titles such as Doctor, Seonbae can be used either by itself or as a title. Hubae (후배, Hanja :後輩) is used to refer to juniors. However, the term is not normally addressed to them directly, and is mainly used in the third person.


-gun (Hangul: 군, Hanja: ) is used moderately on very formal occasions, such as weddings, to a male only. This can also be used to denote the fact that the person is a male, when the name sounds neither masculine nor feminine. -yang (Hangul: 양, Hanja:) is the female equivalent of 군. Both are used in a similar fashion to -ssi, succeeding either the whole name or the first name in solitude.

Less common forms of address

Relative honorifics

When speaking to someone about another person, you must calculate the relative difference in position between the person you’re referring to and the person you are speaking to. This is known as apjonbeop 압존법 or “relative honorifics”.

For example, one must change the post positional particle and verb if the person you are speaking to is a higher position (age, title, etc.) than the person you are referring to. “부장, 이 과장님께서는 지금 자리에 안 계십니다” This means, “General Manager, Manager Lee is not at his desk now”, with the bolded parts elevating the Manager higher than the General Manager, even though they both are in a higher position than you. The General Manager would be offended by the fact that you elevated the Manager above him. Most Koreans perfect this while working at their first company job as it is confusing even for them.

See also


  1. Ri, Ui-do (리의도) (2005). Proper Procedures for Korean Usage (올바른 우리말 사용법 , Olbareun urimal sayongbeop) (in Korean). Seoul: Yedam. p. 182. ISBN 89-5913-118-0.
  2. http://100.naver.com/100.nhn?docid=33802


Further reading

  1. "Korean Translation". Lingua Asia. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
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