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Korean language and culture series: Honorifics

Korean has a rather extensive honorifics system built into the language itself. Through various speech levels, personal pronouns, bound nouns (의존명사), such as adding “ssi” after a name (note that “ssi” serves an honorific purpose, and is NOT an exclamatory particle like “yah” or “ah”), and certain honorific nouns, verbs, and adjectives, a speaker is able to reflect the level of familiarity or the difference in social rank between the addressee and himself. (In response to a question by one of our readers- No, unlike Japanese, the Korean language doesn’t differentiate between genders. So there’s no masculine speech or feminine speech in Korean.) 

But this is a K-drama blog, and not a Korean language lesson. To be able to learn how to speak Korean fluently using all the various honorifics would take much more than one blog entry. However, I find that many K-drama viewers often wonder about the different speech levels spoken by characters in dramas. As this is actually pretty easy to figure out even if you never learn the language itself, the purpose of this post then is to serve as a relatively fool-proof cheat sheet to figure out the speech levels used by characters in any given K-drama. Even if you don’t care to learn Korean, I can guarantee you that just being able to distinguish between the different speech levels will help you better enjoy the dramas and get more out of them.

When I look through various blogs and sites, this is one of the most frequently encountered question-types I see about the Korean language, and I’m sure it’ll look familiar to you as well. Someone will ask, “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Korean?” One person answers, “It’s ‘gomawuh’ (고마워).” Then a second person retorts back, “Wait, I thought it was ‘gomawuhyo’ (고마워요).” A third person asks, “If that’s thank you, then what’s ‘gamsahapnida’?” And now, everyone is left confused.

A K-drama veteran would probably be able to tell right away that all three mean the same thing- “Thank you.” They are just different ways to say “thank you” in three different speech levels. People often casually describe two of these forms as “formal speech” that is used when speaking or referring to elders or strangers, and the remaining one as informal/casual speech. I know I’m guilty of this as well. But technically, this is not an accurate way to separate the categories.

In fact, there are seven different speech levels in Korean as shown below:

Five of these levels (hasoseoche, hapsyoche, haoche, hageche, and haerache) are categorized as “formal speech” (격식체), regardless of whether spoken to those higher or lower than you in social hierarchy. Think of them as “business wear,” or akin to the language used in newspapers or school essays.

Two of these levels (haeyoche and haeche) are categorized as “informal speech” (비격식체), again regardless of whether spoken to those higher or lower than you in social hierarchy. Think of them as “casual wear,” or akin to the language used in storybooks.

Within the two categories (formal and informal speech), there are different speech levels to reflect various degrees of reverence/respect of the speaker for the addressee. In modern-day Korea, the three most frequently used speech levels are hapsyoche, haeyoche, and haeche. However, all seven levels are used in a sageuk (historical dramas), with the five levels in the “formal speech” category more frequently used than the two in the “informal speech” category.

Of the seven speech levels, I’m going to omit “hasoseoche” from any further discussion than this. Hasoseoche is formal speech used when showing utmost respect/deference for the addressee by the speaker. The only times I’ve seen it used is in a sageuk drama when a character speaks directly to a king, queen, or some higher-ups in the royal family, or in the Bible when referring to God. Examples include “성은이 망극하옵니다” (“Sung eun yi mang geuk ha ob nida”=”Your grace is immeasurable”) and “통촉하여 주시옵소서” (“Tong chok ha yeo joo si ob so seo”=“I beg Your Majesty to take heed”). You can easily spot a hasoseoche because the phrases typically end with “ob nida” or “ob so seo.” But even in a sageuk, characters more frequently use the next speech level below, hapsyoche, when speaking to the king in private.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the remaining six speech levels, using “I love you” as an example.

Pay special attention to how a phrase ends to figure out the speech level used. Here’s a pop quiz example. The Korean title for the 2004 drama I’m Sorry I Love You is Mianhada Saranghanda. Which speech level is used here? If you guessed haerache, you are correct.

Here’s another example. The Korean title for the 2008 drama I Am Happy is Haengbok hapnida. Which speech level is used here? If you guessed hapsyoche, you are once again correct.

Since we’re on a roll, here’s a challenge. In the 2003 drama Damo, Hwangbo Yoon says his famous line to Chae-ok, “Ahpeunya? Nado ahpeuda.” (“Does it hurt? It hurts me too.”) Which speech level did he use when speaking to Chae-ok? Yup, it’s another example of haerache.

Pretty easy, right? Of course, there are exceptions, but if you follow these rules, you’ll be able to figure out the correct speech level 90% of the time. (And yes, I’m just making up random percentages now! But it sounds just about right.)

Now that we can figure out the different speech levels, what do they all mean? As a reminder, here’s the earlier chart again:


1. Hapsyoche is a very respectful/polite form of formal speech. In contemporary Korea, it is commonly used when speaking to strangers or to elders, by those in the service industry when speaking to their customers, in a formal business setting such as when giving a business presentation, when speaking to people ranked high in a social setting (i.e., CEO of a company or a president of a nation), and by anchormen during a news program. In a sageuk, hapsyoche is used to elders, including to one’s own parents or professors, to anyone ranked higher in the social rank, and even to those ranked lower when speaking to them with high degree of respect.

2. Haoche is formal speech used almost exclusively in a sageuk and became practically extinct in modern-day Korea. It is used when addressing those in the same rank as yourself or lower (rank may be based on social standing or age), but speaking up and giving the addressee a moderate degree of respect/politeness. (It should not be used when speaking to those ranked above you!)

For example, in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Lee Sun-joon and Kim Yoon-hee/Kim Yoon-shik were classmates, and thus, they mostly used haoche to each other. In contrast, Gu Yong-ha and Moon Jae-shin were their sahyungs (seniors), and thus, both Lee Sun-joon and Kim Yoon-hee solely used hapsyoche when speaking to them. (Note: Due to the recent rise in popularity of sageuk dramas among younger folks, netizens sometimes use haoche level to each other when chatting online.)

3. Hageche is formal speech used when speaking to those in the same rank as yourself or lower, and is a way to speak down to them but with some degree of respect/politeness. For example, in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Gu Yong-ha generally used hageche to his friend, Moon Jae-shin, and to his juniors, Lee Sun-joon and Kim Yoon-shik. In contemporary Korea, someone in a higher-ranking position may speak to someone lower (like his employees) in the hageche speech level (i.e., A director of a company to a lower-ranking employee.)

4. Haerache is formal speech used when speaking to those in the same rank as yourself or lower, but with no added degree of respect/politeness. (Note that even though there’s no added degree of respect, it wouldn’t be “disrespectful” to use haerache as long as it’s used appropriately.) For example, in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Moon Jae-shin used mostly haerache to the rest of the Jalgeum Quartet members. (If you contrast this with Gu Yong-ha’s use of hageche to them, you can say this indicates the different personalities of the two characters. At least in his speech, Moon Jae-shin appears much more brash than Gu Yong-ha.) Lee Sun-joon switched back and forth between haoche and haerache when speaking to Kim Yoon-shik.

5. Haeoyoche is informal, but polite speech. It is used very frequently in just normal, everyday lives. Common Korean phrases like “annyeonghaseyo” and “gomawuhyo” belong in this category. Regardless of the relative rank (higher, lower, or at the same level) of the addressee to the speaker, haeyoche is used when speaking respectfully/politely.

6. Haeche is informal speech with no added degree of respect/politeness. It is the speech level people refer to by “banmal,” or when characters in a drama suggest that they “drop their speech” and speak casually to each other. It is used between close friends or family, by adults when speaking to children or minors, between children when talking to each other, and also by adults when speaking to those who they knew since their childhood (regardless of how “close” they were in childhood or now as adults). For example, whether they were friends or not, high school classmates would typically speak in haeche form to each other. And when they reunite 10, 20, 30 years later, they typically go right back to speaking in the haeche speech level.

Now that we’ve established the six different speech levels, keep in mind that people use the different speech levels pretty fluidly, and switch back and forth between different speech levels even when speaking to the same addressee.

Let’s take a look at scenes from different dramas to see how the different speech levels come into play.

You can tell a haeyoche because the sentences typically end with “yo.” In fact, haeyoche is normally just haeche with “yo” tagged on.

For example, in I’m Sorry I Love You, Cha Moo Hyuk is a Korean adoptee. Although he learned Korean from his Korean girlfriend while in Australia, he unfortunately didn’t learn honorifics. As he often gets in trouble in Korea for not using proper speech, Eun-chae decides to teach him honorifics. At first, she teaches him the hapsyoche speech level (ends with “nida”). Then, she explains to Moo-hyuk, “If you get stuck, just add ‘yo’ at the end of the expression instead.” Of course, we all now know that she’s teaching him the haeyoche speech level.

(Note that in the Korean military, officers are only allowed to speak at the hapsyoche speech level when speaking to senior officers. Even haeyoche level is considered rude and disrespectful.)

In 49 Days, Shin In-jung and Song Yi-kyung speak in haeyoche level (ending with “yo”) to each other. But suddenly in the middle of the conversation, In-jung drops her speech to the haeche level (without “yo”), and takes on an accusatory tone. (Mind you! This is not because she suddenly becomes chummy with Yi-kyung during their conversation. The only purpose for that speech drop is because she’s being rude.) And in response, Yi-kyung also drops her speech level. Then they proceed back up to the haeyoche level, before dropping speech back down once again. Can you tell when the two speech drops occur?

Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean that you get a free pass to speaking in haeche. When Shin Ji-hyun first meets Han Kang’s mother, Ji-hyun introduces herself in the haeyoche level. This is a natural thing to do because Han Kang’s mother is an elder to Ji-hyun. But you’ll notice that Han Kang’s mother also uses the haeyoche level to Ji-hyun.  As they proceed in their conversation though, you’ll notice that Han Kang’s mother occasionally drops the “yo” as they feel they are getting closer, right in the middle of the conversation!

In contrast to using the haeyoche form (ending with “yo”) during most everyday occurrences, hapsyoche (ending with “nida”) is used by people in the service industry when speaking to their customers. Notice that in Baby-Faced Beauty, the sales lady uses hapsyoche to her customer (Jang Nara), whereas Jang Nara responds in haeyoche to the sales lady.

Likewise, hapsyoche is used in many other formal settings, like during a business presentation.

However, when hapsyoche is used in non-business settings, you’ll stick out like a sour thumb…

and make your date do this…

Now, let’s turn to a sageuk. I have Sungkyunkwan Scandal readily accessible from my computer so most of the examples are taken from it.

Throughout the drama, Lee Sun-joon and Kim Yoon-hee typically spoke in the haoche level. Haoche level is characterized by sentences ending with “oh” or “so.” However when having an argument or having a more intimate conversation, they also occasionally decided to screw with the politeness and dropped right down to haerache (characterized by sentences typically ending with “da”) or haeche (no endings).

In this clip, both Sun-joon and Yoon-hee start their conversation in the haoche level. When Yoon-hee gets mad, she drops right to the haeche level (informal speech with no degree of respect), whereas the confused and flabbergasted Sun-joon being the proper one he is drops to the haerache level (formal speech with no degree of respect). When Yoon-hee (a yangban/nobleman) calls the boatman (a commoner), she calls him using the haoche level. Finally, when Sun-joon desperately tries to stop Yoon-hee and asks, “What are you doing?” he drops from formal speech (haerache) to informal speech (haeche). Did you catch all the speech level changes?

Here’s an example where Sun-joon speaks in hapsyoche form (ending in “nida”) to Yong-ha, and Yong-ha speaking in hageche form (ending in “geh” or “neh”) to Sun-joon.

Here’s another example of a conversation between Left Prime Minister and War Minister. They both speak in hapsyoche level to each other, but notice that when Left Prime Minister makes it known that he’s angry at War Minister, he drops his speech to the haoche level. In contrast, no matter how angry War Minister gets, as a lower ranking official, he wouldn’t dare drop his speech to the haoche level when speaking to Left Prime Minister. Well, at least not in front of his face, of course!

And now there you have it, folks! Now we’re all pros at being able to distinguish the various Korean speech levels, right? Of course, I’ve simplified this and there are still other nuances, but these rules should work majority of the time. Have any questions? Feel free to ask away!

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  1. DavidXian

    Hi Blue!

    This article is awesome! It helps me a lot. 감사합니다.
    Honestly, though 하소서체 is ultra-rare-and-almost-never-used, I want to know about it.
    I’m very curious and would be glad if you write something about it.

    Thanks! :)

  1. Quora

    What are all the speech levels of Korean and how are they used?…

    You’re lucky I’m procrastinating on my homework so much tonight, Eunji! ;) The Korean language has seven speech levels, called 말체. Luckily for us language-learners, only three are used in everyday life:  * Formal (합쇼체 or 존댓말, as in 감사합니다/”thank you…

  2. My favorite posts by other bloggers | koreanstudentblog

    [...] different formality levels. But despair not, the bloggers Bella and Blue have made a really good overview of the honorific system and spiced it up with video examples from dramas. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the [...]

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