Korean Language Honorifics

Koreans have a rich culture as well as other countries in the world from their festivals, foods, technology and much more. Among the most prominent Korean culture is their language honorific or polite system. You include specific elements in the language depending on who you speak to or what setting you are in.

If you plan to learn the Korean language or are currently learning the language, you’ll find that applying honorifics is one of the more difficult things or probably a complicated aspect to learn. However, it is imperative that you learn to implement honorifics in your speech because if not, you will be deemed really rude by Koreans.

Let’s start off with the most common instance when you should use honorific language. First, Koreans value age. The older you are the more you are respected because of your seniority. So the first thing you have to keep in mind is when speaking to a much older person, apply honorifics in your speech.


Korean speech is in the Subject/Object/Verb format as opposed to Subject/Verb/Object for English. To use honorific speech, you must add a “yo” or “seyo” at the end of your sentences. “seyo” which is the combination of “shi” + “oyo” is much more respectful. You usually use these when speaking in an informal setting such as when you meet older acquaintances that you’re not too close with or with a senior like a teacher or a mentor. The same goes when you meet a friend of a friend.

As for formal conversations such as business meetings, public speaking, talk to a person with high social status, or for total strangers, you can use the formal honorific “seumnida” or “~mnida”. You use the former for verbs or adjectives ending in consonants and the latter for those that end in vowels.

Just remember that the casual type of speech is only used within the family, by really close friends, couples, people with same age group and social status, or if the two persons agree to drop honorifics in their conversation. Other than these situations, I strongly suggest that you use honorifics when speaking Korean.


There are some other aspects of the Korean language where you can incorporate honorifics. There are some words that have an alternate word for being respectful such as the verb “chu da” meaning to “give”. Its more respectful version is “deu ri da”. Also, if the person you are talking to has a title or a special relation to you, you call them by that title such as “songsaengnim” which means teacher or if you’re a boy, “noona” for an older sister or practically any woman older than you.

As for the casual style of speech, learn it only if you’ve mastered basic Korean or if you’re at least an advanced speaker. The casual style usually drops the articles and sentence endings so it will be terribly confusing if you have a small vocabulary or if you’re not familiar with how sentences are formed in Korean.

Now, always remember to consider who you are speaking to. Apply honorifics when necessary or probably in almost every occasion. If you’re learning the language, I really suggest you keep honorifics. If you speak with honorifics with a native Korean, do not worry, they will most surely speak with you in a polite and/or formal way as well.