In many languages, formal often means being polite. So, many students try to learn the formal Korean language. However, in the Korean language, being formal doesn’t always mean being polite. Formality and politeness are 2 separate things in the Korean language. How is that possible?
First, let’s talk about honorifics. So, it’s not much different than adding ‘my lord’ (well… or ‘sir’) at the end of the English sentence. It shows you are a humble peasant compared to the person who you are talking to. So it shows who is socially higher or lower. That’s what honorifics do.
But honorifics have to exist as a grammar or different vocabulary sets to be called honorifics. So, adding just ‘sir’ isn’t grammatically honorifics.
Honorifics in Korean Language
The amazing thing is that honorifics aren’t just about politeness or formality. Honorifics are a big part of the Korean language. It defines how polite you are to the speaker and who is socially higher than another and It also shows many social status between 2 people.
A: 이거 드셔보세요
B: 나는 벌써 먹었어
I already ate it
In this conversation, A is being polite with honorifics with vocabulary and grammar but B isn’t. It often means B is older or socially higher than A. Of course, in many situations, both speakers use honorifics to show they respect each other and are equal.
A: 이거 드셔보세요
B: 저는 벌써 먹었어요
I already ate it.
In this conversation, they both are using honorifics so we can’t find out who is older but at least, we can find out they are not so close to each other or try to be really respectful to each other.
Formality in Korean Language
Then, what does formality do in the Korean language? It seems like honorifics already take care of everything. In the Korean language, formal means literally ‘formal’ like writing a report, news, book, etc, anything serious and formal. But the fun thing is this formal Korean usually doesn’t mean ‘being polite’. In fact, sometimes it can be rude.
Please, come this way.
This sentence is written in a formal honorific style. But somehow, it’s less respectful than 해요 honorific style that we’ve seen all the time. That’s odd right? Formal doesn’t mean ‘polite’ at all. Korean formality makes your speech professional but it sounds a bit cold and not so friendly like you make a distance between you and another.
That’s formality in the Korean language. You always have to remember formality aren’t the same as honorifics. It doesn’t mean politeness. In the Korean language, politeness comes from honorifics.
In the Korean language, honorifics aren’t just adding ‘sir’. it changes certain words and grammar completely. For example, 먹다 (to eat) becomes 드시다 in honorific styles. The word changes. Just like that, Korean honorifics change words and grammar.
If you don’t use correct honorifics. Then it sounds like saying something rude like
‘ma bitch’ or awfully formal like ‘‘I require you to purchase beef’. That always happens to every student learning a second language, especially the Korean language. You don’t want to sound like that. (well maybe you want to sound like that lol)
반말 in Korean Language
The last thing that you have to know about Korean honorifics is the opposite of honorifics. The opposite of honorifics isn’t non-honorific. The opposite is 반말 [banmal] which is very informal and you can use between very close people. It can be very rude to use it to strangers.
반말 <-> 존댓말
So, 반말 and 존댓말 are more like light and shadow, If you don’t use honorifics, then it must be 반말. If you don’t use 반말, then it must be honorifics (존댓말).
A Little Bonus
The Korean language has a highly developed honorific system, which means there are honorific pronouns and non-honorific pronouns both. Oh Korean language… you never be easy.
But fortunately, you don’t have to memorize all of them right now. Just see there are non-honorific pronouns and just pass it. If your Korean friends suggest you use non-honorific, then just simply answer ‘yeah… no…’ 😂
You can also fine more pronouns that you can use only in certain situations such as ‘그대 (you)’, ‘그자 (he)’, ‘자네 (you)’ and ‘자네들 (you plural)’. But you won’t have many chances to hear them in real conversations (but maybe in TV shows, yes).
What We Should Do
Each speech style has its own level of formality and honorifics. So, you have to choose your speech style very wisely in Korean language. In this course, I recommend you to use 해요 honorific which sounds friendly and polite. And almost all examples are written in 해요 speech style in this course. Now you are ready to learn more details. Why don’t you check the next tutorial? Also, if you liked this tutorial, join us in Patreon! I hope I can see you there!