The Art of Respect: Exploring Korean Honorific Language

Ellison Clapton13 min
Created: Nov 28, 2023Last updated: Apr 2, 2024
Korean Honorific Language

Korean honorifics are a topic everyone who learns this language stumbles upon one way or another. It is pretty challenging, especially for those who have just started studying. However, understanding and implementing honorifics is essential for respectful and clear communication. Today, we’ll delve into this topic to help you figure out all the slightest nuances. 

Politeness 101: Korean Levels of Formality

The concept of honorifics might be quite unfamiliar to foreigners. For example, in English, we can use the same words to address both your friend’s grandfather and your youngest sibling. In Korean culture, however, the person’s age, social status, and relationships with the speaker directly impact the word choice. The Korean language can be generally divided into two categories:

  • 존댓말 (Jondaemal) – [tɕondɛmmɑl] – Formal language. It’s commonly used in formal settings, with elders, strangers, or in professional environments to show politeness and respect.
  • 반말 (Banmal) – [pɑmmɑl] – Informal language. It is used among close friends, family members, or those of similar age or social status. It lacks the formalities and honorific markers found in jondaemal.

Moreover, both categories are also divided into different levels of speech. Here is their brief explanation.

  • 하소서체 (Hasoseo-che) – [hɑsosʌtɕʰɛ] – highest formality level. It is extremely respectful, typically used to address a queen, a king, or other high officials. Today, you can mostly hear it in historical movies (probably because you won’t often meet royals just casually walking down the street).
  • 하십시오체 (Hasipsio-che) – [hɑsips*iotɕʰɛ] – high formality level. This is one of the most widespread levels of formal speech. It is used in various circumstances – when communicating with colleagues, elders, strangers, or any other people you want to show respect to. Also, this style is used in public speeches and broadcasts, when communicating with clients and customers, etc.
  • 하오체 (Hao-che) – [hɑotɕʰɛ] – semi-formal level. This speech style is somewhat formal, but it is not as elevated as higher levels. Typically, it is used when communicating with people in lower or the same position. It is still respectful and polite, but not as much as the two abovementioned levels. Today, this type of speech is considered outdated; you can only hear it in historical dramas.
  • 하게체 (Hage-che) – [hɑɡɛtɕʰɛ] – formal polite level. This is also a relatively outdated type of speech, primarily employed by individuals of higher status when communicating with people of lower rank. 
  • 해라체 (Haera-che) – [hɛɾɑtɕʰɛ] – plain speech. This level is often perceived as casual and commanding. It lacks honorifics and polite endings, making it straightforward in communication. It’s typically used among close friends, family members, or in casual and informal settings.
  • 해요체 (Haeyo-che) – [hɛjotɕʰɛ] – informal polite level. This style is used in casual settings among peers or acquaintances. It maintains a friendly tone without being overly formal. Yet, it still showcases politeness and respect. You can implement this formality level when you are unsure which one to choose when communicating with someone.
  • 해체 (Hae-che) – [hɛtɕʰɛ] – casual speech. Using this formality level is suitable for calm and relaxed environments. It doesn’t convey the added degree of respect. And you can use it for conversations with close friends, siblings, relatives, or younger people.

In the modern world, Koreans typically use four of the abovementioned formality levels – Hasipsio-che, Haera-che, Haeyo-che, and Hae-che. And while it significantly simplifies further studying, there is still one crucial nuance – most of these speeches still require the usage of honorifics. And what are they? Let’s find out together.

What are Honorifics in Korean: In-Depth Guide

Honorifics are linguistic elements used to indicate respect, politeness, and formality in speech and writing. They are attached to names, titles, and speech patterns to denote the speaker’s social status, the listener’s position, or the relationship between them. Korean honorifics list typically includes different titles, suffixes, verbs, pronouns, etc. 

Honorific Family Titles in Korean

Korean culture highly values respect towards older people, especially the ones within the family. Therefore, numerous honorific Korean titles are used to address more senior family members. Most of them are created by adding 님 (nim) to the stem of the term. Younger relatives often use honorifics to address their parents or siblings. Here are some examples.

Family TitleHonorific TitleMeaning
아버지 (abeoji) – [ɑbʌdʑi]아버님 (abeonim) – [ɑbʌnim]Father 
어머니 (eomeoni) – [ʌmʌni]어머님 (eomeonim) – [ʌmʌnim]Mother
할머니 (halmeoni) – [hɑlmʌni]할머님 (halmeonim) – [hɑlmʌnim]Grandmother
할아버지 (halabeoji) – [hɑɾɑbʌdʑi]할아버님 (harabeonim) – [hɑɾɑbʌnim]Grandfather 
오빠 (oppa) – [op*ɑ]오빠님 (oppanim) – [op*ɑnim]Older Brother (to a female)
누나 (nuna) – [nunɑ]누나님 (nunanim) – [nunɑnim]Older Sister (to a male)
형 (hyeong) – [hjʌŋ]형님 (hyeongnim) – [hjʌŋnim]Older Brother (to a female)
언니 (eonni) – [ʌnni]언니님 (eonninim) – [ʌnninim]Older Sister (to a female)

As you can see, the title changes depending on the formality level you want to showcase when addressing a person. It is also worth noting that these honorifics in Korean can be used to describe both your or someone else’s family members. Here are some example sentences to help you memorize them better. 

아버님, 오늘 기분이 어떠세요? (Father, how are you feeling today?)

어머님, 이 음식 정말 맛있어요! (Mother, this food is so delicious!)

오빠님, 이번 주에 뭐 할까요? (Brother, what are we doing this week?)

할머니는 대학에서 일하고 계십니다. (My grandmother works at the university.)

Formal Korean Suffixes

Like family titles, other honorific words are typically created by adding different suffixes to the stems. Depending on the context, they showcase the position and social status of the person the speaker addresses. Here are some common honorific suffixes in Korean. 

  • 씨 (ssi) – [s*i].

Ssi honorific is somewhat similar to some English titles like Mr., Ms., or Miss. It is a common and neutral suffix used after a name. This is a go-to option to call someone politely, especially if you are unfamiliar with the person. However, remember that this suffix should only be attached to the first name and never – to the last one. For example:

지수씨, 오늘 저녁에 같이 식사하실래요? (Mr. Jisoo, would you like to join us for dinner tonight?)

  • 님 (nim) – [nim].

You’ve already seen this one added to family titles. However, the suffix nim Korean meaning can also be used in different contexts. It is an honorific added to names or titles to show deference. It’s more formal and polite than 씨 (ssi) and used with teachers, professionals, or people deserving special respect. For example:

선생님, 이 문제를 설명해 주실 수 있나요? (Teacher, can you explain this problem to me?)


Other Korean Honorifics List and Meanings

Now that you know some basic Korean honorifics, it is time to expand your vocabulary even more. There are numerous terms used to address people of specific professions and job titles respectfully. Let’s explore some of the most common examples.

  • 교수님 (Gyosu-nim) – [kjosunim] – used to refer to someone holding the position of a professor at a university or educational institution. For example:

교수님, 이번 학기에 강의하시는 과목이 무엇인가요? (Professor, what course are you teaching this semester?)

  • 부장님 (Bujang-nim) – [pudʑɑŋnim] – used to respectfully address a manager, often in a workplace or company setting. For example:

부서의 부장님이 실적을 크게 향상시켰어요. (The department’s manager greatly improved the performance.)

  • 회장님 (Hoejang-nim) – [hwɛdʑɑŋnim] used to address the chairman of an organization, typically in business contexts. For example:

회장님이 이번 사업에 대한 비전을 제시하셨습니다. (The chairman presented his vision of the project).

  • 이사님 (Isa-nim) – [isɑnim]used to respectfully refer to a director in a company or organizational hierarchy. For example:

이사님, 이번 회의에 참석해 주시겠어요? (Director, would you please join us for a meeting?)

  • 사장님 (Sajang-nim) – [sɑdʑɑŋnim]used to address or refer to the CEO or president of a company, showing utmost respect. For example:

사장님이 회사의 성장을 이끌고 계십니다. (The CEO is leading the company’s growth.)

  • 사모님 (Samo-nim) – [sɑmonim]a polite and respectful term used to address a married woman. For example:

사모님, 오늘 저녁 식사는 어떻게 하시려고요? (So, ma’am, what’s for dinner tonight?)

  • 부모님 (Bumo-nim) – [pumonim]used to respectfully refer to one’s parents or someone else’s parents. For example:

부모님께서 오셔서 저녁을 같이 하실 거예요. (My parents are coming over for dinner.)

  • 회원님 (Hoewon-nim) – [hwɛwʌnnim] – an honorific term used to address or refer to a member of an organization, club, or community. For example:

저희 커뮤니티 회원님들과 함께 프로젝트를 준비하고 있습니다. (We’re working on a project with the members of our community.)

  •  신부님 (Sinbu-nim) – [simbunim] – used to respectfully address a priest in a religious context, particularly Christianity. For example:

교회 신부님이 오늘 예배를 진행하실 거예요. (The church’s priest will be conducting the service today.)

Korean Honorific Verbs

In addition to suffixes and titles, speech and formality levels also impact various verbs. They can either be adjusted by adding a specific particle to the verb’s stem or even be changed completely. Look at this Korean honorifics chart to find some common examples. 

VerbHonorific FormEnglish Translation
하다 (hada) – [hɑdɑ]하십시오 (hasipshio) – [hɑsips*io]To do 
먹다 (meokda) – [mʌkt*ɑ]먹으십시오 (meogeusipshio) – [mʌɡɯsips*io]To eat
가다 (gada) – [kɑdɑ]가십시오 (gasipshio) – [kɑsips*io]To go
보다 (boda) – [podɑ]보십시오 (bosipshio) – [posips*io]To see
오다 (oda) – [odɑ]오십시오 (osipshio) – [osips*io]To come
사랑하다 (saranghada) – [sɑɾɑŋɑdɑ]사랑하십시오 (saranghasipshio) – [sɑɾɑŋɑsips*io]To love

These are only a few of many verbs that Korean honorifics can impact. In this language, you can find numerous ways to say something simple, like wishing someone good morning or asking for help. Therefore, it is essential to memorize these honorifics to avoid any misunderstandings and always remain polite and respectful, regardless of circumstances.

Korean Honorific Nouns

You may be surprised, but Korean honorifics also impact the choice of nouns in a speech. Even simple words such as a home or a birthday differ according to the respect level. In this case, you show deference when discussing things related to a person of higher status. Let’s take a quick glance at some common examples of noun honorifics.

Korean NounPolite VersionEnglish Meaning
집 (jip) – [tɕip]댁 (daek) – [tɛk]Home
이름 (ireum) – [iɾɯm]성함 (seongham) – [sʌŋɑm]Name
생일 (saengil) – [sɛŋil]생신 (saengsin) – [sɛŋsin]Birthday
나이 (nai) – [nɑi]연세 (yeonse) – [jʌnsɛ]Age
병 (byeong) – [pjʌŋ]병환 (byeonghwan) – [pjʌŋwan]Illness/Disease
사람 (saram) – [sɑɾɑm]분 (bun) – [pun]Person

As you can see, the Koreans take the subject of honorifics quite seriously. Numerous titles, verbs, and nouns change depending on the person you are talking to. That is why learning at least some basic honorifics is essential for anyone studying Korean. 

Bonus! Fun Facts About the Age in Korea

In Korean culture, showing respect for elders is as important as showing respect for people of higher social status. Being the youngest or oldest in the group requires different words and actions. Here are some interesting insights about the age difference in Korea:

  • older people can order youngsters to do simple things for them (and due to respect, young fellows should indeed do it!);
  • younger people can’t use informal language unless they’ve been allowed to;
  • older people are expected to pay for dinners, lunches, movie tickets, and other fun things;
  • younger people should bow whenever they meet elders;
  • older people are expected to be group leaders and resolve any possible issues.

In Korean culture, respecting older people is really critical. It’s all about keeping things running smoothly. Older folks lead the way and take care of problems, while younger ones follow their lead and show politeness. This helps everyone live together in harmony and respect each other’s roles.

Understanding Ssi Meaning Korean and More with Promova

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Whether you’re fluent in Korean or just starting to conquer this language, the Promova app is perfect for you. After a quick installation, you’ll provide some information about your proficiency level and learning goals, and we’ll do our best to create the most useful course for you. So what are you waiting for? Get the app now and become one step closer to your dream!


To sum up, learning Korean honorifics is an integral part of becoming fluent in this language. Whether you are planning to visit the country as a tourist or move there forever, you need to know how to handle different social interactions. Honorifics serve as a sign of respect towards those older or higher in position than you. We hope that with today’s article, you will be able to navigate these intricacies and memorize the right words for various circumstances.


Do I need to memorize Korean honorifics if I’m just starting to learn a language?

Learning Korean honorifics is crucial for navigating social interactions. While it may seem overwhelming initially, especially when just starting to learn the language, understanding and using honorifics appropriately is a sign of respect in Korean culture, and it is inevitable for reaching fluency.

What will happen if I use inappropriate language with an older person?

Using inappropriate language or failing to apply the correct honorifics when speaking to an older person can lead to various consequences. It might be perceived as disrespectful or rude and, as a result, could potentially strain relationships or lead to misunderstandings.

How can I know what speech level to use?

Understanding what formality level to use depends on several factors, including your interlocutor’s age, social status, etc. If you know that the person you’re talking to is much older than you or takes a higher position, consider using more formal language. If you’re talking to a stranger you don’t know much about, you can either ask some questions to get more information or just be polite.

What are some common ways to memorize Korean honorifics?

Firstly, you need to practice using honorifics regularly in different scenarios. The more you employ them, the more natural they’ll become. Also, you can learn about Korean culture and its emphasis on respect for elders and hierarchy. Understanding the importance of honorifics in this context can aid memorization. Finally, try to engage in conversations with native speakers or language partners to apply what you’ve learned. This practical experience can solidify your understanding of when and how to use honorifics.


RoseJan 9th, 2024
I haven't heard of oppanim, eoninim or nunanim, EVER. For the later it's *nunim. I could write a better article than this with akward blunders. Correct that, but otherwise OK article.
Yael O'nealDec 20th, 2023
A fantastic exploration into Korean honorifics and age-related customs! It's not just about language; it's about understanding and respecting Korean traditions and values.