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Korean Formalities and Titles

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

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What Are Honorifics?

They are ways of speaking in Korean that communicate the relationship between the speaker and the subject or the listener. Korean has this built into the language with special words, titles, and grammar.

Korean has different “speech levels”. These levels are demonstrated in the verb endings. The speech levels that are used most often are formal speech, polite/casual speech, and Informal speech.


The formal speech level is used when you’re speaking to someone older than you, someone who holds a higher position than you, or someone who belongs to a higher social hierarchy. Sentences using the formal speech level usually ends with ~ㅂ니다 or 습니다.

The polite speech level or also known as the standard speech can be used in most situations. You can use this speech level when you’re speaking with people you know, but don’t have a close relationship with them. Sentences using this speech level usually end with 요.


The informal speech level can be used when you’re speaking with people with who you have close relationships such as friends and family. This is also the speech level you can use with those younger than you or of lesser seniority.

You’ll remove the -요 in these situations. Or use the 야 ending instead of -이에요. 이에요 becomes 이야.

Korean Honorifics

The word “honorifics” in Korean can be expressed in 2 ways. The first one is 존댓말. The other word for “honorifics” in Korean is 높임말.

존댓말 is about how you convey or show respect in your sentences (sentence endings) while 높임말 is about the choice of respectful words you use in your sentences.

반말 can be translated as the use of informal or casual speech.

Korean Suffixes

님 = a high-level honorific used to show respect to someone. This is used with people’s names and titles. Koreans can call you using your full name or first name + 님. That is a common way to address someone with respect.

You’ll see the 님 suffix added to job titles. A common 님 usage is with the title of teacher - 선생님.

씨 = used to address people that are roughly on the same level of the social hierarchy. (slightly older or younger than you) An example of this might be two students in class. This is used with a person’s name + 씨. For example, your classmate is named 배지훈.

You address your classmate as 지훈 씨.

아/야 = used with people who are close to you and younger. The format used is name + 아/야. If the name ends in a consonant, then you’ll use name + 아. ㅑIf the name ends in a vowel, then you can use name + 야.

Korean Titles

오빠 - means “older brother”

> used to call a male friend or sibling older than you (used by younger females)

형 - means “older brother”

> used to call a male friend or sibling older than you (used by younger males)

언니 - means “older sister”

> used to call a female friend or sibling older than you (used by younger females)

누나 - means “older sister”

> used to call a female friend/sibling older than you (used by younger males)

동생 - means “younger sibling”

> used to call any person younger than you - can be sibling or friend (used by

older person regardless of gender)

~ 여동생 - younger sister

~ 남동생 - younger brother

선배 - means “senior”

> used to call someone older or a higher position than you at school/work

후배 - means “junior”

> used to call someone younger or in a lower position than you at school/work


This hierarchical culture is followed strictly. Not only just for differences in status but differences in age as well: even a 1-year age difference is considered enough to warrant honorificity. In many situations, you will see Koreans become overjoyed when they learnthat their conversation partner is the same age.

As strange as it may seem, this is important to them.

This is because they can speak freely & comfortably to people of the same age, so they will refer to each other as 친구 (friend) even if not close. If their conversation partner is older, they must use a more polite & formal way of speaking. If they don’t, it could be thought of as disrespectful, embarrassing, or socially insensitive.

Grammar Note:

You’ll see 아/어 드리다 instead of 아/어 주다.

The structure of the first phrase is: verb stem + 아/어/여해 드릴게요. This is commonly used to tell someone that you will do something for them. You can translate it to “I will do … for you.”

If you form this phrase as a question, it’ll be: verb stem + 아/어/여해 드릴까요?

This is commonly used to ask someone if they would like you to do something for

them? It translates to “Shall I do … for you?”.

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