Korean Honorifics: Important Titles, Words, & Phrases

Last Updated on October 22, 2020 by 90 Day Korean
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What are Korean 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.

If you have listened to K-Pop, watched K-dramas, or have traveled to Korea, then you probably have heard some honorific words or phrases.

Since honorifics have a strong cultural element, it’s important to know what they mean and when to use them. Some of the honorifics you’ll hear all the time, and some of them are so rare you likely will never hear them.

We’ll explain the honorifics that you need to know! Main image for article about Korean honorifics

Below is a free PDF guide that you can download and take with you:

Get “Korean Honorifics” Free PDF Guide

To make the best use of your time studying the language, we highly recommend learning the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). Here is a great resource that you can use to learn in about 1 hour.

Korean Speech Levels

The Korean language has seven different speech levels. These levels are demonstrated in the verb endings. There are three speech levels that are used most often: Formal, standard, and informal. You may also see them listed as high, middle, and low.

Honorifics can be thought of as a special speech level. Koreans use honorific language to communicate respect between the speaker and the subject/listener. Honorifics are used to communicate relative positions in a hierarchy. Typically they’re used to show respect to someone higher in the hierarchy.

Korean Speech Levels vs Honorifics

Korean speech levels are can be thought of as politeness levels. Typically they are verb endings that demonstrate the formality of a situation. For example, you might use an informal speech level with friends or someone the same age as you. You would use the standard speech level for everyday communication. You could use the formal version when giving a speech or a news broadcast. You can use different speech levels to talk about yourself.

Honorifics are used to show respect to the listener or the third person you’re talking about. Honorifics are usually special words (nouns, verbs, verb endings, pronouns, etc) used to show respect. They’re typically used for speaking to someone older than you or higher than you in the social hierarchy. You cannot use honorifics to talk about yourself.

Why Do Koreans Use Honorifics?

Koreans use honorifics to show respect through speech to someone older or higher then themselves in the social hierarchy. That is because the Korean language and culture are hierarchical. Age and status are important in communication and everyday life. That’s one of the reasons why you’ll frequently hear Koreans ask your age when they first meet you, they’re trying to determine where you fit in on the hierarchy (Korean age is different than international age, by the way).

Additionally, honorifics can be used to indicate how close you are to someone. So when you first meet someone, they might use honorific terms to show both respect and lack of familiarity. Then as you get to know each other, they will use fewer or different honorifics and more terms to show that you are closer.

You may be able to use informal language with someone older than you if you are close to that person. It depends on your relationship. When first getting to know someone, you should use polite language.

What are Honorific Terms in Korean?

Honorific terms in Korean are special titles, words, and verbs that are used with people older than you or higher than you in the social hierarchy.  They are used to show respect and distance in the hierarchy. Honorifics are generally broken down into nouns, pronouns, titles, and verbs. We’ll cover them all below, and also let you know which honorifics you need to know!

Korean Honorific Nouns

There are going to be some cases where you’ll want to use special honorific nouns to show respect to someone who is older or higher than you in the social hierarchy. For example, if you were talking with your teacher, you’d likely want to use 생신 (saengsin) instead of 생일 (saengil) for “birthday”. You would want to use this term when talking with your teacher, or about your teacher.

Similarly, you would want to use the word 댁 (daek) instead of 집 (jip) when talking about your grandmother’s house.

Make sure you make an effort to remember the honorific words above. The top 5 are very common, so you will see them used often!

Korean Honorific Pronouns

Here is the list of the most commonly used honorific pronouns. These honorifics should be used when talking with someone older than you.

Korean PronounHonorific PronounMeaning
I
I + subject marker
We

Korean honorific pronouns can take some time to get used to. Typically Koreans don’t use the 2nd person “you” pronoun. If you are close friends, or if they are significantly younger than you, then you can address them by using their name.

Korean Honorific Family Titles

Here’s a list of the most commonly used honorific family titles. For parents, you’ll use different honorific titles depending on whether or not it’s your mother’s parents or your father’s parents.

For siblings, you will use different honorific titles depending on gender and if they are older than you. Some of these terms can also be used with older friends who aren’t necessarily family members. You might also use them with extended family members who are older than you. For example, your older male cousin may be called 사촌오빠 (sachonoppa). They may use them with you if you are younger than they are.

Korean Family TitleHonorific Family TitleMeaning
a male's older brother
a male's older sister
a female's older brother
a female's older sister
son
daughter

Remember that these terms are gender-specific, both depending on who is using them and who they’re used for. Women would say 오빠 (oppa), meaning older brother. Men would say 형 (hyeong) for “older brother”. For “older sister”, 언니 (eonni) is used by women and 누나 (nuna) is used by men.

You may occasionally hear women call the staff at a restaurant by 언니 (eonni), even though that person is not really their older sister. It’s a common way of nicely calling out to the staff between women.

Korean Honorific Verbs

Here is a list of the common verbs and their honorific form. These verbs are used when you’re talking about or to someone that is higher in the social hierarchy then you are. They would also be used with someone older than you.

For example, let’s say you were talking to your grandmother about meeting someone. In that case, you would use the honorific form of the verb 보다 (boda), which is 뵙다 (boepda).

Additionally, you would use 뵙다 (boepda) to talk to your friend about meeting your grandmother.

The honorific form of the verbs can be used with people you aren’t on familiar terms with. You wouldn’t use the honorific forms with children or with your friends.

Honorific Korean Suffixes & Forms of Address

Below are some common Korean suffixes and forms of address that you’ll commonly hear. These are titles you can use when you need to address someone. Someone may use these titles to address you as well. Some of them are used in combination with the person’s name, and others just use the title by itself.

The Korean suffix 님 (nim) is a high-level honorific used to show respect to someone. This suffix is used with people’s names and titles.

Below, you can see the 님 (nim) suffix added to job titles. For example, if you take a taxi, you can call the driver 기사님 (gisa nim), which is a polite way to address the driver. A common 님 (nim) usage is with the title of teacher, 선생님 (seonsaeng nim).

If you go to a hospital in Korea, they’ll call you by saying your name + 님 (nim). That is a common way to address someone with respect. When going to a store, 고객님 (gogaek nim) is used. The 님 (nim) is attached to the word 고객 (gogaek), which means “customer”.

What does nim mean in Korean?

The word 님 (nim) could be roughly translated to “Mr.” or “Madam” in English.

This suffix is used to address people that are roughly on the same level of the social hierarchy. They may be slightly older or younger than you, but you’re roughly at the same hierarchy level because of the situation. An example of this might be two students in a language class.

This suffix is used with a person’s name + 씨 (ssi). For example, let’s say you are speaking to your classmate 배지훈 (Bae JiHun). In that case, you may address your classmate as 지훈 씨 (JiHun ssi). Your teacher would also address him as 지훈 씨 (JiHun ssi).

What is the difference between the Korean titles 씨 (ssi) and 님 (nim)?

This title is used to address colleagues, fellow students, or mentors who are higher than you in the social hierarchy. Notice that it has the 님 (nim) suffix at the end, which shows respect.

An example of when this would be used is with a university acquaintance who is older than you or a grade above you. The term 선배님 (seonbae nim) is a common way to address fellow students who are older than you that you meet for the first time.

The suffix 후배 (hubae) is similar to 선배 (seonbae), except it is used with student acquaintances who are younger or a grade below you. 후배님 (hubae nim) is commonly used to address those younger than you when meeting for the first time. Koreans often ask ages early on to figure out who is older or younger.

Although 후배님 (hubae nim) isn’t used with someone older than you, the suffix 님 (nim) is still used to show respect.

/

This suffix is used with people who are close to you and younger, or lower than you on the social hierarchy. You might hear parents using this suffix along with their kid’s names. 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 Business Honorifics

For business honorifics, you’re going to add the 님 (nim) to the end of the workplace title. You will want to use this with anyone older than you, higher on the social hierarchy, or not yet on familiar terms with. The suffix 님 (nim) is similar to saying “Mr.” or “Madam”.

If you have close friends at work, you can just call them by their first name. This is ok even if they are older than you, as long as you’ve confirmed it’s ok to speak informally.

Honorific TitleMeaning
President or CEO
Head of Department
Deputy Head of Department
Section Chief
Assistant Manager
Subsection Chief
Team Leader
General Manager

The honorific terms above are key words to know if you plan to work at a company in Korea, or if you’re just curious about Korean work culture.

The Simple Way to Understand Korean Speech Levels

The Korean language has a few different levels of speech, which could be new to native English speakers. These levels are integrated into the grammar and vocabulary and are used according to the differences in social rank between the people who are communicating. There are various ways of breaking them down, but we can do it by simply saying there are three levels of speech: Formal, standard, and informal.

The formal is to show respect, the standard is for everyday speech, and the informal is for close relationships. You can consider honorifics to be formal speech. However, keep in mind that honorifics are their own separate category.

Do I need to learn Korean honorifics?

Yes, you should learn some of the most commonly used honorifics. That is because you are likely going to hear them in everyday speech and in dialogues with Koreans. You will want to use them in specific cases to show respect and knowledge of the proper words.

Honorifics are a different category from speech levels, but they can be used together. They are used to communicate politeness and are commonly used to show very high levels of respect.

For example:

  • 생일 축하합니다 – Formal without honorifics. 생일 is the normal word for “birthday”. 입니다 is formal.
  • 생일 축하해요 – Standard without honorifics. Still using 생일,  but the 해요 form is standard.
  • 생신 축하드립니다 – Formal with honorifics (생신 and 드리다).

As far as speech levels are concerned, you can get by in almost all situations in Korea if you learn the standard and a bit of the formal. The standard will be polite enough to interact with new acquaintances and people who are higher up in the social rank than you. Knowing a small amount of the formal will allow you to recognize what people are saying to you in certain situations.

For example, a store clerk may ask you a question in the formal, while also using an honorific title. It’s perfectly polite for you to reply using the standard and not use an honorific title. Store and restaurant employees will usually talk to you in the formal since you’re the customer and they are showing respect to you.

How to Use Korean Honorifics

Honorifics are used to talk about or to soemone older than you to show respect. you wouldn’t use them to talk about yourself.

For example:

A: 안녕히 주무셨어요? (annyeonghi jumusyeosseoyo?)

Did you sleep well?

B: 네 잘 잤어요 (ne jal jasseoyo)

Yes I slept well

In response, you would use 자다 (jada) for the verb sleep. The honorific verb 주무시다 (jumusida) would not be used when talking about yourself.

Which Korean Honorifics are most common?

The nouns and verbs are not as useful as their standard counterparts, so you likely won’t use them as often. However, they do pop up in certain situations, so let’s cover the common ones so you know how to respond.

First, we’ll go over a sample phrase, explain the verb, and give you the everyday version of the verb. Next, we’ll illustrate with some examples and bonus expressions.

At the end of the post, we’ll give you a summary of the honorific phrases along with some sample responses so you can swiftly and effortlessly power glide through these pitfalls.

Common Korean Honorific Phrases

1.

You’ll hear this expression and forms of it used very often when you’re in the customer role. This could be at a cafe, gym, restaurant, or phone repair shop. The store employee is going to be either saying what will be done for you or asking what can be done for you.

The base formal verb here is “드리다 (deurida)”. Here is how this the honorific form of the verb is used compared to the standard form of the verb.

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
I'll prepare for youHonorific
I'll prepare for youStandard

You may also hear this honorific verb used as a question.

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Shall I prepare for you?Honorific
Shall I prepare for you?Standard

So feel free to use either form of this verb and know that they are interchangeable. If you want to simplify your life, stick with using “주다 (juda)”. For conversation, make sure you know how to recognize the honorific form of the verb, which is “드리다 (deurida).”

If you want to show your honorific skills, then use “드리다 (deurida)” with people you aren’t close with or who are higher in the social rank than you are.

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2.

Imagine, it’s the end of the night, and you’re ready for bed. You check your phone and read a text message from your friend that says “안녕히 주무세요 (annyeonghi jumuseyo)”. You suspect that it has something to do with sleep, but that doesn’t sound right. After all, the verb for sleep is much simpler than that!

Your friend is being extra polite using the special formal version of the verb for sleep. “주무시다 (jumusida)” is the honorific version of the verb “자다 (jada)”, which means to sleep. The first part “안녕히 (annyeonghi)” is similar to “farewell”, and is used in a variety of expressions. We’ll focus on the “주무시다 (jumusida)” for this part since it’s the main key verb.

Here’s the comparison of the honorific vs. the regular form of the verb:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Sleep wellHonorific
Sleep wellStandard

You may hear the honorific or the standard version of this question in the morning:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Did you sleep well?Honorific
Did you sleep well?Standard

Here’s one more alternative bonus phrase:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
(I wish you) sweet dreamsStandard
Did you have good dreams?Standard

The verb “주무시다 (jumusida)” isn’t used very often in everyday conversations in Korea, but best to be prepared when you hear it so you can reply appropriately!

3.

Get ready to hear this one right before you’re about to chow down on some tasty bokkeumbap or samgyeopsal. What does it mean? Do I have something on my face? Or did I forget to take off my name tag from the language exchange meetup I went to earlier in the afternoon?

The showcase verb here is “들다 (deulda)”, which has two meanings. It can be used to express eating or drinking. In the case of this expression, the speaker is wishing you a good meal. The literal translation is “eat as much as you like”. Let’s cover this one is more detail.

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Eat as much as you'd likeHonorific
Eat as much as you'd likeStandard
Drink as much as you'd likeStandard

You’ll also hear another variation of this phrase:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Have a good mealHonorific
Have a good mealStandard

It sounds a little funny to use “delicious” as an adverb in English. For example, you wouldn’t say “eat deliciously” when sitting down with your family at the dinner table. However, this makes more sense in Korean. Remember to wait until the oldest person at the table starts eating before you do!

4.

Just when you thought you were out of the woods with the eating verbs, they come right back again! In this case, the word “식사 (siksa)” means “meal” or “eat”. However, if you couple it together with the verb “하다 (hada)”, it can be used as a special honorific verb meaning “to eat”.

This one comes up fairly often, so commit to memory and get used to hearing it in your conversations.

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Have you eaten?Honorific
Have you eaten?Standard

All of this food talk is making me hungry! Keep these eating-related verbs in mind, and march into your nearest restaurant to put them to the test!

5.

Image, you’re trying to find a repair store to fix your favorite watch, but you can’t seem to locate one in Seoul. You decide to call the information hotline “120”, and come to find that all of the English-speaking operators are busy. The helpline employee says in very basic English to call back later, but you decide that you’re not going to wait a minute longer.

Bravely, you tell the counselor that although you don’t speak the language fluently, you’ll try to express what you’re looking for. The counselor responds with “말씀하세요 (malsseumhaseyo)”.

Malsome—what?

This one might be one of the easier ones to remember since it resembles its mid-level counterpart, “말하다 (malhada)”. If you guessed that this word means “to say or speak”, then you’d be spot on!

Let’s get an overview:

Honorific PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Please speakHonorific
Please speakStandard

6.

Let’s say you place an Internet order through Gmarket. Let’s also say your name is Philip. You get a phone call from an unrecognized number, and the voice on the other end says “필립님 계세요 (pillimnim gyeseyo)?”. You recognize the Philip part, and that it’s probably the delivery person, but the rest is a mystery. What is this person saying?

The verb “계시다 (gyesida)” is the special honorific form of the verb “to be”. You may also hear “안 계세요 (an gyeseyo)”, which means “not to be”. Let’s piece together this puzzle!

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Is Philip there?Honorific
Is Philip not there?Standard

This one will often come up when talking on the phone, so be prepared the next time you press the “answer” button and start chatting.

7.

What are you up to this weekend? Heading out to see Mom, right? If your friends know this, then they may confirm by asking you “어머니를 자주 봬요 (eomeonireul jaju bwaeyo)?

What on earth are they talking about? Koreans highly value respect towards those higher in the social rank, and parents definitely fall into this category! Accordingly, expect to hear and see the verb “뵈다 (boeda)” when talking about meeting people higher up the ladder.

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
Will you meet much of your mom?Honorific
Will you meet much of your mom?Standard

Generally, a Korean wouldn’t say “어머니를 자주 봤어요 (eomeonireul jaju bwasseoyo)” because they would use the more polite verb to talk about their mom. However, if you’re not Korean, you can get away with it!

If you want to learn more about Korean, we have a structured online language program that will teach you how to have a 3-minute Korean conversation in the first 90 days.

What questions do you have about honorific words and titles? Let us know in the comments below!

    17 replies to "Korean Honorifics: Important Titles, Words, & Phrases"

    • Avatar for Shei Shei

      If i say someone’s name + 님 once, can i just use 님 by itself when i keep referring to them, like people do with 오빠 누나 etc.. Or do i have to keep saying their name too

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, Shei! You should keep saying their names with 님. ^^

    • Avatar for Wam Wam

      Hello! I noticed in korean variety shows that the older hosts would sometimes call the younger ones their names + bari (e.g. Jeon Sobari, Yang Sebari). Is this a form of honorific term as well or just an endearment? Thank you so much in advance. 🙂

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, Wam! ‘바리’ [Bari] doesn’t mean anything. ‘양세바리’ is how the celebrity introduces himself and that’s why they call him that. ^^

    • Avatar for Yomi Yomi

      Hi! I already learned Hangul during the first year when I started watching Kdramas but the sentences were still a challenge and no sites explained it. Your site is amazing! Knowing about the sentence structure nailed it for me. I’ve bookmarked your page on my phone for further reading. Big thank you!

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Great, thanks for letting us know and for your kind words! ^^

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