What are Korean Honorifics?
Great question! We’ll get to that in just a bit. But first, let’s go over the plan for this article.
Today, we’re going to run you through a few of the more common Korean honorifics that you’re going to hear that may seem like a totally different language at first (especially if you’re a beginner!).
Then, we’ll give you some comparisons so you know how to navigate these tricky language traps.
Before we get rolling full speed ahead, let’s first run through why these Korean honorifics are so confusing.
Korean has a few different levels of speech, which could be extremely confusing for 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.
Understanding and memorizing all of these different forms of the language can seem like quite a daunting task when you first start to learn Korean.
The good news is that you can get by in almost all situations in Korean 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. It’s perfectly polite for you to reply using the standard. Store and restaurant employees will usually talk to you in the formal since you’re the customer and they are showing respect to you.
So, by focusing on the most widely used Korean that gives you the most results, you can significantly cut down your study time.
Hooray for the 80/20 Principle!
Of course, it’s not all good news. As the sagely saying goes:
가시 없는 장미는 없다
(Every rose has its thorn)
The bad news is that even if you will learn the basics of the formal grammar, the Korean language will throw you another curve ball. On top of the formal grammar, there is a set of formal verbs called special honorific verbs that are much different than their normal counterparts. These formal verbs have the same meaning as the standard verbs, but they are completely different.
This is what trips people up!
Why, you ask? Well, when you’re conversing with friends or everyday people, then likely you’ll never see these verbs. They’re not as versatile, so they’re not used as often. This especially goes for you if you don’t have Korean roots, since you’re not expected to follow social conventions.
Since these special Korean honorific verbs not as useful as the standard verbs, you likely won’t use them as often. Then suddenly you’ll hear them in a simple phrase, and it’ll sound like a different language. It can be quite frustrating, especially if you’ve been spending a lot of time studying.
Let’s cover these seven confusing Korean honorifics so you don’t have this problem! 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 Korean phrases along with some sample responses so you can swiftly and effortlessly power glide through these pitfalls.
Sound like a plan? Let’s get to it!
1. 준비해 드릴게요
You’ll hear this expression and forms of it 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”. Let’s meet this verb head on:
|드리다 (to give)|
|Same As||주다||To give|
|Formal Example||준비해 드릴게요||I'll prepare for you|
|Standard Example||준비해 줄게요||I'll prepare for you|
You may also hear this used as a question.
|Formal Example||준비해 드릴까요?||Shall I prepare for you?|
|Standard Example||준비해 줄까요?||Shall I prepare for you?|
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” and know how to recognize “드리다.”
If you’re feeling brave, then mix in “드리다” with people you don’t know well or who are higher in the social rank than you are.
2. 안녕히 주무세요
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 Korean friend that says “안녕히 주무세요”. 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 Korean friend is being extra polite using the special formal of the verb for sleep. “주무시다” is the honorific version of the verb “자다”, which means to sleep. The first part “안녕히” is similar to “farewell”, and is used in a variety of expressions. We’ll focus on the “주무시다” for this part, since it’s the main key verb. Here’s the breakdown:
|주무시다 (to sleep)|
|Formal Example||안녕히 주무세요||Sleep well|
|Standard Example||잘 자요||Sleep well|
And get read for this question in the morning!
|Formal Example||안녕히 주무셨어요?||Did you sleep well?|
|Standard Example||잘 잤어요?||Did you sleep well?|
Here’s one more alternative bonus phrase:
|Standard Example||좋은 꿈 꿔요||(I wish you) sweet dreams|
|Standard Example||좋은 꿈 꿨어요?||Did you have good dreams?|
The verb “주무시다” isn’t used very often in Korean, but best to be prepared when you hear it so you can reply appropriately!
3. 많이 드세요
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”, 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.
|들다 (to eat or drink)|
|Same As||먹다||To eat|
|Same As||마시다||To drink|
|Formal Example||많이 드세요||Eat as much as you'd like|
|Standard Example||많이 먹어요||Eat as much as you'd like|
|Standard Example||많이 마셔요||Drink as much as you'd like|
You’ll also hear another variation of this Korean phrase:
|Formal Example||맛있게 드세요||Have a good meal|
|Standard Example||맛잇게 먹어요||Have a good meal|
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!
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” means “meal” or “eat”. However, if you couple it together with the verb “하다”, it can be used as a special Korean honorific verb meaning “to eat”. This one comes up fairly often, so commit to memory and get used to hearing it in your conversations.
|식사하다 (to eat)|
|Same As||먹다||To eat|
|Formal Example||식사하셨어요?||Have you eaten?|
|Standard Example||밥 먹었어요?||Have you eaten?|
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!
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 Korean fluently, you’ll try to express what you’re looking for in Korean. The counselor responds with “말씀하세요”.
This one might be one of the easier ones to remember, since it resembles it’s mid-level counterpart, “말하다”. If you guessed that this word means “to say or speak”, then you’d be spot on!
Let’s get an overview:
|말씀하다 (to say or speak)|
|Same As||말하다||To say or speak|
|Formal Example||말씀하세요||Please speak|
|Standard Example||말하세요||Please speak|
6. 필립님 계세요?
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?”. 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” is the special honorific form of the verb “to be”. You may also hear “안 계세요”, which means “not to be”. Let’s piece together this puzzle!
|계시다 (to be)|
|Same As||있다||To be|
|Same As||없다||To not be|
|Formal Example||필립님 계세요?||Is Philip there?|
|Standard Example||필립님 없어요?||Is Philip not there?|
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. 어머니 봬요?
What are you up to this weekend? Heading out to see Mom, right? If you’re Korean friends know this, then they may confirm by asking you “어머니 봬요?
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” when talking about meeting people higher up the ladder.
|뵈다 (to see or meet)|
|Same As||보다||To see or meet|
|Formal Example||어머니 봬요?||Will you meet your mom?|
|Standard Example||어머니 봐요?||Will you meet your mom?|
Generally, a Korean wouldn’t say “어머니 봤어요” 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!
Korean Honorifics Summary Chart
As promised, we’ll make sure to wrap up with a summary chart so you how to navigate these honorific hazards.
Before we do, three quick points to clarify:
- This was a breakdown of the special case honorific verbs only. Although related, the honorific conjugation rules are a whole different story.
- Make sure you don’t use the honorific to talk about yourself (i.e. first person).
- There are other special honorific verbs and words, but we’ll leave that for another day.
Honorific Korean Phrases
|드리다||준비해 드릴게요 (I'll prepare for you)||고맙습니다 (Thank you)|
|준비해 드릴까요? (Shall I prepare for you?)||네 준비해 주세요 (Yes please prepare for me)|
|주무시다||안녕히 주무세요 (Sleep well)||잘 자요 (Sleep Well)|
|안녕히 주무셨어요? (Did you sleep well?)||네 잘 잤어요 (Yes I slept well)|
|들다||많이 드세요 (eat as much as you'd like)||잘 먹겠습니다 (I will eat well)|
|식사하다||식사하셨어요? (Have you eaten?)||네 먹었어요 (Yes I have eaten)|
|말씀하다||말씀하세요 (Please speak)||<Don't be shy–start talking!>|
|계시다||필림님 계세요? (Is Philip there?)||아니요 필립 없어요 (No Philip isn't here)|
|필림님 계세요? (Is Philip there?)||네 잠시만요 (Yes just a moment please)|
|뵈다||어머니 봬요? (Will you meet your mom?)||네 어머니 봬요 (Yes I will meet my mom)|
Nice, you are now an honorary honorific hero! You can proudly strut through the streets of Korea, knowing that any curve balls that are thrown your way will easily get knocked out of the ballpark.
(Job well done!)