Korean Honorifics: Important Titles, Words, & Phrases

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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

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. 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 people older than you or higher 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 those 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.

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. 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 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.

Korean NounHonorific NounMeaning
댁 (daek)house
성함 (seongham)name
분 (bun)person
생신 (saengsin)birthday
식사 (siksa)rice (meal)
나이 (nai)연세 (yeonse)age
병환 (byeonghwan)disease or sickness
약주 (yakju)Liquor, alcohol
| 자녀 (janyeo)자제분 (jajebun)someone's child
치아 (chia)tooth

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
나 (na)저 (jeo)I
내가 (naega)제가 (jega)I + subject marker
우리 (uri)저희 (jeohui)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, you can just use 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.

Korean Family TitleHonorific Family TitleMeaning
할아버지 (harabeoji)할아버님 (harabeonim)paternal grandfather
할머님 (halmeonim)paternal grandmother
아버지 (abeoji)아버님 (abeonim)father
어머니 (eomeoni)어머님 (eomeonim)mother

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

Korean Family TitleHonorific Family TitleMeaning
형님 (hyeongnim)a male's older brother
누님 (nunim)a male's older sister
오라버니 (orabeoni)a female's older brother
a female's older sister
아들 (adeul)아드님 (adeunim)son
딸 (ttal)따님 (ttanim)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).

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.

Korean VerbHonorific VerbMeaning
뵙다 (boepda)To see or meet
말씀하다 (malsseumhada)To say or speak
드시다 (deusida)To eat
여쭈다 (yeojjuda)To ask
시장하시다 (sijanghasida)To be hungry
데리고 가다
(derigo gada)
모시고 가다
(mosigo gada)
Take someone somewhere
드리다 (deurida)To give
계시다 (gyesida)To be somewhere or exist
드시다 (deusida)To drink
돌아가시다 (doragasida)To die
주무시다 (jumusida)To sleep
아프다 (apeuda)편찮으시다
(pyeonchaneusida)
To be hurt, be in pain

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. Some of them are used in combination with the person’s name, and others just use the title by itself.

님 (nim)

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 남 (nim) suffix added to job titles. For example, if you take a taxi, you can call the driver 기사님 (gisasim), which is a polite way of addressing the driver.

씨 (ssi)

This suffix is used to address people that are roughly on the same level of the social hierarchy. An example of this might be two students in a language class. This suffix is used with a person’s name + 씨 (ssi).

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

선배 (seonbae)

This title is used to address colleagues, fellow students, or mentors who are higher than you in the social hierarchy. An example of this would be a university acquaintance who is a grade above you. The term 선배님 (seonbaenim) is commonly used with classmates who are older than you that you meet for the first time.

후배 (hubae)

The suffix 후배 (hubae) is similar to 선배 (seonbae), except it is used with student acquaintances who are a grade below you. 후배님 (hubaenim) is commonly used in the first meeting.

아/야 (a/ya)

This suffix is used with people who are close to you and 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. 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.

Honorific TitleMeaning
President or CEO
부장님 (bujangnim)Head of Department
차장님 (chajangnim)Deputy Head of Department
과장님 (gwajangnim)Section Chief
대리님 (daerinim)Assistant Manager
계장님 (gyejangnim)Subsection Chief
팀장님 (timjangnim)Team Leader
실장님 (siljangnim)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.

Do I need to learn Korean honorifics?

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. 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.

Honorifics are a different category and are commonly used to show very high levels of respect.

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. 준비해 드릴게요 (junbihae deurilgeyo)

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?
준비해 드릴게요
(junbihae deurilgeyo)
I'll prepare for youHonorific
준비해 줄게요
(junbihae julgeyo)
I'll prepare for youStandard

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

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
준비해 드릴까요?
(junbihae deurilkkayo)
Shall I prepare for you?Honorific
준비해 줄까요?
(junbihae julkkayo)
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. 안녕히 주무세요 (annyeonghi jumuseyo)

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?
안녕히 주무세요
(annyeonghi jumuseyo)
Sleep wellHonorific
Sleep wellStandard

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

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
안녕히 주무셨어요?
(annyeonghi jumusyeosseoyo)
Did you sleep well?Honorific
잘 잤어요?
(jal jasseoyo)
Did you sleep well?Standard

Here’s one more alternative bonus phrase:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
좋은 꿈 꿔요
(joeun kkum kkwoyo)
(I wish you) sweet dreamsStandard
좋은 꿈 꿨어요?
(joeun kkum kkwosseoyo)
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. 많이 드세요 (mani deuseyo)

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?
많이 드세요
(mani deuseyo)
Eat as much as you'd likeHonorific
많이 먹어요
(mani meogeoyo)
Eat as much as you'd likeStandard
많이 마셔요
(mani masyeoyo)
Drink as much as you'd likeStandard

You’ll also hear another variation of this phrase:

PhraseMeaningStandard or Honorific?
맛있게 드세요
(masitge deuseyo)
Have a good mealHonorific
맛잇게 먹어요
(masitge meogeoyo)
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. 식사하셨어요? (siksahasyeosseoyo)

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?
식사하셨어요?
(siksahasyeosseoyo)
Have you eaten?Honorific
밥 먹었어요?
(bap meogeosseoyo)
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. 말씀하세요 (malsseumhaseyo)

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?
말씀하세요
(malsseumhaseyo)
Please speakHonorific
말하세요
(malhaseyo)
Please speakStandard

6. 필립님 계세요? (pillimnim gyeseyo?)

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?
필립님 계세요?
(pillimnim gyeseyo)
Is Philip there?Honorific
필립님 없어요?
(pillimnim eopseoyo)
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. 어머니 봬요? (eomeoni bwaeyo)

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 “어머니 봬요 (eomeoni 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?
어머니 봬요?
(eomeoni bwaeyo)
Will you meet your mom?Honorific
어머니 봐요?
(eomeoni bwayo)
Will you meet your mom?Standard

Generally, a Korean wouldn’t say “어머니 봤어요 (eomeoni 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!

Common Korean Honorific Phrase Responses

Here are some useful responses you can use when someone uses an honorific phrase in conversation with you.

Honorific PhraseMeaningResponseMeaning
드리다 준비해 드릴게요 (deurida junbihae deurilgeyo)I'll prepare for you고맙습니다 (gomapseumnida)Thank you
준비해 드릴까요? (junbihae deurilkkayo?)Shall I prepare for you?네 준비해 주세요 (ne junbihae juseyo)Yes please prepare for me
주무시다 안녕히 주무세요 (jumusida annyeonghi jumuseyo)Sleep well)잘 자요 (jal jayo)Sleep Well
안녕히 주무셨어요? (annyeonghi jumusyeosseoyo?)Did you sleep well?네 잘 잤어요 (ne jal jasseoyo)Yes I slept well
들다 많이 드세요 (deulda mani deuseyo)Eat as much as you'd like잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meokgetseumnida)I will eat well
식사하다 식사하셨어요? (siksahada siksahasyeosseoyo?)Have you eaten?네 먹었어요 (ne meogeosseoyo)Yes I have eaten
말씀하다 말씀하세요 (malsseumhada malsseumhaseyo)Please speakDon't be shy–start talking!
계시다 필림님 계세요? (gyesida pillimnim gyeseyo?)Is Philip there?아니요 필립 없어요 (aniyo pillip eopseoyo)No Philip isn't here
필림님 계세요? (pillimnim gyeseyo?)Is Philip there?네 잠시만요 (ne jamsimanyo)Yes just a moment please
뵈다 어머니 봬요? (boeda eomeoni bwaeyo?)Will you meet your mom?네 어머니 봬요 (ne eomeoni bwaeyo)Yes I will meet my mom

Note that you wouldn’t use the honorific forms 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.

Common Korean Honorific Verbs With Usage

Below is a summary chart of the most common honorific verbs and the phrases you’ll hear most often using them.

As you use these, remember that they shouldn’t be used to talk about yourself (i.e. first person).

Honorific VerbHonorific PhraseResponse
드리다 (deurida)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 (jumusida)안녕히 주무세요 (Sleep well)잘 자요 (Sleep Well)
안녕히 주무셨어요? (Did you sleep well?)네 잘 잤어요 (Yes I slept well)
많이 드세요 (eat as much as you'd like)잘 먹겠습니다 (I will eat well)
식사하다 (siksahada)식사하셨어요? (Have you eaten?)네 먹었어요 (Yes I have eaten)
말씀하다
(malsseumhada)
말씀하세요 (Please speak)(Don't be shy–start talking!)
계시다 (gyesida)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 (boeda)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.

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

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

    • Avatar for El El

      I wish I had found your site when I began writing my book series. The honorifics gave me fits and I was having such a hard time finding collaborating sources. in regards to a/ya among close friends, am I correct in assuming age is the determining factor when establishing who is higher or lower in the social hierarchy? While the first book has already been printed, I will be able to make improvements on the remaining four books in the series. There are some things I have to tweak and play with because of the genre but I am trying very hard to make sure the language is correct. I’m glad I found your site and will be referencing it more often. Thank you!

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        Hi, El! It’s correct that age is the determining factor in the way people are called. Congratulations on your first book! We are very excited to hear about your books! Please let us know the title! ^^

    • Avatar for Anamika Anamika

      Thank you so much for this . I found Korean is a beautiful language so I’m trying my best to learn it.

    • Avatar for Ella Ella

      I learned english for years until finally know how to write and speak fluently about 50%.
      Learned about 50 % how to speak in chinesse for 4 years.
      Now that I’m interested in korean but really so difficult for me to pronounce and to memorise the word .Thanks for sharing.Appreciate that

      • Avatar for 90 Day Korean 90 Day Korean

        You have amazing language ability, Ella! I believe you’ll be able to learn Korean very fast. ^^

    • Avatar for Naggujja Mary Magdalene Naggujja Mary Magdalene

      Your work is really amazing I gain a lot from it

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