Korean Honorifics: The 15 Most Common Honorifics and How to Use Them
Honorifics are incredibly important in Korean culture for proper conversation and relationship-building.
Forgetting to use them can be seen as very disrespectful.
While this might feel intimidating, don’t worry. I’ve created a list of the essential Korean honorific (and even not-so-honorific) suffixes and other titles you’ll need to know to thrive in your Korean conversations!
- Why Do Koreans Use Honorifics
- Common Korean Honorifics
- Not-so-honorific Korean Titles
- Korean Titles for Family
Why Do Koreans Use Honorifics
Having and demonstrating respect for position is extremely important in Korean culture and one of the best ways to do this is by using the correct words.
In order to demonstrate verbal respect in Korean, we use honorifics to show politeness and understanding of social positions.
Improperly using an honorific can be perceived as disrespectful or amusing. You need to be aware of who you’re talking to (particularly their age and status) so that you may demonstrate the proper amount of respect.
Common Korean Honorifics
The first step to knowing which honorific to use is to know who you’re talking to. If you don’t know the person well, it’s best to use an honorific.
If you’re not sure which honorific is best, it’s okay to ask what someone prefers.
Watching authentic Korean media, like K-dramas, will help you get a better sense of how these fit into actual conversations. You could also use a virtual immersion program.
FluentU has culturally-relevant short videos with dual-language subtitles, which will make it easier to spot these honorifics as they come up.
Here are some of the most common Korean honorifics you’ll need to know.
1. 씨 (shi)
When added to a name, this essentially means Mr./Mrs./Miss. It’s the most common and general honorific, and your go-to for someone who you’re unfamiliar with but is at a relatively equal social and conversational standing.
This suffix should always be attached after the first name of the individual, and not their surname.
For example, you could say:
- 김영철 씨 (Kim Young-chul shi, or “Mr. Kim Young-chul”)
- Or to be more casual, 영철 씨 (Young-chul shi, or “Mr. Young-chul”)
But you would not say 김 씨 (Kim shi). Attaching the suffix to the last name is seen as inappropriate or straight-up rude, so it’s best to avoid it altogether.
2. 군 (goon)
This honorific is not as common as 씨, but it basically means the same thing. This is used for young, unmarried males in a formal occasion.
군 can be attached after the first or last name. It is better to not use this one in everyday conversation as it can be seen as condescending since it may suggest submissiveness or certain gender roles.
3. 양 (yang)
This is the same as 군, but for young and unmarried females.
4. 님 (nim)
If you want to go the extra mile of respect, 님 is the right honorific to use. This is a step above 씨 and generally for those of a profession or notable skill or status, such as a 선생님 (seon-saeng-nim — teacher) or a 목사님 (mok-sa-nim — pastor).
You can use this after a full name or after a first name.
5. 선배 (sun-bae)
This is for someone who is your senior in age or experience that you may encounter at the workplace or at school.
This one can stand alone, so you can just call someone 선배 without having to attach a name.
It is also possible to use this with someone who is younger than you if they have more experience than you.
6. 후배 (hu-bae)
This is the alternative to 선배 as it is used for the person who is more junior in standing.
Once again, this can stand alone and can be used for someone older if they are less experienced.
7. 귀하 (gwi-ha)
This honorific is very formal and one you’ll likely see more often in writing than in conversation.
귀하 translates to “dear”, so you’ll see it most often in formal letters or when a company is addressing a valuable client, often with the full name: 윤희철 귀하 (Yoon Hee-chul-gwi-ha).
Not-so-honorific Korean Titles
Korean also has less formal titles you can use for addressing close friends or those of an equal or lesser position than you:
8. 아 (ah)
These suffixes are added to emphasize if you’re calling out to someone. For example, if you want to catch the attention of your friend 재민 (Jae-min), you may say “재민아!” (Jae-min-ah).
Note that 아 is only attached after a name that ends in a Korean consonant, a good reminder that you should know your Hangul!
We really only use this for good friends or those who aren’t our superiors. It’s also common for parents to use this for children, but you wouldn’t want to address your parents this way!
9. 야 (ya)
야 works similarly to 아 but is attached to names ending in Korean vowels, not consonants. So for someone named 연지 (Yun-jee), you can say “연지야” (Yun-jee-ya) but not “연지아.”
Children are often recipients of this suffix. In some cases, it’s an affectionate suffix that marks an intimate or informal relationship.
Keep in mind that the word 야 also serves as an interjection, or exclamation, when not used as a suffix to a name. In that case, it works a lot like an informal “Hey!” in conversation.
For example, “야! 너 일로 와” (Ya! Nuh ee-llo wa — “Hey! Come here, you”). This 야 is commonly used when someone is agitated or angry at someone else. Make sure you use 야 as intended or you might end up in an awkward situation.
10. 놈 (nom)
This is a more derogatory way to refer to a male as it highlights his negative qualities.
This title doesn’t need a name and can be used after an insulting word to make it more intense.
Between good friends, this can be used in a more teasing manner, but it’s best to avoid using this in everyday situations.
11. 년 (nyun)
This is the same as 놈, but for females. Once again, be careful about when you use this one.
Korean Titles for Family
Korean culture has strong Confucian values that really place importance on respecting elders, especially within the family
When it comes to siblings, younger Korean siblings refer to their elder siblings using special titles, often in place of their real names, while elder siblings in turn can call their younger siblings their given names.
The same titles can also be used for those who are not biologically related, but are still older than you and are okay with being addressed more familiarly:
12. 오빠 (op-pa)
This title is used when a female is referring to her older brother or an older brother-like figure.
13. 형 (hyung)
This is used by males when they are referring to an older brother or an older brother-like figure.
14. 누나 (nu-na)
When a male is referring to an older sister or an older sister-like figure, he’ll use this title.
15. 언니 (un-ni)
When a female is referring to her older sister or an older sister-like figure, she uses 언니.
Age is important to Korean honorifics, so don’t be surprised if a Korean person asks you how old you are. Also keep in mind that they may be thinking in terms of “Korean age,” meaning following the lunar calendar.
Honorifics are definitely important and something you’ll encounter in Korean every day. However, it can take a long time to grasp them confidently, so don’t worry about getting it all right from the get-go.
With enough practice, you’ll know Korean honorifics like the back of your hand and be able to dish them out to whoever, whenever, like a true native. Good luck!