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Essential Korean Honorifics: How to Address Everyone Correctly in Korea

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 suffixes and other titles you’ll need to know to thrive in your Korean conversations!

Contents


Most 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.

Note that 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.

Here are some of the most common Korean honorifics you’ll need to know.

1. (shi)

Meaning: Mr./Mrs./Miss

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 (Kim Young-chul shi, or “Mr. Kim Young-chul”)
  • Or to be more casual, 영철 (Young-chul shi, or “Mr. Young-chul”)

But you would not say 김 (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.

Example sentences

서준 , 무슨 음식을 좋아하세요? (Mr. Seok-jin, what food do you like?)

지안 , 나이가 어떻게 되세요? (Mrs. Ji-an, how old are you?)

2. ­(nim)

Meaning: Mr./Mrs./Miss

If you want to go the extra mile of respect, 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 선생 (seon-saeng-nim — teacher) or a 목사 (mok-sa-nim — pastor). 

You can use this after a full name or after a first name.

Example sentences:

선생, 저는 질문 있어요 (Teacher, I have a question.)

사장, 회의가 언제예요? (Boss, when is the meeting?)

3. 선배 (sun-bae)

Meaning: Senior

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.

Example sentences:

선배님, 조언 좀 해주세요 (Senior, please give me some advice)

선배님, 함께 일하면서 많이 배우고 있어요 (Senior, I am learning a lot from working together)

4. 후배 (hu-bae)

Meaning: Junior

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.

Example sentences:

후배들, 오늘은 고생 많았어요 (Juniors, you worked hard today)

후배들, 항상 최선을 다해요 (Juniors, always do your best)

5. (goon)

Meaning: Mr. (young men)

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. 

Example sentences:

하준 , 오늘 식사 어때요? (Ha-joon, shall we have a meal together today)

지호 , 오늘 수고 많았어 (Ji-ho, you worked hard today)

6. (yang)

Meaning: Miss (young women)

This is the same as , but for young and unmarried females. 

Example sentences:

하린 , 너의 도움이 필요해 (Ha-rin, I need your help)

수아 , 너의 의견에 동의해요 (Su-ah, I agree with your opinion.)

7. 귀하 (gwi-ha)

Meaning: Dear, to/Formal pronoun for reader or listener

This honorific is very formal and one you’ll likely see more often in writing than in conversation.

귀하 can translate 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).

Example sentences:

귀하의 의견을 소중히 생각하고 있습니다 (We value your opinion highly)

귀하의 지원에 감사드립니다 (We appreciate your support)

Common 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:

8. 오빠 (op-pa)

Meaning: Older brother (to a female)

This title is used when a female is referring to her older brother or an older brother-like figure.

Example sentences:

오빠, 피곤해요? (Are you tired?)

같이 가요, 오빠 (Let’s go together)

9. (hyung) 

Meaning: Older brother (to a male)

This is used by males when they are referring to an older brother or an older brother-like figure.

Example sentences:

, 오랜만이에요! (It’s been a while!)

지금 바빠요, ? (Are you busy right now?)

10. 누나 (nu-na)

Meaning: Older sister (to a male)

When a male is referring to an older sister or an older sister-like figure, he’ll use this title. 

Example sentences:

누나, 어디 가요? (Where are you going?)

누나, 잘 지냈어요? (How have you been?)

11. 언니 (un-ni)

Meaning: Older sister (to a female)

When a female is referring to her older sister or an older sister-like figure, she uses 언니.

Example sentences:

언니, 제일 좋아하는 색깔이 뭐예요? (What’s your favorite color?)

언니, 지금 뭐 하세요? (What are you doing right now?)

How to Use Honorifics in Korean

When deciding which honorific title to use for somebody, it’s important to consider what your relationship is. Are they a stranger? Are they much older than you? Do they have a particular role or position such as 선생님 (teacher)? These are all situations where you should use honorific terms.

You may need to politely ask for someone’s name (이름이 어떻게 되세요?) if you plan on using suffixes such as 님 or 씨.

It’s important to bear in mind that you should also use the appropriate speech politeness level along with the honorific. Read this guide to find out more about how to do this.

Honorific Verbs

Korean also has a number of different honorific verbs. These are more polite versions of the standard verb, and are used to show respect to older people, or people in a “higher” position than you. For example:

  • 말하다 (to speak) → 말씀하시다 (honorific form of “to speak”)
  • 먹다 (to eat) → 드시다 (honorific form of “to eat”)
  • 주다 (to give) → 드리다 (honorific form of “to give”)
  • 있다 (to be/to exist) → 계시다 (honorific form of “to be/exist”)

Additionally, there is the honorific particle -시 or -으시 which can be added to standard verbs to make them more polite. The way they’re written and pronounced will change depending on which speech politeness level you are using (e.g. in the polite form, 가시다 becomes 가세요.)

  • 가다 (to go) → 가시다 (honorific form of “to go”)
  • 오다 (to come) → 오시다 (honorific form of “to come”)
  • 하다 (to do) → 하시다 (honorific form of “to do”)
  • 모르다 (to not know) → 모르시다 (honorific form of “to not know”)

Honorific Pronouns

There is a range of different pronouns you can use for yourself and others in Korean, but it’s important to note that not all pronouns can be used in polite or formal situations.

  • 나 (casual “I”) → (formal “I”)
  • 우리 (casual “our”) → 저희 (formal “our”)

The casual term for “you” in Korean is , but for polite and formal settings, you will generally just use the person’s name with the appropriate suffix, or their title.

Honorific Nouns

In Korean, there are also different honorific nouns that are used when talking about objects in relation to someone in a higher position than you. You generally use these terms whether you’re talking to, or about, the person.

For example:

  • 집 (house) → (honorific for “house”)
  • 사람 (person) → (honorific for “person”)
  • 나이 (age) → 연세 (honorific for “age”)
  • 이름 (name) → 성함 (honorific for “name”)

More Honorific Titles in Korean

Korean Honorific TitleEnglish Translation
교수님 Professor
부장님 Manager
회장님 Chairman
이사님 Director
사장님 CEO/President
사모님 Mrs./Madam
부모님 Parents
회원님 Member
고객님 Customer
여사님 Madam/Wife
신부님 Priest
목사님 Pastor
감독님 Director/Supervisor
대표님 Representative
소장님 Chief/Curator
손님 Guest

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.

They can be tricky to master, so if you’re still confused about when all the above terms are used, 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.

The language learning program FluentU has short videos with dual-language subtitles, which will make it easier to spot these honorifics as they come up.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

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By seeing Korean used by native speakers, you’ll understand how honorifics are really used in different contexts. 

 

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!

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