korean-honorifics

Terrific Honorifics! How to Add Titular Flair to Your Korean

Titles definitely add flair to any name.

In the English-speaking world, it feels special and formal on the occasions when someone makes the effort to call us something fancy like “sir” or “ma’am.”

Using words like this is a way of dressing up our language and being extra polite.

But in Korean, titles are pretty much an everyday affair in conversation, whether you’re with good friends and grooving the latest street talk or suited up and making respect your middle name when addressing your boss or business partners.

So if you’re learning Korean and the particulars of holding a conversation, it’s crucial to know what those titles are and when to use them.

But why all the fuss with how we address other people? Well, as you may know, respect and etiquette are a huge deal in Korea.

In conversation or writing, respect in Korean can be ingrained even in the grammar of one’s words, involving careful noun choice, adding suffixes to certain words or even changing up an entire verb phrase.

Today, we’ll be focusing on honorific suffixes and titles.

Honorifics are words specifically meant to express respect for people like your elders and those in superior positions, social or otherwise.

Usually this matter is straightforward, as you can probably tell when someone deserves an honorific based on their ranking or age. However, honorifics can be simply based on familiarity with a person: Some honorifics show you know someone well enough, but strangers or those you aren’t close to often receive an honorific by default.

Honorifics are incredibly important in Korean culture for proper conversation and relationship-building, and forgetting to use them can be seen as very disrespectful.

So here’s a list of the essential Korean honorific (and even not-so-honorific) suffixes and other titles you’ll need to know!

Must-know Korean Honorifics and Titles for Everyday Talk

The basic rule for figuring out which honorific to use is to know who you’re talking to. You won’t need too much info in order to choose the right honorific, but overall, it’s a safe choice to use an honorific when you first meet someone. It’s considered rude to address a Korean person you don’t know well with their given name, so starting with a title is best.

If you’re confused or uncomfortable about choosing, you can ask the person directly to see which honorific they prefer. Don’t be shy about it, either! Korean honorifics can be a tricky business, so many will be understanding about it.

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You can also use FluentU Korean videos to get a better sense of how people might address each other in real life, according to relationship, age and social status.

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Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:

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Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.

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Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.

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Common Korean Honorifics

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

(goon) / 양 (yang)

Two honorifics that are not as common as 씨 but still about the same in meaning. is used for younger and unmarried males and is for younger and unmarried females. You’ll typically hear these at formal occasions, particularly weddings. One point of distinction from 씨 is that you can attach these two after the first or last name; doing the latter won’t give off a rude connotation like with 씨.

However, though you may occasionally hear these titles used by older folk, nowadays they may be seen as condescending for younger individuals since they can suggest that the listeners are to be submissive or assume certain gender roles. Therefore, while these two titles are useful to know, we recommend you not try to use them in everyday conversation.

님 ­(nim)

If you want to go the extra mile in respect, is your honorific. 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). It may also be heard during client interactions if an employee wants to be extra polite.

선배 (sun-bae) / 후배 (hu-bae)

These are for those who are your seniors or juniors respectively, either in age or experience, and are commonly heard in the workplace or at school. Because these aren’t age-restricted, you can call someone a senior even if they’re younger, should they be more experienced or at a higher position, and someone a junior if they’re older but less experienced. These honorifics can also be stand-alones, meaning they can be a pronoun by themselves—you can just call someone 선배 or 후배.

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” and so you’ll see it most often in formal letters or when a company is addressing a valuable client, often with the full name like so: 윤희철 귀하 (Yoon Hee-chul-gwi-ha).

Not-so-honorific Korean Titles

There are also titles meant for those who won’t command much courtesy. Keep in mind these are only meant for addressing close friends or those of an equal or lesser position than you. For that reason, you can also consider them to be more informal in nature. They’re few in number, but you’ll be hearing them everywhere in casual conversation.

(ah) / 야 (ya)

Two suffixes that are often added to emphasize you calling out to someone. For example, if you want to catch the attention of your friend 재민 (Jae-min), you may say “재민!” (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 only really 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!

야 is also used for good friends or those who are younger or in a lower position than you. It’s similar to 아 in functioning as a “call-out,” but 야 is attached to names ending in Korean vowels, not consonants. So for someone named 연지 (Yun-jee), you can say “연지” (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 another, and in heated situations it makes clear that chummy vibes aren’t quite present. Make sure you use 야 as intended, or you might be caught in a bit of a pickle.

(nom) / 년 (nyun)

By themselves, these are derogatory ways to refer to a male or female, respectively, and in use they highlight the badness or negative qualities of the recipient. These suffixes usually don’t even require the actual name of the recipient—instead, someone can attach an insulting word right before it like 미친 (mi-chin-nom, literally “crazy guy”). Of course, it’s all context-dependent. Like certain insults in any language, these can also be used in a more teasing and affectionate manner between good friends.

Korean Titles for Family or Older Friends

You may already know that age is a bit of a big deal in Korean culture, but why? Like many Asian cultures, Korean culture has been strongly influenced by Confucian values, and the ideas of filial piety and expected respect for your elders still run strong today. Using titles is just one distinct and obvious way of expressing such respect, and studies have shown that Koreans tend to place particularly large importance on age when deciding on honorifics.

By default, 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. While they’re sometimes more terms of kinship than honorifics, these titles still express understanding of the age difference. 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.

Here they are:

  • 오빠 (op-pa): older brother / male figure of a female person
  • (hyung): older brother / male figure of a male person
  • 누나 (nu-na): older sister / female figure of a male person
  • 언니 (un-ni): older sister / female figure of a female person

Note that each of these titles are gender-specific, so a male person wouldn’t call his older brother 오빠 and a female person wouldn’t call her sister 누나.

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So don’t be surprised if quite early in a relationship 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. In these terms, an individual would be one year old on the day they’re born and would age every New Year’s day. This can definitely be confusing for non-Koreans, so here’s a calculator to help you figure out what your Korean age would be.

 

Honorifics are definitely important and something you’ll encounter in Korean everyday. 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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