Speech Styles of the Korean Language
Key Points &
Speech styles in Korean refer to the degree of formality and are marked in verbs’ ending.
Two speech styles are used in colloquial speech: ‘polite’ and ‘intimate’ speech styles.
Informal-Polite Style: The 요 [yo] ending of a verb marks the speech style to be the informal-polite style. This style is polite enough that you can use it with strangers, yet does not sound too formal or rigid.
Formal-Polite Style: The 니다 [nee-dah] ending marks declarative sentences to be in the formal-polite style and the 니까 [nee-kkah] ending marks questions to be in the formal-polite style.
Intimate Speech Style: The intimate speech style, or 반말 [bahn-mahl], is the speech style used between people in a close relationship, such as friends and siblings, and, depending on the kind of relationship, also between parents and children.
One has to be cautious about switching from the polite style to the ‘intimate’ style because it CAN make the speaker sound rude and impudent when the other party in the conversation does not perceive the nature of the relationship in the same light or with the same level of interpersonal proximity.
안녕하세요 : Hello (informal-polite)
안녕하십니까? : Hello (formal-polite)
모르겠어요 : I don’t know (informal-polite)
모르겠습니다 : I don’t know (formal-polite)
알겠어요 : I see (informal-polite)
알겠습니다 : I see; I got it (formal-polite)
감사합니다 : Thank you (formal-polite)
고맙습니다 : Thank you (formal-polite)
Directions: True or False?
1. “The speech styles in Korean are marked in the verb of a sentence.”
2.” The phrases of gratitude 감사합니다 and 고맙습니다 are in the formal-polite style.”
3. “One should switch to the intimate speech style or 반말 soon after the first encounter because it can bring the relationship closer.”
Hello! This is Kay from EssentialKorean.com.
안녕하세요 여러분! Essential Korean 케이쌤입니다.
Before we get started, I want to announce that I plan to hold a free live class for our listeners! Think of this as a virtual class where you can ask any questions about the previous lessons or just about the Korean language in general. We’ll be posting the details on our website soon, so please check it out! Or, you can sign up for our newsletter and we’ll send you the schedule directly.
Ok, now onto the episode!
Over the next two episodes, I’ll talk about two of the most fascinating topics of the Korean language - Speech Styles and Speech Levels. I truly think these are fascinating topics, but I also empathize completely with those who find the topics too elusive to get a good grasp on. So, I’ll tackle them one at a time, with today’s episode focusing on Speech Styles and how they are used.
Are you ready now? Let’s roll!
Speech Styles in Korean
• Speech styles refer to the degree of formality of speech and are expressed by changing the ending of a verb from its dictionary form. The speaker determines the speech style based on the kind of relationship that exists between the speaker and the listener and/or the situational setting in which the conversation takes place.
• There are quite a few speech styles, but I’ll focus on the two speech styles used in colloquial speech: ‘polite’ and ‘intimate’ speech styles. If you’ve heard the terms 존댓말 and 반말 in Korean, they’re referring to the topic of speech styles, 존댓말 being the polite styles and 반말 being the intimate or direct style.
• All the phrases introduced in EK podcast episodes are in the polite speech style. This speech style keeps a certain degree of distance between the speaker and the listener.
• If you’ve been following EK podcast episodes, you must’ve noticed that most phrases we’ve learned end with '요' [yo]. / That is what we call the ‘informal-polite’ style. 안녕하세요; 누구예요? 어디예요? 언제예요? 모르겠어요, 알겠어요 are just a few examples we’ve learned that we now know are in informal-polite style. As the term suggests, this speech style is polite enough that you can use it with strangers, yet does not sound too formal or rigid.
• The formal-polite style, on the other hand, is both polite and formal; more so than informal-polite which ends in -yo. This is why people adopt the formal polite speech style in business settings or other social settings that call for formality. I’ll discuss more details about formal-polite style at some point in the future; for now, just remember two things: One, questions in the formal-polite style will end with 니까 [nee-kkah]; and statements ( declarative ) with ‘nee-dah’ -니다 in the formal style.
안녕하십니까? which corresponds to How are you, or literally means have you been well, is an example of a question in the formal-polite speech style; and 알겠습니다, 감사합니다, 고맙습니다 are a few examples of statements in the formal-polite speech style.
• A few words about the ‘intimate' speech style 반말: When used appropriately, it creates a close relational atmosphere. It’s often used between friends and siblings, and, depending on the kind relationship, also between parents and children. For example, I use polite style with my father and use 반말 with my mother. I started using the polite style with my father at an early age when, one day, my mother ordered me and my brothers to use the polite style with my dad to show the respect that “the head of the family” deserves. She never asked me and my brothers to use 존댓말 to her though. In my own case, my son and I have always used 반말 to each other. I as a parent made the choice of not asking him to use 존댓말 to me because I wanted the intimate speech style to help create a more close and informal relationship so he can communicate with me more openly. This is one example that reflects the fluid nature of adopting a speech style and how it would differ depending on one’s belief system and even individual personality.
Linguistically, yo is absent in 반말, which in some textbooks might call intimate style and others direct style. So the 반말 form, a.k.a. Intimate style or direct style, of, say, 있어요 is 있어; 없어요 - 없어; 그래요 - 그래, and so on.
However, that is not to say that we can take away the YO at the end of phrases in the polite style and always turn them into the direct speech style or 반말. Forming 반말 is a little more complicated than that. Think of the phrase 안녕하세요: You cannot make 반말 out of this by simply dropping the YO from it. Also, one has to be cautious about switching to the ‘intimate’ speech style because it CAN make the speaker sound rude and impudent when the other party in the conversation does not perceive the nature of the relationship in the same light or with the same level of interpersonal proximity. If these rules seem confusing, please don’t worry: I’ll cover this in detail with far more examples in due time. So I’ll ask you to be patient :-) But, if you can’t wait, check out our courses at courses.essentialkorean.com. I promise it’ll be worth your time.
• If you are a K-drama fan, you might run into a scene where people quarrel over the speech style one uses because the other party interprets it as an act of rudeness. You might also often run into a scene where people explicitly talk it out and mutually agree to switch from polite style to intimate style because they want to have a closer relationship. In a recent episode of a popular drama I watched, one of the female characters cries her heart out over the fact that the guy whom she's been in love with for a long time continues to speak to her in the polite speech style. She witnesses him using 반말 to another girl who also likes the same guy (and therefore is now her love-interest rival) even though he has just recently met her. This is a good example of how one's choice of speech style can result in both positive and negative outcomes, as well as adverse and favorable interpretations, depending on who uses it and how. Interesting, right? Well, the speech styles (and speech levels which are discussed in the next episode) are difficult concepts to grasp for beginners but this is one reason why at the beginning of the episode I said it is a fascinating aspect of the Korean language.
Please give yourself some time and you'll slowly but surely get to see how they work in the language and the kind of role they play in interpersonal relationships!
Ok, I think that’s it for today’s episode on speech styles. I look forward to connecting with you again with the topic on speech levels in the next episode!
Until then, be well, everyone. 고맙습니다. 안녕히 계세요!