Episode 16
Lesson Recap

Speech Levels of the Korean Language (with Review of Speech Styles) & 6 Verbs of Daily Routine

Key Points &
  • Speech levels are a means of showing the speaker’s perception of the hierarchy among three parties in a conversation, namely the speaker, the listener, and the referent.

  • Speech levels contain three distinct levels of hierarchy: - Neutral, Honorific, and Humble
    - Neutral language connotes a neutral hierarchical relationship.
    - Honorific language elevates the referent.
    - Humble language lowers and humbles someone’s action and, consequently, creates hierarchy between parties.

  • Any verb can be made into honorific form with the honorific infix 시

  • There is NO set way to change a verb into humble form and there are only a handful 'humble' expressions in Korean.

  • 나 일어나요 : I get up (neutral )

  • 할아버지 일어나세요 : Grandfather gets up (honorific )

  • 나 샤워해요 : I take a shower (neutral )

  • 할아버지 샤워하세요 : Grandmother takes a shower (honorific )

  • 나 아침 먹어요 : I eat breakfast (neutral )

  • 할아버지 아침 드세요 : Grandfather eats breakfast (honorific )

  • 나 학교 가요 : I go to school (neutral )

  • 할아버지 일 가세요 : Grandfather goes to work (honorific)

  • 나 집에 와요 : I come home (neutral )

  • 할아버지 집에 오세요 : Grandfather comes home (honorific )

  • 나 자요 : I sleep (neutral )

  • 할아버지 주무세요 : Grandfather sleeps (honorific )

  • 죄송합니다 : I’m sorry (humble )

  • 잘 부탁드립니다 : I ask you to treat me favorably (humble )


Directions: Select the best choices for the blanks to complete the statements about speech levels of Korean.

1. Speech levels of Korean concern the hierarchy between  __________________
a) the speaker and the listener
b) the speaker and the referent
c) the speaker, the listener, and the referent

2. __________ language elevates the referent.
a) neutral
b) humble
c) honorific

3. The speaker would use __________ language referring to one’s own actions when talking to some of higher rank.
a) neutral
b) humble
c) honorific

Episode 16

Hello! This is Kay from EssentialKorean.com. 안녕하세요 여러분! Essential Korean 케이쌤입니다.

As I promised last episode, I’ll talk about speech levels today. Before that though, I want to cover two short dialogues on speech styles:

  • one taken from the Korean drama, “It’s Ok Not To Be OK,” whose original Korean title is 사이코지만 괜찮아 (whose literal meaning is, is a psycho but ok) and

  • another dialogue taken from one of my favorite Korean movies, Christmas in August, produced in 1998. (Fyi, It’s a subdued, slow-paced melodrama imbued with classical Korean sensibilities of romance. You be the judge whether or not to search it up, or go the extra mile and watch it =) )


In both segments, you’ll hear the male characters use 반말 (the casual style), indicated by the absence of “요" in their speech. The female characters use 존댓말 (the polite style), which IS marked with the 요 ending.  At the end of both segments, you’ll hear the female characters expressing feelings of either uneasiness or resentment towards the male characters, because of the male characters' use of 반말 to them.

A bit of a background before we listen to the actual dialogue: In “It’s Ok Not To Be OK,” 주리, the female character, says this to the male character, 강태:  “근데 왜 갑자기 말을 놔요? --

근데 means by the way; 왜 means why; 갑자기 means all of a sudden ; and 말을 놔요 means switch to the casual speech style - putting this all together, 주리 is saying,  why are you using 반말 to me all of sudden? --  In this segment, she’s not really protesting but rather is surprised that he suddenly switched from 존댓말 to 반말 after a long time of strictly adhering to the polite style,  존댓말, towards her. Now, let’s listen to it- notice the absence of 요 in the male’s speaking and the puzzlement in her voice.


Did you notice what I asked you to pay attention to? Listen to it again, in case anyone missed it: 


Now, let’s hear the conversation between the two main characters in Christmas in August: 정뭔 the main male character and 다림 the main female character. Here too, you’ll notice the absence of 요 in his speech style and the presence of 요 in her speech style. Now at the end, you will hear her protesting, 근데 아저씨, 오늘은 왜 반말해요? -- 근데 means by the way; 아저씨 means middle-aged man, but this term carries particular connotation and nuance that it refers to a middle aged men who has no sophistication or class; 오늘은 for today; 왜 why ; 반말해요 doing 반말 -- brought them together, the phrase means by the way, 아저씨,  why are you talking to me in 반말 today?

Both cases show how speech styles can come up in pop culture and create tension or awkward moments.

Let's now listen to a song titled “처음 사랑하는 연인들을 위해,” which means For those who love for the first time, a.k.a. 반말송 by 정용화. The lyrics talk about those awkward moments between two people getting to know each other and falling in love. I selected the part which specifically mentions the hope the narrator has to reach a point in the relationship where the guy and girl can use 반말 to each other. Why? Because 반말, when used right, is an indication of intimacy and closeness. One disclaimer though: I’ll stay true to the literal translation, but in doing so, the naturalness and cute sentiments present in the Korean will have been compromised…

Let’s listen:

우리 서로 반말하는 사이가 되기를

Hoping we’d be in a relationship which uses 반말

아직 조금 서투르고 어색한데도

Although it’s still a bit awkward and unnatural

고마워요 라는 말투 대신

Instead of saying 고마워요

좀 더 친하게 말을 해줄래

Would you talk a little more intimately? (The unsaid but underlying message here is that “instead of talking to me in the  -요 style, like 고마워요, please say 고마워 and talk to me in 반말)

(And here comes the last line, )

우리 서로 반말하는 사이가 될거야

We will become close enough to use 반말 to each other.

Now here come the song without any interruption:


- - - -

Oh well, I got carried away and I played a little longer than I had promised but I didn’t think anyone would mind. Did you enjoy the song? Isn’t it nice? Speaking of songs, I thought it would be fun to use this song and others for our live class which is posted on our website along with the schedule- make sure to check it out, as it will be a great opportunity to learn as well as simply discussing the Korean language and culture.

- - - - - - - - -

We did a bit of review on speech styles, so it’s finally time to turn to today’s topic, Speech Levels. To learn how to use them, we need a certain level of vocabulary and knowledge of grammar, and we are not quite there yet. So, in today’s episode I will provide an outline of speech levels’ important aspects, and put aside a lesson on how they are actually used in the language for a later time.

  1. Simply put, speech levels are a means of showing hierarchy between parties in a conversation. Showing respect to your grandmother or boss, or identifying yourself as equals with a co-worker: at the end of the day, that’s all speech levels do.

They concern the hierarchy among three parties involved in a given context: the speaker, the listener, and the referent who is being referred to in the conversation. Compare that to speech styles, where the speaker determines the speech style based on the relationship between the speaker and the listener and the situational setting in which the conversation takes place. If you’re having trouble visualizing the difference between speech styles and levels, try to think of them as two axes on a graph. Speech styles can be represented with a horizontal axis for proximity or closeness and speech levels can be represented with a vertical axis for hierarchy. I’ll give an example of the difference: With my son, I talk in 반말, which is marked with an absence of 요 at the end of sentences and is an indication of our relationship being casual and informal. The speech style only concerns the speaker and the listener, which in this case is me and my son. When talking ABOUT my parents with my son, or his grandparents for him, our speech styles will still be in 반말, but we’ll describe my parent’s actions with honorific verbs. If my son uses neutral verbs describing their actions, I'll probably correct him by giving him the appropriate forms of honorific verbs he should use to describe his grandparents’ actions.

I’d also add though that this is a very bare characterization of these concepts and we must acknowledge that these two aspects --  styles and levels -- interplay in intricate ways in presenting the speaker’s perceived nature of the relationship among the speaker, the listener, and the referent.

2. Speech levels contain three distinct levels of hierarchy: Neutral, Honorific, and Humble.

  • Neutral language connotes a neutral hierarchical relationship // one example would be one colleague describing his team member’s action to another colleague; and that action would be a neutral verb because they’re all on an equal level.

  • Honorific language elevates the referent; For example, when a boy is talking to his mom about what his grandparents did, the boy would use honorific language to describe his grandparents actions; and when two colleagues are talking about how their boss manages the company to their clients, they’ll use honorific language to describe the boss’s actions.

  • Humble language lowers and humbles someone’s action and, consequently, creates hierarchy between parties. For example, when a mom describes her son’s action done on behalf of his grandparents, the son’s action would be described with a humble verb; Another example would be when an employee is telling his boss that he’ll ask about the issues at hand to the company’s president, the action of asking will be in the humble form.

3. Any verb can be made into honorific form with the honorific infix 시. We have actually seen a number of honorific expressions in which the 시 infix is embedded in: the syllables 세  and 셔. Here they are: 안녕하세요 ; 안녕하셨어요 ; 안녕히 계세요 ; 안녕히 가세요

I’ll now let you compare a few pairs of sentences with neutral and honorific forms of verbs that involve a daily routine. The first sentence will have the subject I 나 and a neutral verb form; and the second sentence in the pair will have the subject grandfather 할아버지 and the honorific verb form. See if you can hear 시, the honorific infix in the verbs at the end of  the second sentences. Here you go :

나 일어나요 I get up: 할아버지 일어나세요  Grandfather gets up.
나 샤워해요 I take a shower: 할아버지 샤워하세요   Grandmother takes a shower.
나 아침 먹어요. I eat breakfast:  할아버지 아침 드세요 Grandfather eats breakfast.
나 학교 가요 I go to school: 할아버지 일 가세요 Grandfather goes to work.
나 집에 와요  I come home: 할아버지 집에 오세요  Grandfather comes home.
나 자요 I sleep: 할아버지 주무세요 Grandfather sleeps.

Did you hear the difference between the neutral and the honorific? I’ll run through the list, this time without the translation :

나 일어나요: 할아버지 일어나세요 
나 샤워해요: 할아버지 샤워하세요  
나 아침 먹어요: 할아버지 아침 드세요
나 학교 가요: 할아버지 일 가세요
나 집에 와요: 할아버지 집에 오세요 
나 자요: 할아버지 주무세요

Ok, now, #4:

4.  There is NO set way to change a verb into humble form and there are only a handful 'humble' expressions in Korean. We have learned two phrases : Do you remember how to apologize to someone of a higher position? Yes, It’s 죄송합니다 which means I’m sorry in humble form. Do you also remember the ritual expression you can use when you meet someone of a higher position for the first time, asking the person to treat you favorably? If you said 잘 부탁드립니다, you are correct! The 드립니다 in the phrase is a humble verb meaning give, and the expression is asking the person you’re talking to to treat you well.

Ok, so I’ve discussed 4 things that can help characterize speech levels in Korean and it’s now time to wrap up the topic of speech styles and levels of the Korean language covered for the past two episodes.

System of speech levels and styles inherent in the Korean language are complex, and require more in-depth discussion than can be undertaken here. No one whose native language doesn't have these linguistic aspects can grasp the novel concepts and implications completely at first. But surely, as we progress and become more exposed to the Korean language, what seems foreign now will become clear. Just be patient and give it time!

Alright, that’s it for today’s episode. The past two episodes have been a lot of information, and we will definitely practice them more, but make sure to review the episodes’ contents. I promise you that having a solid understanding on speech levels and styles will serve you well as you advance to expand our Korean.

Until next episode, be well, everyone. 고맙습니다. 안녕히 계세요!

*Featured Song >

Title: 반말송  [Bahn-mahl-sohng] For First-time Lovers (2011)
Artist: 정용화 Jung Yong Hwa (CNBLUE)