Understanding the Korean Language

Professor Sonia Seo-young Chae has joined the Asia Society Korea Center for the “Journey into Hangeul” series. A series that explores the complex nature of Korean language, and its relationship with society. Professory Chae, a leading expert in Linguistics who has taught at Ehwa, Hanyang, Sungkyunkwan, and Sogang university, provides keen insight and perspective on this topic. She responds to questions regarding the intricate relationship Korean language plays in social structure, inter-personal relationships, and thought process. She is able to answer these questions deftly using creative narrative, and drawing upon her historical and professional knowledge of the language. 

1. Korean is a language with various levels of politeness. How did these levels evolve historically?

Early examples of the complex speech level system in the Korean language can be traced back to the start of the Silla Dynasty which started in 57BC during the Three Kingdom Period of Korea. The first examples of this system appeared in hyangga poems. These poems, written in the Idu system of abbreviated Chinese script, contained characters such as 賜, 白, and 音 which expressed deferential speech (Park 1989, p. 95-96). The earliest Korean documentation of speech levels was during the 15th century when King Sejong and his scholars created Hangul, the Korean writing system. Koreans had always spoken Korean, but up until this time had been using Chinese characters for writing until the invention of Hangul in 1443. By this time, speech levels already existed in their fully-fledged form.
It seems plausible to track the origins of speech levels to the strict hereditary social class system of ancient Korea. The Silla Dynasty was recognized for its hierarchical system known as the “bone order”. Similarly, the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) also distinguished nobility from common people. In addition, the more recent Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) had a hereditary status system based on Confucian ideals, but was more complicated in its detail and similar to India’s caste system in its strictness. During this period, the divisions between royalty, nobility, commoners (farmers, artisans, blacksmiths, and merchants), slaves (personal or public) and outcasts (such as butchers) were rigid and clear.
From this soil emerged speech levels, which expressed not only the formality of the situation, but also levels of deference towards the listener, as well as the subject, the object or the complement of a sentence.

2. How complex is this honorific system of speech and how is it taught?

Korea’s honorific system is quite complicated. To be exact, though people often refer to it as ‘honorifics’, the Korean speech level system is not just an honorific system. Honorifics usually describe language that honors the other party, often by using honorific address terms. Korean, however, not only has different terms of address to honor the listener, but also multi-tiered speech levels, which include expressions of lowering of self (e.g., calling oneself as “jeo(저)” instead of “na(나)”), honoring of the subject, object, and complement of the sentence, as well as honoring of the listener. The choice of the level for each component is determined by the following three factors; (1) the relative status differences between the interlocutors, (2) the degree of intimacy or solidarity between them, and (3) the formality of the speech situation. For example, in Korea a mother and her daughter have a clear social status difference, but they may use lower level speech to each other (perhaps with the exception of a few words) because they are intimate and conversing in an informal situation.

This system may sound extremely difficult to acquire, but all Koreans acquire it without much difficulty. Even kindergarten children are aware of the speech levels and use at least two informal endings (-haeyo 해요, and -hae 해). The rest of the levels are acquired at different stages of life, in particular as they go through the school system. The highest and most formal levels, such as –hapnita (합니다), are acquired and used in the military and at work. Therefore, male speakers, especially those who underwent mandatory military training and have paid occupations, tend to use the highest level more frequently than females.

Since Korea has a tradition of avoiding using one’s first name, addressing others and talking to people can be a very difficult task in Korea’s business world and sometimes in everyday life. Unfortunately, mastery of the honorific system is a great challenge for most foreigners. Therefore, most learners of Korean are advised to stick with the higher two levels (“-haeyo” and “-hapnita”) to avoid ruffling feathers.

3. Many scholars say that traditionally there were 8 levels of verbal endings, of which 4-6 are still in use today. Why do we see a decline in these numbers of levels?

The decline in the number of speech levels is a natural consequence because Korea is no longer a strict class society. For example, the highest level verbal endings which are reserved for royalty and nobility are all but obsolete. The highest level verbal endings such as “-haopsoseo (하옵소서)” are still found in contemporary Korean but limited to prayers to God. Two middle levels of the formal verbal endings –hao (하오) and –hage (하게) are used limitedly by older male speakers only. High-level vocabulary items, such as jinji (진지, ‘meal’) are not as often used as before. Instead, more simple words such as shiksa (식사) are more often used these days.
During the Joseon Dynasty, the societal class system was quite rigid and Korean people abided by the system until 1945, when Korea won independence from Japanese colonialism. During the 1950-1953 Korean War, the society underwent great upheaval which brought about drastic changes to Korea in terms of the structure of population and social values.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that because the number of speech levels has reduced, the speech level system has become simpler. Speakers are currently mixing existing endings or creating new ones, such as -haeyum (해염), -haeyom (해욤), -haem (햄), -ham(함), or -handang (-한당). More importantly, the choice of level still has to be made for each sentence (or each word, in some cases) during interpersonal verbal exchanges. Thus, it is always possible to either unwittingly offend or please others. In my presentation at the Asia Society Luncheon in March 2015, I mentioned how often the use of wrong words, speech levels, or inappropriate address terms in Korea has led to fights and even murder. Therefore, what matters more is not the number of levels, but how rigorously these levels are used which affect Korean people’s daily lives and social relationships.

4. Is Korea’s evolving social system having an impact on its language?

As society evolves, its language also changes, albeit more slowly. Korean society is obviously becoming more egalitarian. This will someday lead to a change in language. But for the time being, Koreans still have to respect hierarchical status differences between people, because this difference is deeply ingrained in their use of language.

Language often provides a framework in perceiving the world. Even though there is no longer a strict social class in Korea, which was used as the single most important factor in choosing a speech level, levels of status are still produced based on other factors in modern Korea, such as age, school year, military rank, occupational rank, rank in the kinship system, and seniority (based on the duration of service in the current job).

This behavior of choosing language levels affects how Koreans view other people and the way they think of others. In Korea, whenever there is more than one person, you need to know whether the person is above, equal, or below you in status, in order to use speech levels properly. Unless the person is born in the same year and went to school in the same year as you, you cannot really be of equal level. Moreover, whenever the deciding factors (such as age and rank) some into conflict, you will find yourself in a difficult situation. For instance, everyone will have pity on you if you mention that your boss is younger than you, or if your niece is older than you. In these kind of situations, I hear that most people try to avoid each other as much as they can.

In other words, Korean people are under constant pressure to use appropriate levels of language to the people they encounter or speak about. In ancient times, the use of speech levels had clear-cut rules to follow. Now, however, the rules and conditioning factors are rather vague. As a result, one’s character and relationships are at stake every time one utters a word. Even though most people do not realize how important their language is in giving good impressions and forming good relationships, verbal exchanges and the choice of address terms matter significantly. Therefore, numerous job titles in their polite form, such as “sajangnim (사장님, president, CEO)”, or “bujangnim” (부장님, General Manager)” are used to address others, or kinship and family terms such as “imo” (이모, ‘mother’s sister’), “hyeong” (형, ‘brother’) and “eonni” (언니, ‘sister’) are used whenever people feel close or want to create a sense of intimacy. I am confident that most people, including foreigners, have at least one experience of being asked of their age, or politely requested to be called as “eonni (sister)” or “hyeong” (older brother).

I heard that some Koreans enjoy a sense of freedom when they are able to use the same pronoun “you” to everyone in English. Actually, English is better in the sense that a seven-year-old boy and a ninety-year-old man can be friends, since in Korea its speech system will prohibit them from becoming friends from the outset. A friend of mine who is a bilingual Korean American, once told me that he feels that the way he relates to people in Korean is very different from the way he does so in English. He said, “I am the same person, but those two sets of interactions are very different”. I believe that many of these differences are driven by language. 

5. Do you foresee any changes in the Korean language in the future?

As Korean society changes in many aspects, such as the elimination of social class and an improvement in woman’s status, its language will also change. The highest levels of speech used exclusively for royalty and nobility are not in everyday use any more. Current high level verbal endings and vocabulary, such as 진지 잡수셨습니까? (‘Have you eaten?’), are seldom used, even for one’s grandfather. Therefore, it is plausible to posit that the speech level system will be lowered, simplified and eventually vanish over time, but it will not disappear instantly. Unless the government enforces a groundbreaking language policy, Koreans will continue to use these complex levels for a long time, because although language may be a product of society and culture, it has a life of its own similar to a living organism. For instance, the Korean military recently announced that soldiers may use informal verbal endings, and claimed that the military do not have (and never have had) an official regulation on the use of verbal endings. However, the “customary” use of highest formal endings has already formed a unique “military style”. The style is quite well-known and easily recognized by civilians as an emblem of soldiers. Therefore, the reduction of the speech levels may not take place in the near future.

On the other hand, some Koreans believe that this complex speech level system is a cultural asset which enables people to pay respect to each other. Some even believe that these speech levels provide authority to the moral code, “상명하복” (superiors give orders, and the subordinates follow the orders), which is considered an efficient and righteous system for some people. Perhaps, an egalitarian society is not every Korean’s ideal, at least subconsciously in terms of using language.

Therefore, I do not foresee any instant or radical changes in the near future, even though those complex levels will gradually be simplified. I would like to continue to remind people that the speech levels, reflecting the old social hierarchical system at times, can dictate or act as barriers in forming good relationships. Therefore, we need to be aware of how we are using speech levels if we want to maintain good relationships and give good impressions.
To be on the safe side, you may opt to use higher levels to everyone you encounter, but that will sacrifice intimacy. Jokingly, some Koreans say that English is easier. In fact, in this sense, almost all other languages are easier. I should add that there are other areas in which the Korean language is easier, such as the absence of grammatical gender or complicated verb conjugations, but I have to admit that the complicated speech level system is an area in which Koreans waste a lot of energy.