Korean Honorifics and Speech Levels: Why, When, & How to use

Posted by Habbi Habbi Guest Contributor on

In this post: Learn about Korean honorifics and speech levels. Formal vs informal speech changes, depending on who you are addressing. We discuss what they are, when to use them, and why it’s important to know them when navigating daily life in Korean. We also share how we’ve used them throughout our Korean bilingual book collection and why we chose one speech level over the other in certain cases.


Table of contents: 

  • Why honorifics and speech levels matter  
  • Honorifics
    • Introduction: What you say to whom 
    • Titles: For family members & others (e.g. parents, teachers, etc) 
    • Pronouns, Nouns, and Verbs: Commonly used 
  • Speech levels:
    • Formal, Medium, Informal 
    • Examples of how commonly used expressions (Hello, I Love You) would change depending on context  
  • Combining Honorifics + Speech levels
    • Some common examples comparing and contrasting the same sentence - said to 2 different people 
  • How speech levels manifest in Habbi Habbi Korean collection 


Why honorifics and speech levels matter

In the Korean language, who you are speaking to determines the level of formality with which you speak to them. The concept is similar to what can be found in languages, such as Spanish, where you can speak to/address someone in formal (e.g. “usted”) or informal (e.g. “tu”) manners.

Another way to think of it: the way you talk to your best friend–your way of greeting, your word choice, your demeanor–is probably different from the way you would address the president of the country because the social context and difference in social status calls for it. 

My Love From Another Star"See? Your speech is too short (informal) again." - My Love From Another Star 

The importance of speaking with the right level of respect is higher than what we are used to in English. In Korean, it is considered rude and inappropriate to speak without honorifics in moments when it is culturally expected. If you are talking to someone who is 

  • older than you (e.g. a child to an adult) 
  • has a higher social position than you (e.g. an employee to their boss) 
  • or even a stranger whom you have no relationship with 

… it is expected that you address them a certain way, which is where honorifics and speech levels come in. 

Honorifics = word choice that addresses the other person with respect by lowering yourself  
Speech level = level of politeness that matches the honorifics used 

Honorifics: When to you say what to whom 

I remember getting admonished by my grandma when I called my cousin (older by just two months) by his name - instead of “오빠” (oppa), the word for older brother. This was an early experience that showed me how important honorifics are in Korea. 

As previously mentioned, honorifics are the words you use to address someone and show respect. It starts with the title you use to address the person, and thereafter the noun(s), pronouns, verbs you address them with. Basically, the honorifics you use changes every part of your speech. 

*Note: When beginning to learn Korean, it is not expected that you have a full grasp of honorifics since it is so complex. However, it is definitely good to learn them as you learn in order to better navigate the culture!

Titles in Korean honorifics 

When it comes to titles, hierarchy matters. Is the person older than you? Use honorifics. Is the person in a higher social position than you (e.g. employee vs. boss, student vs. teacher)? Use honorifics. Do you not know the person very well/at all? Use honorifics. 

Korean titles for Family members 

Korean family titles Image source: Naver blog - https://m.blog.naver.com/kbk992/221327711428

You can most easily see honorifics reflected in the way we address family members. For example:

  • We don’t call older siblings or cousins by their names - that would be disrespectful.
  • We address our mother vs mother in law differently - because the proximity and intimacy of our relationships are different. So, I show respect to my in-laws by addressing them with a more formal suffix -nim
  • The titles use change depending on whether I am male or female 

If I am female

If I am male

My older female

언니 (unni)

누나 (nuna)

My older male

오빠 (oppa)

형 (hyung)


엄마 (umma) -or-
어머니 (uh-muh-nee)*

Mother in law 




아빠 (appa) -or-
아버지 (ah-buh-jee)*

Father in law 



*more formal way

Fun Freebie: We have a helpful (and free) “Family Tree” Printable Worksheet to help with all the different family titles!

Korean titles for Others 

You may have noticed that on Korean TV (news, dramas, variety shows), we see people using (-shi) and 님 (-nim) when addressing people or attached to user names, in the case of social media. On when to use each 

  • [Name] (-shi) is used when you and the other person are in similar hierarchy but not very close in relationship (Example: 싸이 / Mr. Psy)  
  • [Name] (-nim) is used when you need to more formally show respect (Example: 회장 for a President of a company). This is similar to Mr./Mrs./Miss. 
This table describes the difference in addressing different people in your life with and without honorifics. Simply put, if you don’t know the person well and/or would not be able to talk to the person comfortably, err on the side of using honorifics!

Without honorifics With honorifics
parent(s) 부모 (boo mo) 부모 (boo mo nim)
teacher 선생 (sun seng) 선생 (sun seng nim)
professor 교수 (gyo soo) 교수 (gyo soo nim)
guest n/a: must show respect to guests (son nim)
하윤 (Hayoon)
하윤* (Hayoon a)
하윤 (Hayoon shi)
하윤 (Hayoon nim)
하윤** (Hayoon yang)
지호 (Jiho)
지호* (Jiho ya)

지호 (Jiho shi)
지호 (Jiho nim)
지호*** (Jiho goon)

**** Depending on how the name ends, the suffix changes 
* This suffix for: Younger and/or close to you - like friends 
** This suffix for: Formal / honorifics for young girls 
*** This suffix for: Formal / honorifics for young boys  

Fun fact: This is why in Korea, figuring out each other’s age is the first thing people do when meeting someone new. You’ll often hear people asking “나이가 어떻게 되세요?” (how old are you?) or “몇 년생이세요?” (what year were you born?) because it determines whether you can be friends and agree to informal language or need to establish honorifics!

Pronouns, nouns, verbs in Korean honorifics 

We could go on (and on!) talking about the details in Korean honorifics and the wide range of vocabulary you need to learn for it, but for the purposes of this piece, here are a few common honorifics you can hear in everyday life.

English Non-honorific Honorific
Pronouns I 나 (nah) 저 (juh)
You 너 (nuh) 당신 (dahng shin)
Us 우리 (woori) 저희 (juh hee)
I (as the subject of the sentence) 내가 (neh ga) 제가 (jeh ga)
Nouns name 이름 (ee reum) 성함 (sung hahm)
meal 밥 (bap) 식사 (shik sah)
birthday 생일 (seng il) 생신 (seng shin)
age 나이 (nah ee) 연세 (yeon seh)
Verbs to eat 먹다 (muk da) 드시다 (deu shi da)
to do 하다 (ha da) 하시다 (ha shi da)
to sleep 자다 (jah da) 주무시다 (joo moo shi da)
to ask 물어보다 (mool uh bo da) 여쭤보다 (yuh jjwo bo da)
to talk 말하다 (mal ha da) 말씀하시다 (mal sseum ha shi da)


Speech level: Formal vs Informal Korean 

Youtube 키드키즈Image: Youtube 키드키즈

If we were approaching the Korean speech levels as linguists, we could talk about the many different styles and forms, which are very technical. However, for our purposes, we will approach them in 3 commonly used situations: 

  1. Formal 존댓말 (High): You will also hear it used on the news or TV and see it in text in news articles, books; also often used at work or with someone of distinctly higher social status (e.g. President) 
  2. Formal 존댓말 (Medium): This is the polite form that can be used in most day-to-day situations; often used with someone older or whom you don’t have a close relationship with. Some families may use this with relatives - pending the family's style or preference. 
  3. Informal 반말: As long as both parties have mutually agreed, it is ok to use! This is often used with friends, someone younger / same age, those you have a close relationship with, and also family and relatives - pending the family's style and preference. 

Formal High 

Formal Medium 


Sentence ending

~니다 (~needah)


Pattern not as standard but common endings are ~다 / ~어

“Hello” (1)

안녕하십니까? (2)



“Nice to meet you”




“Thank you”






“I love you”










  1. In Korean, when saying “hello/hi” we say/write it as a question
  2. ~니까 is the question form of ~니다

    Combining Honorifics + Speech Levels: some examples

    Let’s now put it all together, with a few common examples and see how speech would change in different contexts, with honorifics (word choice) and speech levels (level of politeness that matches). 

    • Titles different based on who you are addressing 
    • Pronouns / Nouns / Verbs that match
    • Speech levels (formal high, formal medium, informal) for the context and person


    • A classmate: 안녕?
    • A teacher: 선생님, 안녕하세요?
    • Difference: title, sentence ending ~요
    Asking: did you eat?
    • To a friend: 친구야, 밥 먹었?
    • To your grandmother: 할머니, 식사 하셨어
    • Difference: title, word choice for “meal” and conjugation of “to eat,” sentence ending in ~요
    Welcoming someone:
    • Older female cousin is visiting your house: 언니/누나, 어서 !
    • A guest is entering a restaurant: 손님, 어서 오세
    • Difference: title, sentence ending ~요
    Telling someone you’ll call them:
    • To your younger cousin: 내가 전화할게~
    • To your parents: 제가 전화 할게~ / 제가 전화 하겠습니다~ / 제가 전화 드릴게~ / 제가 전화 드리겠습니다~  
    • Difference: I pronoun, verb conjugation for “to give” (a call), sentence ending ~요, ~니다
    When telling someone, “Let me know if you need something”:
    • Someone close in relationship: 필요한 게 있으면
    • Someone not close: 필요한 게 있으시면 말씀해 주세 
    • Difference: verb conjugation for “to have” (something you need), honorific form of “to tell”

    Saying good night/sleep well:

    • To a friend or younger sibling: 잘자!
    • To an elder or adult: 안녕히 주무세요!
    • Difference: informal way is literally “sleep well,” whereas formal is a set phrase including the honorific verb conjugation for “to sleep”

    Using Honorifics and Speech Levels in our Habbi Habbi Korean Collection 

    When choosing the speech form to use in each book, there are a few things we considered:

    • Our reader / audience 
    • Purpose of the book
    • Message of the book
    • Characters’ interactions within the book (if any)

    Since the majority, if not all, of our readers are children and their families, we chose the medium level of formal speech “~요” (a.k.a. the polite form) over the high level of formal speech “~니다” since that is the speech level that can be most commonly used in most daily life situations. It is also the speech level that children would use to interact with and express themselves to close adults in their lives, such as family members, teachers, and adults in their community.

    Example: In Book of First Phrases 

    You will notice that pages 4 and 5 show the children using the formal speech “~요” when talking to adults, whereas the adults respond in informal speech since they are older.

    Book of First Phrases Korean Habbi Habbi
    Note: While it depends on the family, children often use informal/casual speech with their parents and other close adult family members if that is what the family has chosen to do. The “Snack Time” conversation between the girl and the dad could have been casual from both the dad and the child, and it would still be okay! However, for purposes of modeling speech forms, we have chosen to show child-adult interactions in our books with dad using informal speech and the daughter using formal.

    In contrast, the rest of the pages in Book of First Phrases show children talking to each other in informal/casual language: 

    Book of First Phrases Korean Habbi Habbi

    Example: Books with 1st vs 3rd person narrators 

    For books that have a 3rd person narrator (Foodie Friends, Book of Seasons, and Apples + Arithmetic), we chose formal speech since that is the norm in children’s books: 

    Habbi Habbi Korean Books

    However, for books in which the narrators are children/themselves, we took both routes, since you can use different speech levels to talk about yourself depending on who you are talking to. 

    I Am Kind and Book of Chores are written in formal speech. 

    Habbi Habbi Korean Books

    I Love My Body and Book of Emotions are written in informal speech. Why? For these two books, we felt it would be more empowering to exemplify the ways that children can name and talk about their body and their emotions in casual language, which again, is the form of speech children often use with friends and their parents. 

    Habbi Habbi Korean Books

    As you and your child(ren) go through our different books, we hope you have fun identifying (and also practicing) both the formal and informal speech forms!

    If you liked this, you may also appreciate the following other articles about Korean for kids: 

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    Korean honorifics and speech levels

    Check out more bilingual resources from Habbi Habbi 

    We have lots more (fun stuff!) here at Habbi Habbi. You can explore our free resources such as bilingual printables, resource blog, and audiobooks. Of course, we also have our much loved magical Reading Wandbilingual bookspuzzles & flashcards. Our tools are currently available in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Korean, and Hindi. 

    About our Guest Contributor 

    Joohee Baik, Ed.M | Korean Language & Culture Team Lead: I am an early childhood/elementary educator, and have taught kindergarten (traditional and dual language programs), 2nd grade, and 4th grade in U.S. public schools across several states. I recently moved to California and am taking some time away from teaching as my husband and I wait for our baby boy due this summer! Personally, I have always loved learning languages–language is so powerful! I am fluent in 3 languages, still practicing 2 others, and ambitiously wanting to learn a new 6th. Professionally, my passion is in multilingual education and development of diverse, accessible language and literacy resources for educators, students and families, and am ecstatic to have the opportunity to contribute to Habbi Habbi in its work.

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