London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Honorifics at the KCC

Lucien Brown has been leading the beginners’ Korean Language class at the KCC with infinite patience and good humour for the past eight weeks. Some of us are still struggling with telling the time in Korean but we still come back for more.

We’ll be getting an extra dose of our favourite 선생님 next week: he will be lecturing at the KCC on Tuesday evening on the subject of Korean Honorifics – a topic which justifies its own entry in wikipedia.

Here’s his own introduction to his talk

HangulIn this lecture, after describing the linguistic forms of Korean honorifics, I investigate two patterns of honorifics use in modern Korean society (normative use and strategic use).

“Honorifics” are linguistic resources that speakers use to express their relationship with the people they are talking to and the people they are talking about. In Korean, this system of honorifics is particularly complex and intricate. Not only can speakers signal social relationships through different pronouns, terms of address and lexical forms, but honorifics are also encoded in the grammar of the language. In every single sentence uttered, speakers of Korean apply different verb endings depending on their relationship with the hearer.

When describing the use of the Korean honorifics system, it is useful to distinguish between “normative” and “strategic” modes of use. The former refers to unmarkedusage that follows societal expectations; the latter refers to marked usage that speakers employ to pursue personal situation-specific goals.

Looking at “normative usage” first of all, the factors that plays the most decisive role in influencing the use of Korean honorifics is “power” in other words, the relative age, rank or status of interlocutors. The usage of honorifics towards notable elders (for example, grandparents and teachers) is heavily imbued with strong cultural thinking and neo-Confucian beliefs such as kyongnosasang (敬老思想; lit. respect-old-thought), which are still prevalent and actively promoted within Korean society. However, in line with recent social changes in Korea, normative honorifics use is moving away from the marking of hierarchical relationships towards more equalitarian and democratic patterns of use.

“Strategic usage” involves deliberate context-specific switching of honorific levels. For example, a husband and wife who usually use intimate language may upgrade to honorific language when arguing to signal a temporary increase in psychological distance. Alternatively, a young child may upgrade his/her language in the same way when asking for pocket money from his/her parents. From the opposite direction, speakers may suddenly drop honorific language to signal anger or scorn and decrease psychological distance.

As usual, pre-booking is required by emailing info at or phoning 020 7004 2600

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