Level of Speech
From Jonathan Gardner's Korean Notebook
Korean, like Japanese, has different language forms used in different situations. The language forms represent:
- The relationship between speaker and listener.
- The formality of the occasion.
We have a similar pattern in English and most Western languages, although we don't readily admit it.
First, we have to consider the familiarity of the speaker and the listener. If the speaker and listener are friends or family, then an intimate form of speech must be used. Otherwise, a more formal speech form must be used.
Friends like hearing and speaking in the intimate form. It is comfortable and a sign that they can hang loose. However, using such speech with people you are not close to is very disturbing and uncomfortable. Likewise, using less intimate forms with your close friends is like dumping a bucket of water on a nice campfire.
Koreans will ask, "May I speak 반말?" if they are unsure whether or not it is appropriate to use the intimate form. This is usually a sign that you are using the less intimate form when you should've switched a long time ago.
There are three different levels of speech.
- Younger to older. (respectful)
- Equals to each other. (equal)
- Older to younger. (authoritative)
These forms don't necessarily represent humility or even subservience. It does, however, indicate that you feel that order in society is important, and people with authority, earned by rank or age, should be shown the proper respect.
Getting these levels wrong make you look stupid. If you speak to a younger person with a respectful or equal tone, then they will imagine you are some sort of retard. If you use the wrong form with someone your equal, they will quickly ensure that you are indeed their equal and that they weren't confused. The wrong form with people you should respect means you are not a serious student or you are not worth their time.
Finally, there are two occasions: formal and informal.
Formal speech is used in formal environments, such as when you are performing an official function or when you are meeting someone as part of some formal meeting.
Informal speech is used in informal environments, such as on the street or in a crowd or in a restaurant.
As an example, consider two people in a restaurant. The waiter is taking their order. This is a formal occasion, and the waiter is acting officially on behalf of the restaurant. So both you and the waiter should use formal speech. Your dinner mate, however, is there to relax and enjoy good food, and so you should use informal speech with him.
I have discussed the meanings of the different vectors by which the speech levels are determined. You'll have to keep these three things in mind. To recap:
The following are the most common forms.
The most formal, unfamiliar, and respectful level is 합니다 체. It's hallmark is the three endings:
While this is a good first form to learn, and critical to surviving Korean culture, you cannot treat it as the basic or default level. It is one of three that you will know and learn, and if you can only learn one, learn this. At least you won't look like a fool when it is appropriate to use this form, which is more likely than not to occur.
The second is used for the following situations:
- Informal but respectful, like talking to your senior in a relaxed setting.
- Unfamiliar but equal, like when you first meet someone new who is your peer.
Although this form is technically a woman's form of speech (the counterpart for men is the quickly fading 하오 체), today in Seoul men use it almost exclusively. I know that in Gyeongsan Province, I don't feel comfortable using it with men, especially my brothers in law.
This form is actually quite simple. It's the 반말 / 해 체 form with "요" on the end. In fact, if you accidentally use 반말 when this form is more appropriate, you may be prompted to put "요" after what you said.
The three basic forms are:
This is the least formal, unrespectful and intimate form of speech. As you relationship with your friends progresses, eventually, you will need to use this form just to talk.
This form is actually the form that little children first learn.
The three basic forms are:
The final form that is considered common is the 한다 체. This is a form that almost sounds like you are speaking to yourself. It is totally bland, neither informal nor formal, intimate or distant, respectful nor authoritative.
This form is what you will read in books, at least serious books that try to be serious. You may also hear a lecture in this format.
This form is used to construct sentence fragments devoid of the bother of levels of speech.
The three basic forms are:
Learning New Forms
There are a ton of forms out there, each with their special meaning and special context. In addition to the above, most Koreans are familiar with the royal forms, both what the king would say and what his subjects would say to him. These forms aren't used in daily speech, of course, except in drama shows or in children's imaginations.
The scriptures also contain a number of less common forms.
These forms are meant to be discovered and treasured. Each one allows you to change the words and bring out not just their meaning, but the context and environment it was said in.