I feel highly motivated to study Korean at the moment because it is something that I can get quick returns on when I deploy some new grammar or vocabulary the very next day. I’m at one of the exhilirating stages of learning something where that is possible. Really I’m going to be useless for a very long time because my vocabulary is so small, but I can fool myself into thinking I’m making serious progress by learning new grammar, which I much prefer.

One thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about is honorifics. There are four main ways in which these show up. First and most obvious is speech levels.[1] Every clause has a verb, and since in Korean the verb is always at the end of the clause, the very end of a sentence is always a verb. The very end of the conjugated form of this verb is the conjugation for speech level. Speech level reflects the situation one is in and the relationship between speaker and listener. For example, teachers talk down to their pupils by conjugating with a lazier, simpler speech level. Pupils talk to each other in the same way, but talk up to the teachers. “Hello” is three syllables longer.

The second kind of honorific is the use of different nouns and verbs in order to show respect for the subject of the sentence. Every verb changes, most regularly, but some are completely replaced. This is (mostly) independent of showing respect for the listener. So for example if a teacher said something about the principal to a student, or about a student’s parent to the student, they would use these honorifics (since parents are always always respected). These honorifics are quite hard for me because it is not completely independent of listener. If I talked to the principal about my co-teacher I don’t think I’m supposed to use these honorifics, but if I talked to her about her herself I definitely am supposed to. It’s very hard to do the calculations without having been brought up Korean.

The third kind of honorific is the use of different first personal pronouns (singular and plural) which, I am told, convey a sense of humility. So you use these with people you don’t know well and with superiors.

The final kind of honorific language is not grammar but style: Koreans try to be very indirect. Korean basically doesn’t have a second person pronoun (’you’), in the sense that to use the pronoun (which does exist) is so direct that it would be incredibly rude unless you were already speaking at a low speech level. As a native English speaker this is incredibly difficult because pronouns are compulsory in our sentences and it’s almost never impolite to say ‘you’. Though it’s possible to speak in the third person instead, basically replacing the use of ‘you’ with the listener’s name (with a honorific suffix attached), I am told that Koreans find this uncomfortable unless you’re older than them. It’s best to use job titles if possible; the pupils call us “teacher” and we call each other “teacher”, or if disambiguation is required, “Sean-teacher” is used both by pupils and between teachers.

Though I try to remember to use job titles rather than names, I don’t see this fourth thing as a priority because as a Westerner at my low level of learning Korean, and given my personality, it’s inevitable that Koreans will find me uncomfortably direct, whatever language I’m speaking.

With the exception of this foruth, these functions are accomplished with relatively simple syntax, compared to English. Although it’s significantly less important in Western culture to modify your language to show respect to someone, we still do it and the grammatical changes required to do it are a lot more complicated than in Korean—so far as I can judge, without having made much of a survey.

I say that I spend a lot of time thinking about these because I see them as an interesting way into coming to understand Korean culture. They also make very clear something about Korean culture that I dislike (fortunately most young Koreans I ask about this are with me). This is the talking down that occurs: using a low level to speak to someone either younger than you or your inferior at work, when they’re talking up to you with a higher level. Older Koreans (especially men) in positions of power really like to do this, and it makes me sad. All we teachers in school bow to each other and use high levels of language (except between close friends), regardless of age. But the principal and the vice-principal, and some of the senior teachers in between them and the rest of us, deliberately talk down. That is, they talk to us in the way that we talk to our pupils. I am not comfortable with not returning the bows of students, but I do recognise that in schools there has to be a strong separation between teachers and pupils. There’s a complicated psychological war going on with regard to discipline, at all times. But no such conflict exists between the principal and his staff. We should respect each other equally for the jobs we’re trying to do.[2]

So on this matter I have a little act of rebellion going on: when I speak Korean to the pupils, with the exception of the bowing, I always speak politely to them. I have the excuse that this is how we learn to speak in my Korean class. The problem is that my co-teachers describe talking down to the pupils as being friendly: they say that plain speech (the lower levels) can be done in a way that is subordinating, but also a way that is friendly and gentle. I feel like it’s near-impossible to understand these thing without having been brought up Korean.

Addendum Friday 31st January: One thing that’s nice about my efforts is that I’m doing KSL not KFL: communication is all that matters, rather than accuracy. I don’t envy those Koreans studying English here for whom accuracy matters since they have exams to take.


[1] I believe that ‘honorific’ is usually used to refer only to the second of these.

[2] A Korean friend of mine says that the principal and vice-principal are actually being quite rude and this is not the norm. But others tell me this is standard in the work environment.