The Korea Herald


[Hello Hangeul] Cultural emphasis on age reflected in Korean language

Complexity of speech levels, honorifics and emphasis on age in Korean culture often overwhelm learners

By Kim So-hyun

Published : Sept. 10, 2023 - 16:04

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For non-native speakers of the Korean language, even the simple question "Have you eaten?" can be tricky.

It is because of the complexity of having to choose different speech levels and honorifics depending on the person being addressed, resulting in distinctly different expressions like “bap meogeosseo (밥 먹었어?)” and “jinji deusyeosseoyo (진지 드셨어요)?”

Sanjeev Kumar, who has an M.A. in Buddhist studies from Dongguk University in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, and has lived here for 12 years, said Korean jondaenmal (polite and formal form) is much more complex than that of his native Hindi.

“In Hindi, only the last word of a sentence changes in most cases, depending on whom you are speaking to. But in Korean, even the nouns change,” he said, mentioning the different vocabulary for a meal -- “bap” or “siksa” in general, and “jinji” for older people like grandparents – and for where you live – “jip (house)” in general, “daek” in jondaenmal.

“Appellation is also a big problem here. If you don’t know who a person is or how old she is before you speak to her, it can be a disaster.”

Learners of the Korean language, from beginners to advanced levels, often find the language's seven verb paradigms and its honorifics system -- which indicate the level of formality and politeness -- to be extremely challenging to master.

The seven speech levels are typically divided into two categories: "jondaenmal" and "banmal." Jondaenmal is used in public speech, conversations in professional settings or in private speech to someone who is older than the speaker. Banmal is spoken among friends of similar age, among children, or by an older person to a younger person.

For real-life communications, the ability to use both banmal and jondaenmal eloquently is crucial, even though often banmal is not widely emphasized in classrooms and textbooks.

Shin Hye-young, who has taught Korean at American University for many years, has seen students asking their Korean teachers why they hadn't taught them banmal.

"A former student who now works for the US government had never learned banmal during his Korean classes in graduate school in the US and in Korea. When he started making Korean friends, they asked him why he kept on speaking in jondaenmal," she said.

“Although we can’t conduct classes in banmal, we should teach it,” she said.

Seniority-based culture

While it may appear complex on paper, non-native speakers can gradually pick up when and how to use jondaenmal or banmal once they are immersed in Korean culture and society as residents of the country.

Some learners say it’s less about the complexity, but more about the rigid seniority-based way of thinking, which is reflected in the language, that can be overwhelming in Korea.

Stemming from Confucian teachings and passed through centuries when Korea was an agrarian society, the emphasis on age still persists as a key criterion for social hierarchies in the country, despite the fact that the world has changed.

“I think the negative aspects of intense formality in speech and emphasis on one’s social status are noticeable when those who expect to be treated as someone of ‘higher status’ disregard a ‘lower-status’ group or individual,” said Jeremy Day, who is learning Korean at Sogang University’s Korean Language Education Center.

Ideas for change in social, cultural, political or work environments are also often disregarded simply because “higher-status” individuals expect “lower-status” people to be deferential or submissive to them, even when these shifts can benefit both groups, according to Day.

“I have seen this happen in Korean work environments,” he said.

Others say that while it is nice that the Korean language and culture try to respect elders through formal elements, the world we now live in requires that Korean become a more global language.

"Most languages contain ways to talk more politely or formally to specific groups of people, and all languages evolve over time with changes in society. One important factor is that we are clearly in a modern, capitalist, globalized, high-tech and increasingly knowledge-based economy and world in which people of different backgrounds frequently come into contact and need to work together productively,” said a Korean American who studied Korean studies in graduate school and lived in Korea for 10 years.

“And in this environment, being able to recognize individuals’ backgrounds in a holistic way and take advantage of their unique abilities is key for companies to be able to innovate and stay fresh."

Lee Keon-beom, who leads a civic group called Hangeul Culture Solidarity, said while jondaenmal can be a virtue for showing respect for the elders, it also makes the social hierarchy based on age and status too rigid.

"This often oppresses people from speaking their minds freely, regardless of their age or social status," he said.

"I don't think the jondaenmal-banmal structure is helpful in building equal relationships among people. I personally wish Koreans get rid of jondaenmal and just use banmal. Or at least the use of jondaenmal or banmal should be both ways," Lee said, meaning if a person A speaks to person B in jondaenmal, B should speak to A in jondaenmal too, regardless of the difference in age or status.

John Duncan, a professor emeritus of Korean history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did his B.A. in Korea in the 1970s, said he believes the use of honorifics in Korean, and particularly the use of status terms instead of names or pronouns, stems from "a social culture in which each person derives their significance from their relationships with others."

"It's a social culture quite different from the individualism of the modern West which posits a unique significance to each person," he said.

"I think that once learners of Korean come to comprehend the nature of Korean social culture, they will find it easier to understand Korean honorifics."

This is part of The Korea Herald’s “Hello Hangeul” project which consists of interviews, in-depth analyses, videos and various other forms of content that shed light on the stories of people who are learning the Korean language and the correlation between Korea’s soft power and the rise of its language within the league of world languages. – Ed.