Korean Honorifics: How Did They Impact Me?

I’m currently volunteering at my local Korean School back in Texas. When I visit classrooms with younger children, the teachers tend to use honorifics, 존댓말(jon-det-mal), to help the students use honorifics at a young age. However, when I visited classrooms with older and more mature students, the teacher won’t use honorifics, or 반말(ban-mal). Along with honorifics, status roles are seen as an ‘unwritten rule.’ Honorifics and the hierarchy system are ways Koreans show respect toward their elders, but, what are honorifics, and why is it so important in the Korean community? 

Though learning honorifics is part of the Korean education system, my parents taught me all about them before then. Learning and utilizing the honorifics educated me more about the Korean language and also to practice my manners in the Korean community. Before learning about honorifics, I first learned about Korea’s hierarchy system. At first, I wasn’t sure why I had to learn these status roles when I lived in a place where the hierarchy and the honorific system didn’t exist. It wasn’t until I began attending Korean school that I found the real usage of it. I became more aware of my surroundings and more respectful towards my elders. Korean Americans who don’t learn the honorific system tend to be criticized because they don’t take them into account. The honorific system was impactful for the Korean community—not just for me, but for those around me. 

I was born and raised in Maryland and Texas, but my parents were immigrants from Korea, so my little brother and I were raised as Koreans. Since our parents speak Korean in the house, my brother and I naturally do too. My brother and I also attended Korean school since elementary school, so we were exposed to Korean-speaking communities. We learned the basic Korean language and built our way to advanced Korean classes. However, because the English language doesn’t use any form of strict honorifics, it was shocking to learn that how I talk with my friend is similar to when I talk with my teacher. Even though I still had to be polite towards my elders, it was always a casual conversation rather than a formal one. Not only is the Korean language very different, but so is the way I talk and present myself to society. It was hard to break the barrier between the English and Korean languages, so instead, I ended up distinguishing the way I speak to Koreans and non-Koreans. Nevertheless, learning the Korean language and being exposed to the use of honorifics really did prepare me to know what it is to have manners, even in America. 

Though I lived in a place where honorifics are not used, I was able to implement my Korean speaking skills into the real world and challenge myself to show my respect even in a very different atmosphere. As a kid, I was encouraged as a kid to use sibling titles for my family members—in my case, my older cousin as I only had a little brother. To be honest, I found this sort of useless and quite embarrassing, at least in America. When I visited my non-Korean friend’s house with my little brother, my friend’s little sister would call her older sister by her name, whereas my little brother would call me 누나 (noona), or older sister. I would get embarrassed whenever my brother would call me that, especially in a non-Korean-speaking house. However, sometimes I do think that because we learned to respect each other, and because my brother called me 누나, we created a strong bond and connection, even with these small acts of respect. It was then that I realized that honorifics aren’t just used towards respect but to show how close you are or want to be with that other person. 

I can now say that honorifics changed the way I live now and my perspective on my community. Of course, there is so much more to honorifics than just the use of 누나 or 오빠, but for me, Korean honorifics help me practice my mother tongue with my friends on campus and create a strong connection with my little brother even though we are 1,777 miles apart. Korean honorifics have a long history, just like kimchi. Even though the American and Korean languages are very different, I still hope to keep my Korean background close to me.