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Culture School - Korean Speech Levels


So picture this. You're watching a K-drama, probably clutching your pillow to your chest, eyes heavy with strain from staring at the screen so long, and then the characters goes something that you don't quite understand. It's still pretty to look at. Story line wise, it makes sense and you get it. But you wish you had a little more context as to why that action was important. Well, I got you.

This will be the first in it's series, tackling some important cultural context to enrich your drama watching experience.

Formal and Informal Language [Jondaemal (존댓말) and Banmal (반말)]

This was one of my greatest discoveries when I started understanding the Korean language. You've probably seen this a thousand times without knowing. And it's usually one of the most important parts of watching a love story: when the characters 'drop' their language.

Let me provide some context.

The Korean Language has 7 different levels of speech, with their own unique verb endings, which indicate how formal a situation is. The top five levels are all Jondaemal, meaning they're all formal. The last two are Banmal, the informal level.

Hasoseo-che (하소서체): This is extremely formal and polite. Usually reserved for a King or Queen, or high official, or even religious texts. This is why the speech pattern sounds a little different when characters are addressing royalty in Sageuks (historical dramas). This style is mostly outdated. A lot of sentences would end in 'na-e-da' (나이다) or 'na-e-ka' (나이까) if its a question.

Hasipsio-che (하십시오체): You've probably heard this a lot more. It's what TV announcers, sales people and customer relations people use. As well as colleagues in a formal setting. It's also what strangers use at their first meeting, which is why I said you're a lot more exposed to it than you realize. The verbs would end in 'ip-ni-da' (ㅂ니다) or 'ip-ni-ka' (ㅂ니까) if it's a question.

Hao-che (하오체): This is another one you probably won't hear as often, except in Sageuks, due to its connection to the authoritarian regime in Korea. It's sounds very poetic, and it delivers a moderate level of respect to the audience, without 'lowering' the speaker in an effort to show humility. Note that this is not for someone older, or basically in a higher class than the speaker. Endings are 'so' (소) or 'oh'(오).

Haeyo-che (해요체): This is the most common polite way of speech. If you're currently learning Korean, you're probably learning this speech level, because its simple and polite enough for everyday situations. This is used for strangers, older people and colleagues. In Seoul, this is also used a lot as a replacement for Hasipsio-che. Almost every sentence will end in 'yo' (요)

Hage-che (하게체): This is also relatively outdated. It is used when the audience is usually on a lower ranking than the speaker, but a level of respect is still being maintained. It's mostly used by the older generation. The verbs would end in 'ne' (네) or 'n-ga' (는가)

Haera-che (해라체): This is basically a formal, impolite style, so you'd find it a lot in writings. It's formal speech, but there's no added degree of respect to the audience. This is used by age mates, similar rankings, indirect quotations, or when adults talk to children. Endings are 'n-da' (는다) or 'n-ya' (냐) if it's a question.

Hae-che (해체): This is the most casual and most informal. No formality. No politeness. Nada. Just vibes. Clearly, this is only used for close family and friends, or when you're addressing children. (Some Gen Z babies address their parents with this as well though). I like that the English name for this speech level is 'intimate'. The endings will be 'ah' (아), 'or' (어) or 'ji' (지), depending on the verb. And if its a question, it'd be 'n-ya' (냐) or 'ni' (니)

So the next time you're watching a K-drama, and the characters says something along the lines of 'Why are you talking down to me?', 'Why are you being so casual with me?', 'You can speak casually' and so many more, this is what they're referring to. You can imagine why my legs will start to shake when the male character starts addressing the woman in banmal. Or even more exciting, when she starts addressing him in banmal?! *FULL ON SQUEAL*

Also, pro tip. This is why age is a common conversation starter and topic. It sets the tone for what speech level can be used. The older people can 'drop' their speech level, while the younger person usually has to maintain some level of respect in their speech.

Hope this provides some clarity.



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