Korean lessons: Lesson 10

Styles of speech–a broad classification

1.  존댓말 or Polite speech

반말(non-polite style): the style of speech in which you speak to your friends (of your age) or to people younger than you are.
존댓말 (polite style): the style in which you speak to your superiors or seniors.   Politeness of style can be demarcated into two criteria:

(1) whom you talk to — Politeness is achieved by -아요/-어요 or -ㅂ니다

(2) whom you talk about — Politeness is achieved by infix -시-.

When you talk to someone, that person you are talking to could be older or younger than you are; when you talk about a person to someone (of course, they can either be different or identical), that person you are talking about can also be older or younger than you are.  Chon-dae mal concerns the proper handling of both these criteria in speech.  In addition to age, rank in various social relations also dictates proper use of these speech styles.

Throughout these categories applies a supervening category of formality.  This category concerns the occasion where the conversation occurs.  For example, the formal style will be adopted more in work place, public speech, army, etc. ; whereas the informal would better be used among close friends, family members, and people in private relationship.  However, in many cases, the consistency of formal/informal speech style is not really strict.  In other words, you may feel free switch back and forth between formal and informal style within a conversation, as long as you keep the consistency of politeness.

We can summarize the above:



formal ending

informal ending

TO seniors
ABOUT juniors or self -ㅂ/습니다 -아/어요
ABOUT seniors -(으)십니다 -(으)세요
TO juniors
ABOUT juniors or self -다 -아/어
ABOUT seniors -(으)시다 -(으)셔

This is a simple outline of endings.  As we will learn later, there are other grammatical details that may be needed according to tense, verb/adjective differentiation, etc.  There are also other supplementary devices, such as self-effacing pronoun for the first person (저 instead of plain 나 for ‘I’), lexically honorific words (말씀 instead of 말 for ‘speech, words’), etc. , which will also be discussed later.

Now let us see how we can make variation for same sentences.  The following is in informal style.

(Talking to my friend) The teacher is coming to our house.
선생님이 우리 집에 오셔.

(Talking to my mother) The teacher is coming to our house.
선생님이 우리 집에 오세요.

(Talking to my younger sister) My friend is coming to our house.
친구가 우리 집에 와.

(Talking to my mother) My friend is coming to our house.
친구가 우리 집에 와요.
Extensive variety in speech style is often the most overwhelming part when a foreigner begins to learn Korean.  It is known to be more complicated than in Japanese.   However, as much as it is hard to foreigners, it is not an easy matter to native speaker.  People in younger generations in Korea also experience difficulty with proper use of speech style.  (In fact, this is somehow related to the shifts that happened in the Korean social structure.  Speech style is a product of layers of social/kinship relationship.  Compared to traditional families where more than three generations lived in one house or neighbourhood, modern ‘nuclear’ families offer very few opportunities for the children to practice different speech styles. )

2. 문어체 or written style

문어체 literally means “written-language style,” in which you write formal documents, articles, papers in classes, and so on.  As there are polite and non-polite styles, we have polite formal style and non-polite formal style.  They both have -다 at the end.

polite formal ending — -ㅂ니다/습니다

non-polite formal ending — -ㄴ다/는다 (present-tense verb) or -다 (elsewhere)

Newspaper articles, academic papers, public announcement, and so forth, are written in these styles.  In fact, the non-polite is preferred in most written documents over the polite, unless the document is by nature a dialogue (i. e. , announcement) aiming at actual readers.

The non-polite formal, from a native speaker’s intuition, gives the impression of self-addressing, which may explain why it is also used in diaries–something that can be most informal.  The style is also used frequently by a speaker toward others in the same or younger age, as we saw in the chart above, and therefore we can call it 반말.

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