K-Culture: Lesson 7 – Speech Levels

Korean drama fans have probably encountered dialogues revolving around one character’s lack of respect due to the way he/she addressed the other interlocutor. It could also be that giddy scene where a character is feeling intimacy just because of the apple of his/her eyes talks to her in a casual manner. Such scenes confuse most English speakers, like what’s the big deal? But respect to people in senior levels of society, whether based on age or position, is deeply ingrained in Korean society. It is obvious on how the Korean language is structured. Non-native speakers may find it hard what formality level to use although, one would never go wrong using the polite versions of the speech.

For this K-Culture feature, let’s learn different levels of Korean speech.

There are more in-depth explanations of Korean honorifics which categorizes speech levels into seven styles: 하소서체 (Hasoseoje), 합쇼체 (Hapsioje), 하오체 (Haoje), 하게체 (Hakoje), 해라체 (Haeraje), 해요체 (Haeyoje), and 해체 (Haeje). But let’s leave that to Korean grammar experts. These days some of these speech levels are becoming obsolete from daily use. So to make it easier for non-native speakers, like me, we’ll instead use the two levels: jondaemal (존댓말) and banmal (반말)..

Jondaetmal or Polite Speech

The politeness level in Korean speech is determined by the end of the verb. In jondaetmal there are two types of the verb ending used: -ㅂ니다 (-nida) and -(아/어/여)요 (-a/eo/yeo/yo) ending.

The ‘-nida’ ending is considered the most polite in the Korean language. It is used in the most formal of situations like business meetings or when talking to a stranger or a person of authority.

Meanwhile, the ‘-yo’ ending is the most common speech form. It is used to adults, strangers, to a person of authority, and to anyone you don’t consider to have a close relationship with.

Banmal or Casual Language


Banmal, in general, is considered to be the most intimate and casual way of speaking in Korean. The literal translation of banmal is “half-speak” or jondaemal cut in half. It is only used when to someone you are certain to have a close relationship with. It is also used if you are certain that the person you are talking to is younger than you.

Using banmal can be tricky especially for English speakers who are not used to such nuances. So it is advisable to stick with using jondaemal unless given permission by the other person.

For a better and clearer explanation on when and when not to use banmal you can refer to this Korean language lesson. Follow our blog for new K-culture update!



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