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Korean speech levels

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Title: Korean speech levels  
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Subject: Korean language, Korean verbs, Gwangmu Reform, Korean grammar, Honorifics (linguistics)
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Korean speech levels

There are seven verb paradigms or speech levels in Korean, and each level has its own unique set of verb endings which are used to indicate the level of formality of a situation. Unlike "honorifics" – which are used to show respect towards someone mentioned in a sentence – speech levels are used to show respect towards a speaker's or writer's audience, or reflect the formality or informality of the situation.

The names of the seven levels are derived from the non-honorific imperative form of the verb hada (하다; "to do") in each level, plus the suffix che (체, 體), which means "style". Each Korean speech level can be combined with honorific or non-honorific noun and verb forms. Taken together, there are 14 combinations.

These days, some of these speech levels are disappearing from use in everyday life. Hasoseoche, which is used only in movies or dramas set in older eras, is barely used by modern Koreans, and hageche exists almost only in novels.

Higher levels


Name Hasoseo-che
Formality very high
Politeness high
Currency archaic

Traditionally used when addressing a king, queen, or high official; now used only in historical dramas and religious text such as the Bible, the Koran, Buddhist scriptures, etc.

Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person
a title, e.g.
imgeum (임금)


Name Hapsyo-che
Formality high
Politeness high
Currency very common

This conversational style is generally called either the "formal" or the "formal polite." This is a common style of speaking. A conversation with a stranger will generally start out in this style and gradually fade into more and more frequent haeyo-che. It is used

  • between strangers at the start of a conversation
  • among male co-workers
  • by TV announcers
  • to customers
  • in certain fixed expressions like 만나서 반갑습니다 mannaseo bangapseumnida "Pleased to meet you"
Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person
a title, e.g. seonsaengnim

Middle levels

The middle levels are used when there is some conflict or uncertainty about the social status of one or both participants in a conversation. The hage-che and hao-che are being replaced by or merging with haeyo-che.


Name Haeyo-che
Formality low
Politeness high
Currency common

This speech style is called the "polite" style in English. It is remarkable in that it is used both with higher level pronouns (namely, titles) as well as the middle level second person pronoun dangsin. It is used mainly

  • in Korean phrasebooks for foreigners
  • between strangers, especially those older or of equal age
  • between female co-workers or friends
  • by younger speakers as a less old-fashioned alternative to the hao-che.
  • by men and women in Seoul as a less formal alternative to the hapsyo-che.
Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person
(하세요) (common),
(하셔요) (rare)
a title, e.g. seonsaengnim


Name Hao-che
Formality high
Politeness neutral
Currency older

This conversational style is called the "semi-formal," "middle," "formal lateral," or "authoritarian" style in English. In Seoul, the 쇼 -syo ending is frequently pronounced 수 su. It was originally a refined, poetic style that people resorted to in ambiguous social situations, but, due to its over-use by authority figures during Korea's period of dictatorship, it became associated with power and bureaucracy and gained a negative connotation. Consequently, the generation of Koreans who came of age after democratization conspicuously avoid using it. However, haoche is becoming more popular among college-age Koreans. It is used:

  • occasionally among the older generation, by civil servants, police officers, middle management, middle-aged people, and other people of intermediate social rank who have temporary authority over what would normally be considered their superiors
  • in written form, especially by males, and especially on the internet
  • in historical dramas, where it gives the dialog a more old-fashioned sound
Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person


Name Hage-che
Formality neutral
Politeness neutral
Currency older

This conversational style is called the "familiar." It is intermediate in politeness between haeyo-che and hae-che. It is not used to address children, and is never used to address blood relatives. It is used only

  • by some older people when addressing younger people, friends, or in-laws in a friendly manner
  • between adult male friends, occasionally
  • in novels
Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person

Lower levels

The hae-che and haera-che styles are frequently mixed together in the same conversation, so much so that it can be hard to tell what verb endings belong to which style. Endings that may be used in either style are:

  • Question: -니?/-냐?/-느냐?
  • Proposition: -자. (this is roughly equivalent to "let's" in English)
  • Casual statement: -지. (this is roughly equivalent to "I suppose")
  • Casual question: -지?. (this is roughly equivalent to "I wonder if" in English)
  • Exclamation: -구나! -다!


Name Haera-che
Formality high
Politeness low
Currency common

This conversational style is generally called the "plain" style. In writing and quoting, the plain style is the equivalent of the third person. Any other written style would feel like a first person account (that is, anything else would seem to be told in the main character's own voice). It is used

  • to close friends or relatives of similar age, and by adults to children
  • in impersonal writing (books, newspapers, and magazines) and indirect quotations ("She said that...")
  • in grammar books, to give examples
  • in some exclamations
Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person


Name Hae-che
Formality low
Politeness low
Currency common

This conversational style is called the "intimate" in English. It is a defective paradigm, meaning it lacks most of the expected conjugational forms. It is used

  • between close friends and relatives
  • when talking to children
Non-Honorific Present Honorific Present 1st Person 2nd Person
hae (해)
(in speech),
hayeo (하여)
(in writing)

See also


  • 문체법 [1], (국어국문학자료사전, 1998, 한국사전연구사).
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