Historically, Koreans used honorifics as a sign of respect to the status of the person they were talking to, but as time changes, the use of honorifics are mostly based on how close the person is to another person.
One thing you cannot do in Korea is to call anyone by his or her name only. Koreans use honorifics as a form of polite speech, and this is based on the age and the relationship a person has with the person being addressed. People who do not use honorifics in Korea are seen as very disrespectful people. Honorifics are very important for Koreans when they make any conversation or when they build relationships.
In general, Koreans add ‘ssi’ or ‘nim’ at the end of the person’s full name to show respect. For example, my mom’s name is Lee Kyung Soon, so Koreans address her as Lee Kyung Soon ssi or Lee Kyung Soon nim. ‘ssi’ and ‘nim’ are the Koreans’ way of saying, Miss or Mister. The only difference is that these words are gender-neutral.
Korean honorifics got even more popular as the Korean Wave surged through their Kdramas and the K-pop idols, such as BTS and BLACKPINK.
Korean honorifics can be used plainly, or if you know the name and the age, you can add the honorifics at the end of the name, too. Say for instance Lee Minho. A young girl addressing him can call him Minho oppa. In short, the honorifics follow the pattern [first name] then [honorific].
From Korean Drama Quotes (Facebook)
A young girl addressing an older boy should call him ‘oppa,’ while a young girl addressing an older girl should call her ‘unni’. In the Philippines, Lee Minho is probably the most famous ‘oppa’.
A young boy addressing an older girl should call him ‘noona,’ while a young boy addressing an older boy should call him ‘hyung’.
Everyone can address a young lady as ‘agassi’ and a young man as ‘ajussi’.
For older people, everyone can address older women as ‘ajumma’ and ‘ajussi’ for older men, but beware when using ‘ajumma’ because most Korean women get offended when they are called this way. For your own safety, you can use ‘imo’ instead, which means aunt.
Another interesting fact about Korean honorifics is how mothers and fathers are called. In Korea, you won’t see parents calling other parents by their names. Parents are called with the name of their child. In my case, other parents call my mom Haeri ‘omma’ which is the Korean word for mother. Similarly, other parents call my dad Haeri ‘appa.’ When Korean parents have their children, they are called by their children’s name. This culture signifies Koreans’ high regard for their family.
Confucianism and Korean Honorifics
Korean honorifics are practiced because Korean culture is built on a foundation of Confucianism. Confucianism is an ancient Chinese belief that places high importance on social status and age. The practice of using honorifics in communication is a show of respect to the listener. In Korea, the hierarchical culture is followed strictly, and some characteristics of this structure are based on age and social status. Koreans must always use honorifics for older people even if the person is just a year older than them, so they only consider people with the same age as their friend or ‘chingu’, and not someone older, nor someone younger. You have probably seen this in most Korean dramas where the actors ask first what each other’s age is before they could start a conversation.
Another consideration is with the status. Honorifics are used from lower status to higher status. Some of the relationships where honorifics must be practiced are: teacher to student, employee to any superior in the company, child to parent, and citizens to public officials. In a sense, juniors should always use honorifics to their seniors.
‘Sunbae’ is a common Korean honorific used by younger students to refer to the students in the upper class level or seniors for both genders.
Some honorifics have evolved over time and followed the trend of this generation. One of these is ‘Ssem’, which is a short version of ‘Sunsengnim,’ the Korean word for teacher.
Nonetheless, whether the Korean honorifics undergo changes, it will always be a part of Korean culture, and being respectful will always be their virtue. This is rooted deep in their veins and has a history as old as time.