Friday, October 2, 2009

Tone of Speech 101

Question today comes from Johanne from Austria:
My teacher taught me -요 form. But when I talk to Korean people, they keep on correcting me and ask me to use -다/까 form. I am confused. What's the difference?


Johanne - first of all, congratulations on hanging out with right Korean speakers! It's not everyday that we run into native Koreans who would actively help you learn the "appropriate" use of the language.

Let's say that you came to an opportunity to talk to Queen Elizabeth of England. Tell me which is more appropriate:
  1. "Queen E! Wazup, yo. Nice hood!"
  2. "How are you, your Highness? You have a beautiful castle."
You chose your answer because you considered your relationship to a person you talk to.

Let's say that your best friend came to your company as a client. You are sitting in a conference room with your boss and colleagues. You are now making a presentation to your client - who is your friend. Tell me which one is more appropriate:
  1. So, buddy, you see this chart? Do you dig it?
  2. Please take a look this chart. How do you like it?
You chose your answer because you considered the situation and circumstance you are in.

Koreans have various levels of verb endings that reflect (1) your relationship to a person you are talking to and (2) the situation you are in. This is generally called Tone of Speech. Think of it as your attitude or mentality you should be having when talking.

This is not to be confused with "honorifics (높임말 • 존대말)," which reflects the subject of the sentence you are saying. For the sake of simple explanation, we will not bother ourselves with 높임말 in our examples.

First of all, here's a table. I will explain further in subsequent blog posts.

PoliteFormalFormal. Professional. Mature. Sincere. Disciplined합쇼체-습/ㅂ니다.
PoliteInformalCasual. May be professional. Usually sincere. May be child-like.해요체-아/어요.
(for the lack of better word)
Coarse. Rude. Intimate. Same Age or Younger. Immature.반말-아. -어.


  1. You met someone for the first time. After saying "안녕하세요," it's time to introduce yourself. Which tone of speech do you use?

    The answer is Polite & Formal. Yes, I know a lot of textbooks teach Polite & Informal endings. And with your accent, native Koreans will cut you some slack and think you're cute when you introduce yourself with -요 form. But if native Koreans introduces themselves with -요 form to strangers they just met, there'd better be a good reason.

  2. 홍누리 씨 is one of your colleagues you just met. You know that you are to work closely with her as a partner for an upcoming project. You just exchanged your first hellos. Now you want to ask her if she knows where certain files are. Which tone of speech do you use?

    The answer is Polite & Formal or Polite & Informal. You will ease into Polite & Informal, but not right away. This is something that you will learn as you take Korean lessons or classes.

  3. 홍누리 씨 appears to be about 15 years younger than you are. You met her at a local pub and wants to chit chat to kill time. Which tone of speech do you use?

    The answer is Polite & Informal. It would be a little awkward if you carry on with "professional and formal" tone of speech with someone you just met at a pub. But even if you use Polite and Formal style, it is still fine. After all, Polite & Formal style is not just being formal. You may sound more professional and adult-like.

    But you won't use "Impolite" (Banmal • 반말) just because the other party looks young or actually is young. You must use polite form of speech, whether it's formal or informal.


  1. Practice introducing yourself in Polite & Formal Tone of Speech.
  2. Once you are comfortable with it, then practice Polite & Informal Tone of Speech.

Suggested Article:
Which Tone of Speech Should I Learn First?
Articles about Tone of Speech

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