Featured article photo: Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, Korea by 이룬 봉
Formality and Politeness in the Korean Language
Korean is a language that places importance on formality. Speaking to someone older than you requires a different speech pattern compared to the situation when you are speaking to someone your age. The same thing occurs when you are speaking with a colleague vs. speaking to the president of a company. This is also why it is very common for Koreans to ask about your age even when you have just met, so that they would know how to communicate to you accordingly.
The main way Koreans adjust their formality level in their speech is through suffixes, which are endings that you attach to the end of a word. In Korean, formality and politeness suffixes are typically attached to verbs and question words (What, Who, When, Where, Why, How). In English, we typically refer to these questions words as the 5W1H question words.
Let’s get started on learning these 6 Korean question words first, and then we will explore how to use them at various formality levels.
The 6 Question Words in Korean
Mwo (뭐) → What (typically used in spoken contexts)
Mueot (무엇) → What (typically used in written contexts)
- Nugu (누구) → Who
- Eonje (언제) → When
- Eodi (어디) → Where
- Wae (왜) → Why
- Eotteohke (어떻게) → How
You can use the above question words as they are when you are asking a one-word question. For example, in English, when you are trying to ask someone "Why?", you can say Wae? (왜?) in Korean.
But note that you should only do this when you are talking to someone your age or someone you are closely familiar with.
If you watch Korean dramas, you might also have noticed how these question words are used on their own.
Cue: The dramatic Mwo??? (뭐???), or the desperate Eotteohke??? (어떻게???)
However, you should be more mindful about using these question words on their own when talking to someone older.
More on Formality Levels
There are several levels of speech formality in Korean, but for beginner and intermediate learners, I believe learning three will suffice for a start: Formal, Polite, and Intimate.
To put it very briefly:
- Use formal speech when talking to someone older or in a more superior position than you are in an organization.
- If you want to come off as polite but a tiny bit casual, you can use the polite form. It's appropriate when talking to someone a little older or when meeting someone new who appears to be of the same age of you.
- You can use the intimate form when talking to a friend who is around the same age as you or someone younger than you (e.g. a child).
Using the intimate form carelessly when asking questions gives off a rather crass attitude, so stick to using the polite form to be safe unless you know the person well.
Here are the 6 Korean question words in their formal, polite, and intimate forms.
1. Mueot (무엇) / Mwo (뭐) → What
Formal: 무업니까? (Mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: 뭐예요? (Mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: 뭐야? (Mwo-ya?)
Formal: 그것 무업니까? (Geu-geot mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: 그것 뭐예요? (Geu-geot mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: 그것 뭐야? (Geu-geot mwo-ya?)
Meaning: What is that thing?
2. Nugu (누구) → Who
Formal: 누굽니까? (Nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: 누구예요? (Nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: 누구야? (Nugu-ya?)
Formal: 그 사람이 누굽니까? (Geu saram-i nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: 그 사람이 누구예요? (Geu saram-i nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: 그 사람이 누구야? (Geu saram-i nugu-ya?)
Meaning: Who is that person?
3. Eonje (언제) → When
Formal: 언제입니까? (Eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: 언제예요? (Eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: 언제야? (Eonje-ya?)
Formal: 수업이 언제입니까? (Sueob-i eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: 수업이 언제예요? (Sueob-i eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: 수업이 언제야? (Sueob-i eonje-ya?)
Meaning: When is the class?
4. Eodi (어디) → Where
Formal: 어디입니까? (Eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: 어디예요? (Eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: 어디야? (Eodi-ya?)
Formal: 화장실이 어디입니까? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: 화장실이 어디예요? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: 화장실이 어디야? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-ya?)
Meaning: Where is the washroom?
By now, you should be able to observe the word endings in Korean question words that indicate formality levels:
- Formal → ... + -(i)mnikka? (... + 입니까?)
- Polite → ... + -yeyo? (... + 이예요? or ... + 예요?)
- Intimate → ... + -ya? (... + 야?)
5. Wae (왜) → Why
왜 (Wae) and 어떻게 (Eotteohke) are not typically inflected to indicate formality levels, but the verbs that follow them do, except maybe for 왜요? (Wae-yo?), which is the polite form of 왜 (Wae).
To learn the various formality levels in asking questions with 왜 (Wae) and 어떻게 (Eotteohke), you have to learn how to conjugate verbs first, though that is beyond the intended scope of this post. Just familiarize yourself with all the other question words for now, and take it one step at a time...
Formal: 왜 책을 삽니까? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-mnikka?)
Polite: 왜 책을 사요? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-yo?)
Intimate: 왜 책을 사? (Wae chaeg-eul sa?)
Meaning: Why are you buying the book?
6. Eotteohke (어떻게) → How
Formal: 어떻게 만듭니까? (Eotteohke mandeu-mnikka?)
Polite: 어떻게 만들어요? (Eotteohke mandeur-eoyo?)
Intimate: 어떻게 만들어? (Eotteohke mandeur-eo?)
Meaning: "How do you make [this]?"