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How Language Reflects Hierarchal Structures in Korea

Figure 1: Yun-bok. (1758). Yaguemmohaeng or,"A Secret Trip At Night" [Illustration]. Korea.Net.

Ideas of Hierarchy

The word “hierarchy” evokes several immediate reactions, but one recognizes it as a structure that requires someone to be on top and someone else on the bottom. As the most advanced social species on earth with the capability of complex language and abstract thought, it is no mystery how the languages of different human societies developed and evolved over time to reflect particular societal structures.

In fact,

“Evidence indicates social hierarchies are endemic, innate, and most likely, evolved to support survival within a group-living context” (Koski et al., 2015, p. 529).

Communication models reflect how societies enforce these hierarchies. The Korean language specifically has a unique hierarchical formality structure imbedded in the language still experienced broadly today.

The Foundation of Korean Hierarchal Linguistics

The Korean language consists of a variety of ending markers that indicate levels of politeness and formality. Professor Sonia Seo-young Chae, a leading expert in linguistics, spoke at the Asia Society Korea Center's “Journey into Hangeul” event series. She taught at Ehwa, Hanyang, Sungkyunkwan, and Sogang universities, and she answered a series of questions discussing the "intricate relationship" that the "Korean language plays in social structure, inter-personal relationships, and thought process" of Korean society (Sollitt, n.d. ). By reflecting on each Korean dynasty (Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon) and their strict hierarchical structures and social statuses, one can draw parallels in the language and behaviors that reinforce these.

The Joseon Dynasty, the final dynasty of Korea, had more complex structures than the previous dynasties. The Korean peninsula experienced numerous invasions and instability, so upon the creation of Joseon, the heredity hierarchy influenced by Confucianist practices created a status system “more complicated in its detail and similar to India’s caste system in its strictness" (Chae as cited in Sollitt, n.d.). Chae continued on to say, “From this soil emerged speech levels, which expressed not only the formality of the situation but also levels of deference towards the listener, as well as the subject, the object or the complement of a sentence” (as cited in Sollitt, n.d. ). Each of these formal stems attaches to the end of verbs, located at the end of sentences.

Speech & Behavior

In addition to speech, Confucianism’s ritualistic characteristics dictated expected behaviors that coincided with language when addressing someone of a certain higher ranking or age. Education on which language to use and related behaviors reflected the proper education and manner of an individual. These practices helped maintain “order and peace based on the cultivation of harmonious interpersonal relationships and proper conduct” (Khan Academy, n.d.). Therefore, reputation and successful personal conduct and etiquette (예의) meant a great deal, and to some extent, persist in Korean society today.

Figure 2: (n.d.) Bowing Etiquette in Korea. OptiLingo.

Some of these behaviors used in accordance with speech include bowing in greeting or in humbling moments to show respect, using two hands or supporting your right arm with your left when exchanging items, waiting for the oldest or highest-ranking person to eat before eating, pouring drinks for others during a meal, avoiding outright refusal, and overall prioritization of collectivism (Commisceo Global Consulting Ltd., 2020). A traveler will witness many of these same practices and their variances today in South Korea. Notably, technology and cultural exchange have relieved some of the stricter hierarchical practices, but many of the social fabrics woven from the Joseon Dynasty continue to persist in today’s society, especially among older generations.

Variance of Politeness

A Korean language learner will study two distinct speech registers (levels of formality in a language). In Korean, the formal is jeondaemal (존댓말) and the informal is banmal (반말). Jeondaemal contains varying formality levels depending on the situation and person it is being used with, and banmal is used between those with completely equal status and in intimate relationships. Koreans can also switch between the two forms with the same person. For example, it is common for Korean children to use banmal with their parents and then switch to jeondaemal depending on the situation.

Not only are these formalities indicated using verb stem endings, such as yo 요 or hapnita (합니다) or (ㅂ/습니다), but there are also honorific forms of certain pronouns, suffixes, nouns, verbs, and titles of a person. In fact, many Koreans address people by their titles rather than their names. The table below demonstrates how some honorific words completely differ in their forms from their slightly less formal counterparts.


Less Formal

저 (jeo) = (I) literally lowering of myself

나(na) = I

댁 (daek) = house

집 (jib) = House

드시다 (deusida) = to eat

먹다 (meokda) = to eat

Table 1. Leah Dietle. 2022. Table of Honorific Words.

However, even slightly “informal” words can be used with honorific verb stem endings to make the speech more polite. Numerous titles for settings related to school, work, and interpersonal relationships must be used in daily life to address someone. The suffix “nim” (님) attaches itself to certain nouns when addressing people to indicate respect or intimacy. Professor Chae gave these examples at the "Hangul Series" event: “'sajangnim (사장님, 'president, CEO'), or 'bujangnim' (부장님, 'General Manager') are used to address others, or kinship and family terms such as 'imo' (이모, ‘mother’s sister’), 'hyeong' (형, ‘brother’) and 'eonni' (언니, ‘sister’) are used whenever people feel close or want to create a sense of intimacy” (as cited in Sollitt, n.d.). In the end, these hierarchical language structures serve as tools to communicate status and roles within communities and attempt to maintain social order with a set of socially expected behaviors.

The Intimacy of Speech & Society

So, what came first? The chicken or the egg? A never-ending question to ponder about many topics, but in the end, it matters little. Culture and language perform with one another as a dialectic: always mutually influencing and reflecting one another. By analyzing a region’s history and societal norms and expectations, a language learner and linguistic enthusiast can perceive intricate interrelations that must be learned together. Even a native studying one's own language must consider the intimate cultural considerations.

Figure 3: (n.d.), Statue of King Sejong the Great on Gwanghwamun Gate. The Seoul Guide.

Lastly, although the younger generations in South Korea are demanding more horizontal structures, it is fascinating to see how the nation's history shows the evolution of the language and with it, social expectations. It is equally intriguing to observe how current attitudes toward a societal system may potentially cause a language to further evolve in the future and how different societies define effective communication.


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Leah Dietle

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