Back To Top

[Robert J. Fouser] Changes in the Korean language

Memories of language learning center on the curious and the embarrassing. People remember the mispronounced words, the humorous grammar mistakes, and breakdowns in communication. 

One of my most vivid memories of learning Korean was a question by a stranger on a bus in Seoul, two months after I had arrived in the fall of 1983.

The person asked me in polite honorific form, “Where are you?” I replied, in a grammatically perfect sentence, “I am here.”

The person then repeated the question and I repeated my answer, sure of its perfection. I then noticed people laughing quietly. The person repeated the question louder and more slowly ― typical signs of “foreigner talk” ― and I repeated my answer, only to hear the laughter get louder. A Korean student approached me and said, kindly, in good English, “He’s asking you what you’re doing in Korea.”

I had learned Japanese before learning Korean, so I was prepared for indirect expressions and the complexities of honorifics. I wasn’t prepared for a question that I received on and off from Koreans over the next 30 years: “What should I call you?”

Terms of address were always much easier in Japanese. For friends, my given name worked well. For outsiders my surname plus “san” or “sama” was the norm. When I was a professor, my surname plus “sensei” worked fine. The system is similar to English, though perhaps more complicated, because social distance is the guiding principle behind terms of address in both languages.

Korean was more complicated from day one because the guiding principle was different. In the 1980s, age, rather than social distance, was predominant. People younger than me were never comfortable with just using my first name; I was never comfortable with referring a friend older than me as “big brother.” As my Korean improved, I got used to the big brother thing, but was never really comfortable with it.

Fast forward to the late 2000s when I returned to Korea as a professor and I was surprised to learn that young Koreans, too, were becoming uncomfortable with established terms of address. To get around having to worry about terms of address, Koreans are playing with new words or omitting terms of address.

One of the most popular new words is “saem” or “ssaem,” depending on personal preference. The word comes from “seonsaengnim,” which means “teacher,” and it emerged from the university context, where students wanted a short, easy-to-input word for their professors. Later it became popular among young adults who wanted a polite but informal term of address to use with people they meet casually.

Another interesting trend is the new use of the honorific suffix “nim.” For much of the 20th century, “nim” was used after a term of address or a job title to add another honorific layer. In recent years, it has been added after the full name to create a respectful but egalitarian term of address. This is more common in writing than in speaking.

The spread of SNS in the 2010s gave Koreans an opportunity to use made-up names and to refer to each other as such in SNS discourse. Many of the names are nonsense words, whereas others come from English. Some are Korean translations of inventive English IDs.

SNS discourse also allows people to avoid terms of address because icons representing the speakers are shown already in the system. Koreans still adjust their speech levels by choosing the right verb endings, but SNS discourse helps free them from the need to worry about terms of address.

Taken together, the trend reflects a search for a more egalitarian language that reflects changes in Korean society. Korea became a predominantly urban society only in the late 1970s. In contrast to tight-knit villages, cities force people into greater contact with people of varying degrees of social distance, thus creating the need for a language that allows people to get along at a comfortable distance.

The generation born after democratization in the late 1980s does not know the authoritarian past that informs much of the hierarchical attitudes of older generations. They find hierarchy suffocating and try to avoid it, at least in their personal lives. This is the first generation in Korean history that has placed more importance on social distance than on age.

The rise of social distance and the decline of age in determining how people talk to each other in Korean represents a change of truly historic proportions that will make itself felt deeply as momentum builds.

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. ― Ed.