Gender, Class and Formality in Korean Language

This post was brought on by a conversation Jason (of Kimchi Ice Cream) and I had in the comments section of my post about throwing 몸 across the room.

I won’t recap the conversation because it spans over 8,000 words, but the issue of honorifics and speech levels and gender came up.

This reminded me of a book I finished reading in March, 동생을 바꾸고 싶어 (I Want a Different Sister). The book is a translation from a French book about a girl and her relationship with her younger sister, who is autistic. The time period is not clear (to me), but it’s set in Paris and appears to be a modern setting. (Also, since autism is on the rise, I suspect it’s supposed to be set in current times.)

At one point in the book, the mother and father of the main character are talking in private and the main character is eavesdropping. In true high-context Korean style, who was talking wasn’t 100% clear. I had to use context and…sentence endings.

One character was speaking in the -요/yo (polite, informal) form, while the other was speaking in banmal (the common, impolite form). I suspected the woman was using the higher form (요) to speak to her husband. I reread the passage, paying more attention to context.

In true Amanda’s Reading a Korean Book Before Going to Bed style, I called Good Man into the bedroom. “Read this please,” I said.

He read it and looked at me. “Yeah?”

“Is the mother speaking in -yo form while the father is speaking in banmal?”


I stared at him, “What the hell? Am I supposed to be speaking 요 to you, cause that is not happening.” Good Man shook his head no. “Wait,” I said, “does your mother speak like that to your father? She doesn’t right? She uses banmal.”

Good Man nodded, “Yes, she speaks banmal to him.”

“Is that normal? For people your parents’ age?”

“Well, I do not know all Koreans, so I do not know,” Good Man replied, “but my mother is strong woman!”

“Maybe that’s why we get along so well.”