Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Korean Honorifics

With more Prophecy ARCs out in the wild, I've been seeing increased confusion about the use of Korean honorific terms. Specifically, the lack there of in my book. And I thought this would be a good time to discuss the complexities of the Korean language.

The current version of the ARC was printed before final edits. It contains the use of the honorific (-shi) which is used at the end of a person's name when speaking to people of equal rank. It won't be in the final version because I realized that this was a modern use of the term that evolved and would be incorrect for ancient times. So Prophecy is limited to a few titles and the use of a full name of a lord who is of equal standing with my main character. This limited use is very purposeful. Korean is a very challenging language to master because of the use of highest form, high form, and low form. This is how the honorifics are actually built into the language itself. It is very different from English where you formalize by adding a Mr. or Mrs. or using sir or madam. Learning all these levels of honorifics is extremely tricky. I'm Korean and I still get it wrong.

The most important thing to remember is that Koreans don't tend to call people by their first name. They call people by their full name, last name first, even if they are good friends. Furthermore, where an honorific can be used, it is much preferred: for example - the older brother/cousin of a young girl is called Oppa, the older sister/cousin of a young boy is called Noona, teachers are always seongsengnim, older married women are ajumma, older school or work friend is sunbae, my aunt on my mother's side is called emo and my aunt on my father's side is called komo but my uncle's wife on my mother's side is called sumo and my uncle's wife on my father's side if he is older is called Kun Omma (big mama) and if he is younger is called Chagun Omma (small mama). Let's say you are friends - if you are married with kids, you might be referred to as so and so's mother or father. Again, avoiding actually calling anyone by their name is considered polite. And when you do use names, you use their full name. So my Mom would be called Ellen Omma by her friends. And all old people are called halmoni (grandmother) or haraboji (grandfather). If you are starting to get confused, then you have an idea of just how overwhelming this all can get.

Now if you are a fiction writer, how do you deal with all these honorifics? Do you use every single one no matter how complicated the relationship? No. You use a few that make sense and you try and formalize the rest because otherwise you will completely lose your reader in the complicated maze that is Korean honorifics. Even the translators of K-dramas don't try to keep up with translating all the honorifics. It is just way too complicated, so they simplify as much as possible. And please know, I haven't even discussed how to use the different forms, highest form, high form, and low form. That will have to be a lesson for another day.

So if any of you read Prophecy and wonder why there aren't more Korean honorifics in it, please think of this post and realize that it really was for the best!


Charles Gramlich said...

I can see how that could get confusing for a western reader over the course of a novel.

Natalie Aguirre said...

So interesting Ellen. It sounds confusing and a good decision not to make it so confusing for readers. But I love the Korean influences in your story.

Barbara Etlin said...

I think that was probably a good choice. I've stopped reading many Russian novels because of the confusing names.

Diana Julianna said...

Haha you lost me halfway through the second paragraph, even though I should be somewhat coherent with this since I'm Chinese and I also know a bit of Korean. *shakes head at self*

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