Indexicality and honorific speech level choice in Korean

Susan Strauss, Jong Oh Eun

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The use of Korean honorifics is generally dependent upon such social factors as age, profession, socioeconomic status, and so forth. Traditional accounts of the two Korean honorific verbal suffixes, namely, the deferential and the polite forms, explain the use of each on the basis of relative status: the deferential is the more formal of the two, used when addressing persons of higher social status; the polite form is used when addressing persons of equal or higher status, but not so high as to require the deferential form. However, cursory examination of naturally produced oral discourse reveals that speakers often alternate between the two forms within the same stretch of talk and while addressing the same interlocutor. Using a database of approximately eight hours of naturally occurring speech from a variety of discourse genres, this article proposes an alternative analysis of the two honorific speech levels. Rather than the static, relative status account put forth by traditional linguistic and sociolinguistic views, we propose instead that these forms differ in terms of the semantic feature of +/- BOUNDARY vis à vis speaker and interlocutor and their respective domains of cognition and/or experience. That is, when speakers use the deferential form (+BOUNDARY), they index a stance of EXCLUSION with the interlocutor, such that the interlocutor is positioned as outside the sphere of the speaker's cognitive and/or experiential domains; discourse marked with the deferential form is thus framed as detached, objective, and authoritative. In contrast, when speakers use the polite form (-BOUNDARY), they index a stance of INCLUSION. Essentially, then, the deferential form creates bounded distance between speaker and addressee, while the polite form establishes and/or reinforces common ground.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-651
Number of pages41
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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