Edited by Konstanze Jungbluth, Cornelia Müller, Nicole Richter, Hartmut Schröder

Fumin Fang

Breaking new ground in the research on L2 speakers' use of Korean honorifics

Lucien Brown. 2011. Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language Learning by Lucien Brown is part of John Benjamins’ Pragmatics & Beyond New Series. Undeniably, the Korean honorifics system plays a pivotal role in Korean language acquisition, but previous research has largely been confined to approaching honorifics as a grammatical feature from a static angle with very limited focus on the acquisition, development or usage of honorifics. Lucien Brown, however, exhibits a strong dual commitment throughout the book: on one hand, it fills a considerable gap in the literature on Korean honorifics acquisition; on the other hand, it offers an in-depth exploration of re-framing and re-facing – the constant dynamic process of enriching, re-analyzing or re-negotiating existing frames of knowledge and that of constructing a new presentation of the self in interaction from the perspective of interlanguage pragmatics. To this end, he examines a large body of data collected through a blend of methods, which provides a rich and fertile site for exploring the complexities and intricacies of L2 speakers using Korean honorifics.

The book is comprised of 9 chapters and appendices. Chapter 1 provides the contextual and methodological background to the study. At the outset, the author presents the goals and research questions of the study: the competence that advanced speakers of Korean as a Second Language have of the Korean honorifics system and the effects of social identities and ideologies on honorifics development. After briefly outlining previous approaches to the acquisition of Korean honorifics, the author focuses on the interlanguage pragmatics approach adopted in his study. Then, detailed information about participants, data collection techniques and the methodology are provided.

With a view to providing a point of reference for observations in the study, Brown presents a highly detailed description of the contemporary Korean honorifics system in Chapter 2. Honorifics are defined as “resources for indexing the relative position of interlocutors, referents and bystanders either in the lexicon or the morpho-syntax of a language” (13) by recourse to cross-linguistic examples. To facilitate readers’ understanding, not only does the author give an isolated account of the component parts of the Korean honorifics system, but he also highlights the interplay between the different parts of the honorifics system and the major factors influencing usage of honorifics (including power and distance between

interlocutors, level of formality, and such strategic uses as the softening of assertion, sarcasm, anger, insults and jokes). It is noteworthy that honorific forms are viewed as indexing degrees of “separation” and “connection” from a dynamic perspective rather than from a static semantic angle. The author concludes this chapter by briefly commenting on major differences between Korean and Japanese honorifics since the latter has captured more attention in previous literature. For example, the use of honorifics in Japanese is related to femininity and beauty whereas the use of high honorific forms in Korean are perceived as still, authoritarian and masculine.

The theoretical background of the study on Korean honorifics is presented from socio-pragmatic and interlanguage pragmatic perspectives in Chapters 3 and 4. First, Brown reviews the position of honorifics in previous politeness research by examining four approaches: Brown and Levinson’s “honorifics as FTA (face threatening act) mitigators” (60), Hwang and Ide’s “honorifics as deference or discernment” which are socio-pragmatically or grammatically obligatory (61), Watts’ “relational work” model viewing honorifics as “politic” instead of “polite” (63) and Lee and Yoo’s normative/strategic framework, stating that the “normative usage” of honorifics is intended to meet social expectations, and the marked and intentionally controlled “strategic usage” is employed to pursue specific motives (65). It is revealed that these dominating theoretical camps on “politeness” and “honorifics” are not adequate to account for Korean honorifics use. Accordingly, the author argues that a “frame-based” view of politeness (Terkourafi 2003, 2005) and a remodeled version of “face” (Arundale 2006) can be employed to address those deficiencies. Within the “frame-based” politeness model, frames are viewed as “structures of expectation” (67) and “politeness consists in the regularity of the co-occurrence between linguistic expressions and a given context” (67). The author then expands the model by positing that politeness does not necessarily apply to all types of communication and that politeness ideologies have a significant bearing on the use of honorifics. Thereafter, the author presents his Korean-specific concept of face as relational and interactional in the study of interlanguage pragmatics. Finally, the author discusses the four defining features of Korean politeness ideologies (i.e. indexical politeness, hierarchical patterns, obligation and conformity, and intimacy and closeness) and interprets how they differ from their “Western” counterparts.

Chapter 4 is focused on a framework that the author adopts to analyze interlanguage pragmatic development in Korean honorifics. After briefly presenting the definition of pragma-linguistic knowledge as “pragmatic phenomena oriented towards the grammatical or organizational end of the scale” (86), the author models the development of L2

sociopragmatic knowledge as re-framing by which L2 speakers re-analyze, re-negotiate, and enrich existing frames. These processes are influenced by such factors as the speakers’ pre-existing language(s) and culture(s), pragmatic over- and under-generalization, and teacher-fronted metapragmatic instruction and teaching materials. The construction of a new presentation of the self is dubbed as re-facing which is influenced by attitudes of the Korean community (language inheritance) and attitudes of L2 speakers (language affiliation).

Chapters 5, 6, 7 and 8 are devoted to fine-grained analyses of four types of data collected by means of discourse completion test (DCT), role-play, natural conversation and “learner stories” through a mixture of quantitative and qualitative research methods. In Chapter 5, data collected by DCTs, taken by 20 advanced second-language (L2) speakers from “Western” backgrounds and 40 native Korean speakers, are put under analysis in three aspects: hearer honorifics, referent honorifics and forms of address. The findings reveal that


L2 speakers use honorifics with less variation than L1 speakers;


L2 speakers are less sensitive to power than distance or formality in terms of honorifics usage and tend to avoid saliently subservient or condescending language; and


notable differences exist among L2 speakers in that exchange students and heritage speakers are inclined to overgeneralize non-honorific language whereas professionals and non-heritage speakers tend to overuse honorific language.

In Chapter 6, Brown elicits data from recordings of staged role-plays between the 20 L2 participants and L1 speaker partners in two contrasting power-distance relationships: the “professor” role-play and the “friend” role-play. Likewise, he takes a close look at the three aspects mentioned in Chapter 5. Data analysis reveals that L2 speakers show inadequate pragma-linguistic competence concerning referent honorifics. It also manifests a connection between honorifics use by L2 speakers and their perceptions and beliefs regarding politeness in two ways. First, L2 speakers avoid “too high” or “too low” honorifics because it is incompatible with their egalitarian and reciprocal social values. Second, L2 speakers tend to adapt the modulation politeness strategy when upgrading to honorific styles as a sign of “respect” due to their pre-existing ideologies in the Western context.

The study is labeled as “incomplete” due to the fact that data were collected by artificial means. Thus, to lend more force and validity to his study, the author provides an empirical analysis of honorifics use in real-world interactions in the following two chapters. In Chapter 7, the author utilizes recorded naturally occurring conversational data. He breaks down these

data into two separate sections: interactions with status superiors and new acquaintances and interactions with intimate status equals and inferiors. Data analysis not only confirms the two patterns found in the elicited data from DCTs and role-plays in real-world interactions but also uncovers a new pattern of panmal ‘non-honorific language’ use towards strangers/elders. The author accounts for these three patterns in relation to the identities and politeness ideologies of the participants. On one hand, he concludes that L2 speakers’ honorifics use is affected by both their own identity as “foreigners” and the attitudes of the Korean community, which provides a possible explanation of cases where exchange students mistakenly used non-honorifics when contaymal ‘honorific language’ was desirable or even obligatory. On the other hand, he reiterates that L2 speakers’ misuse of honorifics/non-honorifics is attributable to their pragma-linguistic deficiencies, lack of opportunities to establish appropriate social relationships and more egalitarian politeness ideologies of “Westerners”.

Finally, Chapter 8 focuses on “honorific sensitive incidents” by means of participants’ retrospective narratives of actual incidents during their interactions with Korean native speakers. The author analyzes collected data from three angles: the lack of pragma-linguistic competence of L2 speakers, the attitudes of the local Korean community and L2 speakers’ negotiation of their own identity. The findings reveal that


native speakers tend to provide little or inexplicit, if any, feedback for L2 speakers when pragma-linguistic deficiencies arise;


L1 speakers initiate the application of “different” honorifics either due to their perception that interactions with non-Koreans do not necessarily follow the same norms as Korean-Korean conversations or their utilization of L2 speakers’ lack of honorific knowledge for their own strategic ends; and


L2 speakers attempt to actively diverge from hierarchical or non-reciprocal use of honorifics and negotiate egalitarian modes of interaction.

In the concluding chapter, the author first recapitulates the major findings with regard to the Korean honorifics competence of L2 speakers and analyzes their pragmalinguistic deficiencies within the framework of social identities and politeness ideologies. He then discusses the implications of the study at length in three different areas: politeness research, interlanguage pragmatics and language pedagogy. Lastly, recommendations are made for future research on Korean honorifics by placing emphasis on (diverse) speech groups’ diversity and different settings for data collection.

Overall, the strengths of Brown’s well-implemented work can be summarized at two levels: at the first level, this book presents theoretical contributions to politeness theory, interlanguage pragmatics and Korean honorifics acquisition as well as intriguing findings about its rich data in a concise, lucid and accessible manner. Building upon the author’s observations and other researchers’ theoretical models, Brown demonstrates and promotes a remodeled version of re-framing and re-facing from a dynamic and context-sensitive perspective by delineating the pragmatic development of L2 speakers in Korean honorifics through negotiation of politeness between their socially constructed identities in communication with Korean native speakers. In addition, the study has pedagogical implications for developing L2 speakers’ competence in Korean honorifics. The second level is that the analyses of data from authentic natural interactions are literally the beginning of a new subfield of Korean honorifics research from an emic perspective. Even though DCTs and staged role plays are deemed as mirroring natural interactions, these elicited data remain “non-natural” or “contrived” in contrast to naturally occurring data. By analyzing recordings of non-manipulated interactions, researchers can penetrate the actual language use by L2 speakers.

Nevertheless, I have a certain degree of skepticism towards one minor point of the study. The author labels the participants as having “Western” backgrounds due to the fact that “the socialization that all of these speakers had undergone in Western society had shaped (or at least played a major role in shaping) the assumptions they held regarding human interaction” (9). This kind of classification is arbitrary, thus lacking sufficient validity. Moreover, it is an oversimplification to attribute L2 speakers’ failures in using Korean honorifics appropriately to their egalitarian politeness ideology. Before arriving at this conclusion, it would be preferable and more convincing had the author conducted a contrastive analysis of Korean honorifics use of L2 speakers from different cultural backgrounds and explored

whether errors in their application of honorifics are determined by language-specific or by culture-specific factors.

In conclusion, this book belongs on the shelves of scholars involved in research on interlanguage pragmatics and politeness as well as textbook writers, syllabus designers and KSL (Korean as a second language) teachers.


Arundale, Robert. 2006. Face as relational and interactional: A communication framework for research on face, facework and politeness. Journal of Politeness Research 2: 193–216.

Brown, Penelope and Stephan Levinson. 1978. Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In: Esther Goody (ed.), Questions and Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 56–311.

Brown, Penelope and Stephan Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hwang, Juck-ryoon. 1990. ‘Deference’ versus ‘politeness’ in Korean speech. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 82: Aspects of Korean Sociolinguistics: 41–55.

Ide, Sachiko. 1989. Formal forms and discernment. Multilingua 8(2): 223–248.

Lee, Jung-bok. 2001. The Characteristics of the Strategic Use of Korean Honorifics. Seoul: Thaehaksa.

Terkourafi, Marina. 2003. Generalised and particularised implicatures of linguistic politeness. In: Peter Kuhnlein, Hannes Rieser, and Henk Zeevat (eds.), Perspectives on Dialogue in the New Millennium. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 149– 164.

Terkourafi, Marina. 2005. Beyond the micro-level in politeness research. Journal of Politeness Research 1: 237–262.

Watts, Richard. 1989. Relevance and relational work: Linguistic politeness as politic behavior. Multilingua 8(2): 131–166.

Watts, Richard. 2003. Politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yoo, Song-young. 1996. Korean hearer honorifics and hearer honorifics switching – discourse approach based on degrees of power and solidarity. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Korean University.

Fumin Fang
Research interests: Pragmatics, teaching English as a second language, testing.

Co-author: Li Zhang
Lecturer at the College of Applied Linguistics, Zhejiang International Studies University. Her research interests include pragmatics and second language acquisition.

Download: Fumin Fang: Review on Korean Honorifics and Politeness in Second Language. 2011. In PRAGMATICS.REVIEWS 2013.1.1

DOI: 10.11584/pragrev.2013.1.1.9