A Badge of Rank!: Linguistic Ideologies of Korean Honorifics

Eunseon Kim

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    Abstract

    This article explores the social, moral and political concerns around linguistic politeness and their impact on language-in-use in South Korean society. The Korean language has an elaborate honorifics system whose function is widely recognized to be respect for ones superior. What do native Koreans think Korean honorifics reveal about themselves? What specific language uses do they advocate or discourage, and why? The author discusses language ideologies through an examination of recent demands and attempts to revamp Korean honorifics in an effort to pursue ideals of society and civility. Native speakers metalinguistic discourses as illustrated in popular publications criticize Korean honorifics as marking power differences or discrimination (in Koyama (1997)s term, dishonorable honorifics), and thus call for linguistic reforms to encourage a more egalitarian society. The author argues that metapragmatic accounts of Korean honorifics are rationalized by two contrasting perspectives on language and identity: language primordialism and instrumentalism. The ethnolinguistic recognition of conventional Korean honorifics is perpetuated in the recognized stereotypes of traditional society associated with Confucian ideology, as if deference were an inherent function of language in the ethnolinguistic community. Meanwhile, particular uses of Korean honorifics are seen as an instrument for making more self-conscious social changes that ameliorate inequalities. The comprehension of language as a transparent manifestation of society, whereby honorifics are enregistered as submission to power, turns Korean speakers away from using the badge of rank, but the renewed view of honorifics, taken as a vehicle for society, encourages speakers to resort to the use of honorifics to attain fair but respectful social relations. Such ambivalent attitudes towards Korean honorifics indicate native speakers justifications of language as a value-laden practice.

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