Levels of formality (in English, not just Korean)

When I first considered diving into the Korean language, one of the things that scared me was adding levels of formality. Like if you’re speaking to someone older than you, you use one conjugation, but if you’re speaking to someone younger than you, you use a different conjugation.

It’s not as simple as two kinds, though. Supposedly, there are seven variations: like for when you speak to someone older than you about someone younger than you, and so on. I still don’t know all of them because I didn’t get that far. I know there’re enough to be confusing.

What I didn’t realize when I first discovered this about Korean, though, is that American English also has different levels of formality. We usually point out, “Yes, sir” or, “No, thank you, Mrs. Ramsey. May I have the roast beef instead, please?”

But English goes way further than that. Consider this brief telephone call:

  • “Hey, man, what’s up?”
  • “Yo, what’s going on?”
  • “You down for some ice cream in half an hour?”
  • “Yeah, let’s grab some and hit up a movie, bro.”
  • “Sweet.”
  • “A’ight. Later, dude.”

Now for contrast, let’s formalize that:

  • “Good afternoon, Mr. Johnson. How are you?”
  • “Fine, thank you. And you?”
  • “I was just about to buy an ice cream. Please, would you join me in one half hour?”
  • “Yes, it would be a pleasure. Shall we buy ice cream and then go to see a movie as well?”
  • “Yes, indeed.”
  • “Very well then. I will speak with you soon. Farewell.”

In the second version, they’re saying the same thing, while saying something completely different. Sure, I exaggerated on purpose, but it’s still English, and we still talk like that sometimes, although maybe not all at once.

And by the way, that first, “informal” version isn’t even as informal as it gets. Check this texting version:

  • “dude”
  • “yo”
  • “ice cream in 30 min?”
  • “yeah, nd a movie?”
  • ” ­čÖé “
  • “TTYL”

It might not be as complicated as Korean, but English loves levels too.