Level 6 Lesson 6 / World Builder 9 / 님
Word Builder lessons are designed to help you understand how to expand your vocabulary by learning/understanding some common and basic building blocks of Korean words. The words and letters introduced through Word Builder lessons are not necessarily all Chinese characters, or 한자 [han-ja]. Though many of them are based on Chinese characters, the meanings can be different from modern-day Chinese. Your goal, through these lessons, is to understand how words are formed and remember the keywords in Korean to expand your Korean vocabulary from there. You certainly don’t have to memorize the Hanja characters, but if you want to, feel free!
In this lesson, we are looking at a native Korean suffix, -님 [-nim].
The word -님 [-nim] basically has the same goal as -씨 [-ssi], which is to show respect to the person being addressed or mentioned, but -님 is much more formal and polite than -씨, and therefore it is used very commonly with formal social titles.
You can use -님 after a person’s name when addressing him or her in the most formal way. For example, if your acquaintance’s name is 현우, and you are speaking casual language with him, you can just say the name alone - 현우. But if you want to be more polite and formal, you add -씨 after the name and say 현우 씨. But if you want to be even more formal, you can use -님 instead and say 현우 님.
And sometimes on the Internet, people who don’t know each other’s name but still want to be formal with each other just use the word “님" alone to address each other. This is mostly only common among young people.
The following are some of the most commonly used words in Korean in which you can find the suffix -님. Many of these words are FIXED, which means they CAN’T be used WITHOUT the suffix -님. And some of them CAN be used without -님, but the nuance can change.
1. 선생님 [seon-saeng-nim] = teacher
** Almost always used with -님 attached. If you only say 선생, you may sound disrespectful. 선생님 is used both when you address a teacher directly and when you talk about a teacher when he or she is not present.
2. 장님 [jang-nim] = a blind person
** Some people think it’s more appropriate to use the term 시각장애인 (visually handicapped person), but the word 장님 is still very commonly used and you can NOT use the word without -님 attached.
3. 의사선생님 [ui-sa-seon-saeng-nim] = doctor
** The job itself is 의사 [ui-sa] but when you address and talk to a doctor, you can not call him/her “의사”. You need to use the word 의사선생님.
4. 교수님 [gyo-su-num] = professor
** The job itself is 교수 [gyo-su] but when you talk to a professor, you need to put the suffix -님 and call that person “NAME + 교수님” or just “교수님".
5. 어머님 [eo-meo-nim] = mother
** You can call your own mother 엄마 [eom-ma] or 어머니 [eo-meo-ni] if you want to be more polite, but when you refer to someone else’s mother in a polite way or even your own in the most formal way, you use the word 어머님. It is not natural, however, to use the term 어머님, to talk about your own mother to someone else. In that case, 저희 어머니 [jeo-hui eo-meo-ni], “my mother”, is better.
6. 아버님 [a-beo-nim] = father
** The same with 어머님. You can call your own father 아빠 [a-ppa] or 아버지 [a-beo-ji], and the most formal term is 아버님 [a-beo-nim].
7. 형님 [hyeong-nim] and 누님 [nu-nim]
** When men address an older man, they use the term 형 [hyeong]. But when they want to be very polite (not necessarily “formal” in this case), they attach the suffix -님 at the end. The same goes for 누나 [nu-na], a term for men to use to address an older female, except 누나 changes to 누님 [nu-nim] instead of 누나님.
8. 손님 [son-nim] = guest
** In the past, the sino-Korean word 손 [son] could be used on its own to mean “a guest”, but in modern-day Korean, the suffix -님 is ALWAYS attached at the end of the word. In a more business-related context, you can call your customers “고객님 [go-gaek-nim]”. And in the case of the word 고객님, it is OKAY to drop -님 when you are NOT addressing a person directly.
More examples of job titles
9. 사장님 = head of company + 님
10. 과장님 = section chief + 님
11. 부장님 = head of departement (or manager) + 님
12. 총장님 = dean or president of a college + 님