On the ‘subject’ honorific -si- in Korean
Keywords:Korean, pragmatics, honorifics
Korean is one of several languages that has a system of honorification, whereby a speaker can express (their desired interpretation of) their relative social standing with respect to others via morphosyntactic marking. Alongside the question of what honorification means (what it contributes to the communicative content of an utterance), there is another, less well-studied question: how is the target of honorification identified? Often this is taken to be a syntactic question, where honorification is treated as a kind of agreement. We present several arguments as to why this is not the correct approach. Instead, we advocate for a semantic/pragmatic solution. We take as our case study one marker of honorification in Korean, the morpheme -si-, which is often called a ‘subject honorific’ because it supposedly targets/honors the subject of the verb it appears on. It is well known, however, that this is an inadequate characterisation, and here we present further evidence that this cannot be the correct description of its role. Instead, we argue that the target of -si- is the human referent which is ‘closest’ to the subject in terms of the pragmatic relation of PROXIMITY, thus accounting for both the canonical uses and other potentially puzzling uses.
Published by the LSA with permission of the author(s) under a CC BY 4.0 license.