k drama lingo: touching up on your korean honorifics

K-Drama Lingo: Touching Up On Your Korean Honorifics

If you’ve watched your fair share of Korean Dramas, you probably stumbled upon certain terms that characters call each other. If you are curious why Koreans have these terms, let’s get a closer look at some of the common Korean honorifics.

Why do Koreans use honorifics? 

I western countries, it feels formal and special when someone makes an effort to address someone as “sir” or “ma’am”. These words offer ways to dress up what is being said to be extra polite.

But in Korea, these terms are pretty much a staple in conversations. Koreans use certain terms to show respect to someone older or higher than themselves in the social hierarchy. The main reason is that the Korean language and culture are hierarchical. They put high regard for age and status. 

This concept is not totally foreign in western conversations. For instance, when you see your friend, you can simply say, “Hey buddy, how are you?” But when you speak to a CEO of your company you would address them using sir or mister. You would adjust your manner of speaking to reflect your respect for that person. Korean honorifics have the same concept except that the practice is more common and complex. 

Direct translations to common Korean honorifics

In Korea, it’s important to know the age of the person you are dealing with and refer to them accordingly. You might greet someone in a different way depending on your age difference. 

Oppa (females speaking to older males)

The term Oppa (오빠) literally means “(female’s) older brother”. It is used if you are a woman who is conversing with an older male, whether he is related to you or not.  For instance, a female can address an older male friend, Oppa, even if he is not her older brother.

To emphasize that you’re referring to your own brother, you can add “chin (친)” before oppa, or chin oppa (친오빠). Koreans also use a specific tone and level of speech when talking to an actual brother.

It is worth noting that you should not use Oppa while at work to avoid sounding unprofessional. Instead, you should refer to an older male co-worker by his name and title. 

Hyung (males speaking to older males)

Hyung is used by men nowadays, but it used to be unisex in the past, specifically used by college democratic activists in the ’80s. Today, if a young man is talking to an older male, he should refer to him as Hyung (형), which can also be written as “hyeong.” The term means older brother. 

To emphasize that someone’s your own brother, you add “chin (친)” or “woori (우리)” hyung. A young man can also call someone of the same age hyung with aegyo when asking a favor. In Korea, this is not considered effeminate for men.

The most common way to make this term an honorific is to add the suffix “-nim”. “Hyung-nim (형님)” is used to show utter respect, and it is also used when two men meet for the first time.

Unnie (females speaking to older females)

This term is only used by females who are speaking to another female older than her. It is spelled as Unnie (언니) or “eonni, but you can also find less common forms like “oni” and “uni”. 

Unnie can be used to emphasize that someone is your own sister, you can add “chin (친)” or “woori (우리)” before unnie. When a younger female finds another woman really pretty or cool, she can call her “unnie” as a sign of respect.

Noona (males speaking to older females) 

Noona (누나), which can also be spelled as nuna, is a term used by a younger male when talking to a female who is older than him by a few years. 

The suffix “-nim” is the most common way to make a title honorific. But, it’s never used for noona. Instead, there’s “noonim (누님)”, which is the honorific version, but it’s not commonly used. Most women dislike being called “noonim” because it sounds too old.

There are also instances and Koreans are less fussy about using such terms, especially when dealing with foreigners. Some men might find it odd if they’re referred to as Oppa, while some women will chuckle when they’re called unnie.

Furthermore, it’s also an unwritten rule that the closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re close friends with someone who’s younger or older, a lot of the hierarchy goes out the window.

Other terms you need to know 

Dongsaeng (동생) 

If you’re an older individual referring to a younger person, you call him or her your dongsaeng (동생). This term means both little sister and little brother, though if you want to put more emphasis on the gender, you can add 여 (yeo) for girls and 남 (nam) for boys. Usually, this gender marker is used only when talking about your actual blood-related siblings. 

To emphasize that the person you are referring to is your biological younger sister/brother, you add “chin (친)” or “nae (내)” before dongsaeng.  You don’t call someone dongsaeng directly. Instead, you address them by their name. But when you introduce them or speak with others, you use the term dongsaeng.

Sunbae (선배)

Sunbae, also spelled as Seonbae, is a term that means senior.  To be more specific, it refers to people who have more experience in work, school, etc. Regardless if the person is actually older than you or not, if they started earlier than you did, you should call them sunbae. 

The sunbae culture is taken seriously in Korea. If you don’t address your sunbaes correctly, they may be offended. But sunbae is actually an informal term. The formal version is sunbaenim. The former is only used for those you are good friends with. For other relations, it is recommended to use sunbaenim. In most cases, it is safer to speak formally. However, it’s also worth noting that it can be awkward if you speak formally to your same-age friends.

Hubae (후배)

Hubae (후배), when directly translated means “Junior.”  It can also be spelled hoobae and it refers to people who have less experience than you.  For example, this can be your friends at university who started later than you. 

Chingu (친구)

The terms we have discussed so far refer to a vertical relationship between two persons. But what do you call someone if he or she is the same age as you? In this case, you two can comfortably call each other friends, which is the word chingu (친구) in Korea. But it’s not a stringent rule because two people who are really close can call each other by name.

Hopefully, this information can help you as you enjoy your favorite K-dramas and follow the stories of each character. When you know these basics, you will better appreciate the dynamics of the characters you are following.

You can also use these terms along with some common Korean phrases and get some fun conversations started. You can even surprise your Korean friend with these terms. The more you understand the way they refer to each other in everyday conversations, the more you’ll enjoy what you are watching!

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OppaJon is a founder and writer of Dramakicks. His favorite genres are medical, law, crime, fantasy, historical, thrillers and romantic comedies – wait that’s basically everything, except outright horror.
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