KGYSAK - Korean kinship terms, titles, age and everything in between

I love using Korean kinship titles. I really do. 호칭 좋아해. I wrote about them a while back.

When I hear 오빠 I melt.
When I hear 형 I feel closer to my buddy.
When I call an older woman 누나 I grin like an idiot
When I hear some other guy call the waitress 언니 I get creeped out. Why is some guy using that word? Seoul people...Where was I? Oh yeah.
When I call an much older woman 할머니 I think of my mother's mother and how precious she will always be to me
When I call an older man 할어버지 I think of how my father's father fought in the Korean war and how he might have seen them when they were young
When I call a man 아저씨 I usually want buy something
When I call a woman 아줌마 I usually want to kill something

However you look at it, I like to use Korean titles. But without a doubt, there's no one way to change from the dreaded "아줌마/아저씨" titles to the more friendly "누나/형/오빠/언니" titles. Let's start from the most polite and work down. Also, one can replace 누나 or 누님 with any other title when appropriate:

형님이라고 부르세요 you may call me 'hyung'
형이라고 불러 주세요 please call me 'hyung'
형이라고 불러 줘 just call me your 'hyung
형이라고 불러 just call me 'hyung'

You can also do this if you find some Koreans using your first name when it is not appropriate for them to do so. For instance, when little kids call me "Matthew" I want to strangle someone. Instead, I gently remind them by saying "스미스 선생님라고 불러 주세요" Please call me Mr. Smith.

Now, when I was first learning all this, I was confused by this little tidbit: 형이 라고 불요 people call me 'hyung'. This doesn't mean "People, call me hyung!" as in "여러분 형이라고 불러주세요!" Instead, it means "people (in the world) call me hyung (because they are younger than me)". Use this only when referring to your age or title in relation to someone else. It's not terribly common so don't sweat it if it's confusing.

However, if you're like me and you are both 1) younger than the person that you are talking to and 2) you actually like using these kinship terms and want to initiate them. In this case you should ask permission beforehand:

누나라고 불러도 될까요? can I call you 'noona'?
누나로 불러도 될까요? can I call you 'noona'?
그럼, 누나라고 불까요? so, can I just call you 'noona' then?
그럼, 누나라고 불까? so, can I just call you 'noona' then?
누나라고 불거야. I'm going to call you 'noona'

Sometimes, you'll find that the person on the receiving end of your innocent and super-sweet question will smile in embarrassment or avoid the subject altogether. Why? Not everyone wants to be the older sibling, so to say. In the case of a 누나, you can *carefully* joke by saying "왜요? 누나라고 불리는 게 싫어요? You don't want to be a 'noona'?" The feeling from many older women is that a younger man, while he may be cute and sweet, is not a man to her and her heart does not feel the same loving affection towards a 동생 as she may feel towards a man whom she actually has romantic feelings towards. Accordingly, my wife sometimes simply hates it when I call her 누나. However, I do know of some couples who use it affectionately. In my case, I really like my situation; "연상의 아내 a wife older than her husband". Like most things, it various from person to person. For sure, the more common situation is "연하의 아내 a wife younger than her husband". In these cases, you can compare your age to your significant other when asked:

제가 한 살 어려요 I'm one year younger
내가 한 살 많아아요 I'm one year older
저보다 한 살 많아요 She's one year older than me
나보다 한 살 어려요 She's one year younger than me

Then again, if you come to find out that you are indeed that same age, there's little else to say other than names. Keep in mind that being the same age is the fast track to friendship. I may like titles and all but being the same age is a special type of friendship devoid of most formalities and responsibilities.

동갑이예요 We're the same age
우리는 동갑 아닌데? aren't we the same age?
알고보니 동갑이네 I'm surprised to find out that we are the same age!
들이 동갑이야 You guys are the same age
그냥 이름을 불러주세요 Just call me by my name

Regardless of same age or a few years difference, there's always the possibly embarrassing moment of when to lower speech. Who initiates it? The older person? The younger person? Can't you just slip in a lower speech term here and there and then they'll pick up on it? Well, technically, all are correct. If you are the older person and you want the younger to feel more comfortable, then tell them to drop the formalities. If you're younger, believe it or not, depending on the situation, it is possible to ask the older person to lower his or her speech in order to make the both of you closer. Finally, you can also just slip it in here and there but it carries not nearly the name level of politeness as not addressing it at all. I can say as an American, it does not make me at all uncomfortable to speak 존대말 but for many Koreans, speaking 반말 is the equivalent of taking off the tie and kicking off their shoes. They would much rather prefer it - so long as it is appropriate. Various speech lowering phrases that may help:

말 놓으세요 Please lower your speech (sir. you don't need to respect me)
저 아직 어리니까... since I'm still young...(you don't need to respect me)
허락하시면 저도 놓겠어요 if it's okay with you, I'll also drop the formalities
그럼, 우리 말 놓자 Well, let's lower our speech together
말 놓을까요? 편하게... why are you putting your language so high? relax
우리 반말 할까? shall we use 'casual speech'?
알았어. 말 놓을게 Okay. I'll lower my speech
뭐야?! 진짜로 반말 해도 되는 거야? WTF? really? You want me to use 'casual speech' with you?
말 놔도 되요? Can I lower my speech level?

As you may guess to where this post is heading, some people don't like to use these titles so I would strongly recommend to gauge the situation. Similarly, asking to use 반말 is probably not a good idea at work. If it's a work situation, just stick with Korean titles such as OOO씨 or OOO선생님 or their respective titles such as 교장님 (principal), 교감님 (vice principal) and 부장님 (supervisor) regardless of how close your relationship is. If ever curious as to where to place your speech, a few questions about age will guide you in the right direction. From the top down:

연세가 어떻게 되세요? can I ask how old are you?
나이가 어떻게 돼세요? how old are you?
나이가 어떻게 돼요? how old are you?
몇 살이세요? how old are you?
몇 살이에요? how old are you?
몇 살이야? how old are you?
한국나이로 스물 여덟이에요 In Korean age, I'm 28
미국나이로 스물 여섯이에요 In American age, I'm 26

other age specific questions include:

실례지만, 몇년생이세요? (sorry to ask but) what year were you born?
몇년생이세요? what year were you born?
생일이 언제예요? when is your birthday?
생일날에 뭐 할꺼야? when's your birthday?
저 83년생이에요 I was born in 83, son!
저는 1983년 9월 14일에 태어났어요 I was born in September 14th 1983
note: The eighty-three (83) in my birth year can be pronounced as /팔십삼/ but /팔삼/ is more natural sounding.

We covered a lot today but if you want more, there might be something you're looking for at the reference guide.

5 Responses to “KGYSAK - Korean kinship terms, titles, age and everything in between”

holterbarbour said...

I think for the following examples, one needs to insert "이" between "형" and "라" since 형 ends in a consonant:

형님이라고 부르세요 you may call me 'hyung'
형이라고 불러 주세요 please call me 'hyung'
형이라고 불러 줘 just call me your 'hyung
형이라고 불러 just call me 'hyung'

But otherwise, awesome site! I read it regularly and take much inspiration from your dedication to studying Korean!

Matthew Smith said...

@ holterbarbour - While grammatically you're correct, the subject marker is often omitted in this context. However, it wouldn't sound completely out of place to use it.

Likewise, I appreciate you not only reading but commenting! It really helps to make it worthwhile ^^

holterbarbour said...

Hmm... I thought it wasn't the subject marker "이" in this context, but rather present due to the 받침...just like one would say "동욱*이*랑 영화 보러 갔다" (c.f. 누나랑...).

Matthew Smith said...

woah. I think I just confused myself here... according to my book, I think you're right. the explanation I got from my friend looks to be a little bogus. Doesn't seem to be the subject marker at all.

Thanks for clearing this up!

Grumpy High School Teacher said...

OMG, I too love the Korean title and formalities and really identify with your feelings when I hear those words. However, I am usually older than the majority of Koreans I meet online. I am not really ancient but in my K-language quest, I can't seem to find many 30+ Koreans online.
So I feel like I miss out on all the familiarities cause I don't know of any such K-endearments for younger people. I am terribly sad about this.
My husband's Korean friend calls me 영수님, which I absolutly love (I seriously get that stupid smile on my face) but I have no way of returning the warmth and kumbaya. I am so sad about this....
So right now, I am no one's 누나, I have no 언니 and my husband doesn't get the same buzz when I call him 오빠...

I loved this article. I think I will follow your musings Matthew, thanx for the rush!