Korean titles of family and people work in a very different way than they work in English. However, it is vital that you know how they work; otherwise you could accidentally say the wrong thing and offend somebody. Titles are used far more frequently in Korean than they are in English, so they are important to know. Follow the advice in this article and you should have no problem using titles correctly in Korea.
Before learning about titles, it is useful to understand how family names work in Korea. The first thing to note is that the name order is different from in English. In Korea, the family name comes first. For example, in the name ‘Kim Bo-Kyeong’, the family name is ‘Kim’.
The second thing to note is that females don’t take their partner’s family name after they get married. While in English, you could have Mr. and Mrs. Smith, in Korea, it is highly likely that the husband and wife have different family names, for example Mr. Lee and Mrs. Kim.
Children take their father’s family name. The first part of their given name is also often the same as their father, such as the ‘Yu’ part in the names ‘Kim Yu-Na’ and ‘Kim Yu-Jin’. Koreans do sometimes change their names, just like people from other countries.
Age and Language
The title that you give somebody in Korean often depends on the age difference between you and the person that you are talking to. If the person is younger or the same age as you, then it is possible to call them by their given names rather than by a title.
There are two ways to do this. If you are using the polite or formal levels of language (when your sentences end in ‘요’ [yo] or ‘입니다’ [imnida]), then you should add the word ‘씨’ (sshi) to the end of their given names, for example Kim Bo-Kyeong would become Bo-Kyeongshhi (보경씨). Be careful to only use ‘씨’ with given names; never say ‘Kim-sshi’ (김씨).
If you are talking in the informal level of Korean, which is used with very close friends or with your partner, then rather than adding ‘씨’ to the end of their name, you should add ‘아’ (a) or ‘야’ (ya). If the name ends in a consonant, then you should use ‘아’. For example, ‘보경’would become ‘보경아’ (Bo-Kyeong-a). If the name ends in a vowel, you should use ‘야’, for example ‘유나야’ (Yu-na-ya).
If you have to show politeness to somebody, then you can do this by adding ‘님’ (nim) to the end of their full name. For example, you might hear the name and title 김보경님 (Kim Bo-Kyeongnim). However, usually you will refer to somebody by a more specific title rather than doing this. ‘님’ can be added to other titles in order to show more politeness.
When talking about their older siblings, the word that Koreans use varies depending on the gender of the speaker and the gender of the other sibling.
If a male is talking about a female sibling, they use the word ‘누나’ (nuna).
If a male is talking about a male sibling, they use the word ‘형’ (hyeong).
If a female is talking about a female sibling, they use the word ‘언니’ (eonni).
If a female is talking about a male sibling, they use the word ‘오빠’ (oppa).
These words are not just used with relatives, but can also be used to refer to older friends. If the friend is significantly older than you, then you can add ‘님’ to the end of these titles in order to show more respect. An example of this would be ‘형님’ (hyeongnim).
In the workplace, Koreans refer to their colleagues by using titles based on their colleagues’ rank within the company. The most common ones that you are likely to hear are 대리 (daeri), which means ‘assistant manager’; 과장 (gwajang), which means ‘manager’; 팀장 (timjang), which means ‘team manager’, and 부장 (bujang), which means ‘head manager’. There are lots of other job titles as you go higher up within the company.
When using these job titles, it is important to remember to add ‘님’, to the end of them when referring to other people. You can also add their family name too, for example ‘김 대리님’ (Kim Daerinim) would mean ‘Assistant Manager Kim’. If the person’s rank in the company is below ‘대리’, then usually they are referred to just by their name with ‘님’ attached to the end of it.
In Korean dramas, you can often hear the words 후배 (hubae), and 선배 (seonbae). This word was used a lot in the drama 꽃보다남자 (Boys over Flowers) in particular. The word 선배 means ‘senior’, and is used to refer to a person at school who is older than you or in a more senior year than you. The word 후배 means ‘junior’ and is used when referring to somebody younger or in a more junior year at school than you. These words are often used in the third person (for example, “I’m getting dinner with my hubae tonight”) rather than the first person.
Doctors and Teachers
When talking about a teacher, you should use the word 선생님 (seonsaengnim). Sometimes, the family name will be placed in front of 선생님, for example ‘김 선생님’ (Teacher Kim). You can also use this word when talking about doctors. Sometimes the word ‘선생님’ is used on its own, and sometimes the word 의사 (uisa), which means ‘doctor’ is added in front of it.
Korean titles of family and people are some of the most confusing aspects of learning Korean, especially for beginner students. The system of titles is very closely linked to Korean culture. Because of this, it is difficult to learn how to use titles through textbook learning. The best way to learn their proper usage is to listen to how Koreans actually use them when speaking to each other.
Listen carefully to how people use these Korean titles and you will soon understand how to use them correctly.