In this article, we will explain the meaning of oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니).
The direct translations are:
- Meaning of oppa (오빠) = older brother
- Meaning of hyung (형) = older brother
- Meaning of noona (누나) = older sister
- Meaning of unnie (언니) = older sister
However, the actual meanings are quite different than the translations in English.
We’ll explain what they actually mean and when to use them. Let’s go!
We’ve included a free PDF version of this lesson that you can take with you on the go. Check it out below:
We’ll give you the romanized vocabulary and Korean alphabet (한글 | hangeul). If you can’t read the Korean alphabet yet, we highly recommend you learn. It’ll really help improve the speed of your Korean learning!
- 1 The meaning of oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)
- 1.1 What does oppa (오빠) mean?
- 1.2 What does unnie (언니) mean?
- 1.3 What does hyung (형) mean?
- 1.4 What does noona (누나) mean?
- 1.5 When to use use oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)
- 1.6 Who can use oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)?
- 1.7 Using oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니) at school and work.
- 2 Korean words for friends and acquaintances
- 3 Korean Culture & Age
The meaning of oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)
The Korean words oppa (오빠) and hyung (형) mean “older brother”. Meanwhile, the Korean words noona (누나) and unnie (언니) mean “older sister.”
However, the meaning of these terms expands much further than just your blood-related siblings. Here’s how to use each one.
What does oppa (오빠) mean?
= older brother (females speaking to older males)
The Korean word oppa (오빠) is used when you are a woman, and you are talking with an older male (related to you or not). For example, oppa (오빠) is used to address an older male friend, even if he is not your older brother by blood.
This video shows what does oppa (오빠) means.
What does unnie (언니) mean?
= older sister (females speaking to older females)
If you are a woman and another woman is older than you, then the word to call them by is 언니 (unnie).
The most common way to write 언니 in romanized English is “unnie“. If you are following the romanization rules, then it is spelled “eonni.” You may also see 언니 (unnie) written as “oni” or “uni.”
What does hyung (형) mean?
= older brother (males speaking to older males)
If you are a man in the company of older males, you should refer to them as 형 (hyung). The title 형 (hyung) may also be spelled as “hyeong”.
What does noona (누나) mean?
= older sister (males speaking to older females)
If you are a man and talking to an older woman, call her 누나 (noona). You may also see 누나 spelled as “nuna”.
When to use use oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)
If there are decades worth of age difference between you two, it’s less likely for these terms to be used.
Even if you’re not talking to directly the people you call oppa, hyung, noona, and unnie, whenever you refer to them in a conversation with someone else, you should attach one of these terms after the name of the person you are talking about.
You might want to refrain from using these terms when meeting them for the first time. On the other hand, if you are in a Korean restaurant, even if the (usually older female) waitresses are strangers to you, it’s not weird for men to call them by 누나 (noona) and women by 언니 (unnie), regardless of the age difference.
Who can use oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니)?
There are also instances and Korean people who might be less fussy about using such terms, especially when dealing with foreigners. Some men might find it odd if oppa is used by someone when talking to them; some women will chuckle whenever you refer to them as 언니 (unnie).
While some men a year or two younger than the woman are dead set on calling them 누나 (noona) at every turn possible, others will refer to the woman by her name instead. In general, the less age difference there is and the closer you two are, the less important it will be, and many senior citizens no longer care.
Using oppa (오빠), hyung (형), noona (누나), and unnie (언니) at school and work.
In school and work environment, more so than your age, other things matter. At work, your title and status take precedence over everything else. Oppa is used less frequently in the workplace, even with females talking with an older male. For example, it is unusual for a female worker to talk to a male boss and call him oppa (오빠 ). In school, it’s when you started school that determines how you should be referred to as. These also apply to colleagues of the same status level at work.
Korean words for friends and acquaintances
The Korean language is tightly connected with Korean culture, and vice versa. Let’s cover a few common situations and which words to use.
What does chingu (친구) mean?
As we have learned above, oppa is used to address an older male friend if you’re a female, unnie for an older sister or older female friend if you’re a female, hyung for an older brother or older male friend if you’re a male, and noona for an older female friend if you’re a male. But what should you do in the cases where the person is the same age as you? In this case, then you two can comfortably call each other friends which in Korea is the word 친구 (chingu). In this case, likely, you’ll refer to them by name (if you are close).
What does dongsaeng (동생) mean?
What if you are the older one? Then the other person is your 동생 (dongsaeng)! This term means both little sister and little brother, though if you want to put more emphasis on the gender of the 동생 (dongsaeng) you are talking about, you can add 여 (yeo) for girls and 남 (nam) for boys. However, usually, these gender markers are used only when talking about your actual blood-related siblings.
What does 선배 (seonbae) mean?
The words 선배 (seonbae) and 후배 (hubae) are often used in Korean Universities instead of oppa, hyung, noona, or unnie. No matter if the person is actually older than you or not, if they started earlier than you did, then you should call them 선배 (seonbae) aka “senior” or “older alumnus.”
What does 후배 (hubae) mean?
Your friends at university who started later than you can be referred to as 후배 (hubae) aka “junior”.
Korean Culture & Age
In Korea, it’s important to know the age of the person you are dealing with and refer to them accordingly. For example, you might greet someone in a different way depending on your age difference.
You might have come to Korea from a Western country where “age is just a number,” but that’s quite the opposite in South Korea. Not only that, but Koreans have their own age-calculating system where your age is calculated based on your birth year. When January 1st hits, everyone becomes one year older, so to speak. Which month you were born on doesn’t matter in that sense.
However, an additional piece of information regarding this that doesn’t get talked about as much is that, depending on the person, they might actually calculate their age based on the Lunar calendar instead of the Western New Year. In this case, while your age is still calculated by the year you were born in, people born in, say January of 1993, are still considered the same age as those born in 1992 simply because Lunar New Year hadn’t passed yet by the time they were born.
Hopefully, this information can help you with your acquaintances and friends. You can use these terms along with some common Korean phrases and get some fun conversations started. You may even hear them in other unexpected situations, such as getting the staff’s attention to order food at a Korean restaurant or as a term of endearment. You can also surprise your Korean friend with these terms. If you don’t meet personally, you can try learning the Korean sentence structure to help you have a smoother conversation with them.
The more you integrate into Korean culture, the more of these terms you’ll learn, and the more you’ll enjoy your time with Koreans!