But do you know what they actually mean, why they are used, and when to use them?
At first glance they might look like they’re just silly little words that get thrown around too much. However, it’s actually of great importance to be knowledgeable about them if you’re interested in learning Korean. We’ll teach you everything you need to know!
We’ve included a FREE PDF version of this lesson that you can take with you on the go. Check it out below:
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 Korean, 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 hasn’t passed yet by the time they were born.
Meaning of the words
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!
Now, let’s get to the point. If you are a woman and the man is older than you (related to you or not), you should call him 오빠 (oppa). In the case you are a woman and another woman is older than you, then the word to call them by is 언니 (eonni). On the other hand, if you are a man in the company of an older man or simply having a conversation with them, you should refer to them as 형 (hyeong), and in the case of your conversation partner being an older woman, then call her 누나 (nuna).
= (oppa | females speaking to older males)
= (hyeong | males speaking to older males)
= (nuna) | males speaking to older females)
= (eonni) | females speaking to older females)
오빠 (oppa) and 형 (hyeong) mean ‘older brother’, 누나 (nuna) and 언니 (eonni) mean ‘older sister’. However, the meaning of these terms expands much further than just your blood related siblings.
Before using these terms, take into consideration these three things:
- 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, hyeong, nuna, and eonni, 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 this 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 (nuna) and women by 언니 (eonni), regardless of age difference.
Some other instances you might want to consider
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 should you do in the cases where 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 it’s likely you’ll just refer to them by name (if you are close).
What if you are the one who is older? 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.
Does age ever not matter?
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 for you to call them 오빠 (oppa), some women will chuckle whenever you refer to them as 언니 (eonni). While some men a year or two younger than the woman are dead set on calling them 누나 (nuna) 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 a lot of senior citizens no longer care at all.
In school and work life environment, more so than your age, other things matter. At work, your title and status take precedence over everything else. In school, it’s when you started school that determines how you should be referred to as. These also apply among colleagues of the same status level at work.
At university, 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’. Those who started later than you can be referred to as 후배 (hubae) aka ‘junior’.
Outside of the terms represented here, there are so many other terms out there for Koreans to use when referring to one another, based on one’s status, gender, who they are to you, and so on. To explain all these terms, several posts are needed.
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.
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!