After introducing the blog’s new “Korean language and culture series,” I gave much thought to what is the most logical way to start, and before I knew it, I began feeling overwhelmed. Would it be easier for readers to follow if I started with explaining the mechanism of the formal and informal speech in Korean? Or should I start by defining some commonly used terms and phrases? Is it possible to do one without having covered another? And then I realized, OMG, what have I gotten myself into?! My palms started sweating (ok, not really, but it sure sounds more dramatic that way, no?) at the thought that if I do a poor job, I might end up confusing more people than clearing things up. I finally decided that a good place to start as any would be by defining and explaining the many different terms that Koreans use when addressing one another.
Even the most casual of drama watchers are likely to have noticed the frequent uses of “unni,” “oppa,” “sunbae,” and a number of other terms that drama characters call each other, and wondered what they all meant. Or you may be a seasoned veteran who after many years of drama-watching can now say that you have a pretty good idea of what most of these words mean, and even find yourself explaining them to others. Although I intend to dedicate a separate entry for each of the more frequently used terms/titles, this post will give a quick summary of the general practice itself.
As a rule, Koreans frequently address others by a term or a title that conveys the exact relation between the two people involved (the addressee and the addressor), or that indicates the position of the addressee in society. And even when addressing the other person by name, the addressor often adds the relation title after the name.
This may appear strange in English. Employees at a restaurant literally greet their customers as “Customer” (“Sohn-nim”=손님), and when taking orders, they may ask you, “Customer, what would you like to order?” When you call customer service, the phone operator greets you with a friendly “Client (“Gogaek-nim”=고객님), how may I help you?” Kids at school do not address their teachers as Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, but as “Teacher” (“Seonsaeng-nim”=선생님). Even teachers address their fellow colleagues as “Teacher,” although usually accompanied by their name. For instance, one teacher may call another teacher whose name is Park Yong Woo as “Park Yong Woo Seonsaeng” or “Park Yong Woo Seongsaeng-nim,” depending on the seniority of the two teachers (Note: Adding “nim” after a noun indicates a more respectful form of address). An elderly woman may approach a teenager in school uniform and ask, “Student (“Haksaeng”=학생; notice the absence of “nim” here), can you tell me the directions to get to so-and-so?” A landlord may pester her college student tenant (let’s pretend his name is Park Yong Woo again) for failing to pay his rent on time, shouting through the door, “Park Yong Woo Haksaeng, pay up!”
Whether addressing a close older female figure as “Unni” or the head of the department at work as “Siljang-nim” (or more like “Sildang-nim” if you have a lisp à la Choi Ji Woo), Koreans attempt to make clear the exact relation they have with each other and the dynamics of that relationship by what they choose to address each other. What the person is called also establishes the identity of that person (for instance, whether that person is the student, the teacher, or the customer) in that social setting. Although it sounds awkward when you translate these words directly into English, you can imagine that by simplifying them as “Miss,” “Sir,” “M’am,” or even the person’s name, you lose the sense of what these people actually convey their relationship to be (at least in appearance) to others and to each other.
Next time when watching a drama, pay special attention to what the characters actually call each other. Further, if they’re called by their names (a separate entry will be dedicated in the future to how to address people by their names), pay attention to whether any word follows the name of the person to indicate the relationship status/title of that person. You’ll be surprised by how revealing this will be!