Korean language and culture series: Age, part 1

Many fans who are not familiar with the Korean language recognize the use of the word “yo” (at the end of a sentence) when speaking formally in k-drama land. As Blue illustrated here, linguistic formality is ingrained in the Korean language.  However, as most things when being translated from one language to another, the subtlety of it is also lost as well. Below are some examples of how to determine your place in the hierarchy relative to age in the form of a question. Hopefully, you can appreciate how subtle and also complex the Korean language can be at times and also add one more word to your ever expanding knowledge of Korean terms.  (This post was partly inspired by a rather grimacing faux pax exchanged at the pharmacy.)

Age=나이 (na yi)

When  addressing an elder, the term “age” changes to a more respectable form of the noun to “연세”  (pronounced “yun seh”). The use of this term will also determine if you had a good upbringing and learned proper manners as deemed by your elders.  You should ask: “연세가 어떻게 되세요?” (yun seh ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?)

The term “연세” is applicable to an individual who is 60 years of age or older. [Blue: I’d argue for using 연세 (yun seh) for anyone who is 50 years of age or older. But as you can see by how Bella and I disagree, there is no clear-cut rule.] But generally, you should use “연세” when referring to the age of someone who is much older than you (i.e. Old enough to be your parent.)  Note that you will see this term commonly used in many family dramas that host several generations. For example, when you ask your boyfriend (or girlfriend) the age of your future mother-in-law, you’d ask, “What is her yun seh?”

An adult that you meet for the first time who you know to be older than you but not past 60 yrs of age, you would ask:  “나이가 어떻게 되세요?” (na yi ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?)

Someone you meet for the first time but who you know to be around the same age as you or even younger, you would ask: “몇 살이세요?” (myut sal yi seh yo?) or “몇 살이에요?” (myut sal yi eh yo?) or “나이가 몇이에요?” (na yi ga myut yi eh yo?). [Blue: In a more formal/polite setting, you should still go for “나이가 어떻게 되세요?” (na yi ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?) or “나이가 어떻게 되죠?” (na yi ga uh tuh kkeh deh jo?) ]

Next time, part 2 will further explore the pecking order with individuals born in the same year.

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11 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Age, part 1

  1. blue says:

    When both individuals are adults (post-college), I think it’s safer to use version 2 for almost anyone you meet for the first time (with the exception of seniors), whether that person is older, same age, or younger than you.

    And maybe I’m too careful about appearing polite, but I’d go for using “yun seh” for anyone who is much older than you, whether that person is over 60 or not.

    • Bella says:

      I agree with the former and to always be on the safe side, I use “yun seh” but I also committed a faux pax myself when I used that to someone who turned out to be 46 yrs old. I was quickly corrected in that one- I think it depends on the individual as well.

      • blue says:

        Ooh, good point! And a point well-taken! Just curious, but what did she (am I correct in assuming that it was a woman?) say when she corrected you?

  2. meisa says:

    thank you for this series. i’m new to the korean world. much appreciated.

  3. christie says:

    love this series…what is the translation of the age question?(yun seh ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?)

    • blue says:

      Both “연세가 어떻게 되세요?” (yun seh ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?) and ”나이가 어떻게 되세요?” (na yi ga uh tuh kkeh deh seh yo?) literally translate to a formal form of “What is your age?” The only difference is that “yun seh” is a more respective form of “na yi,” but the two words both mean “age.”

  4. kcomments says:

    First impression after reading, these really reflect the Korean cultures where elders are highly respected (at the least in form of formality shown). What I do wonder is that how severe it would be(in term of sociality) if you somehow address wrongly of such when you speak?

    • bella012 says:

      @kcomments- actually the way you address and greet people speak volumes of your upbringing and in extension, a reflection of your parents and if they raised you well.
      I did observe that more often than not, the lack of manners is forgiven or overlooked by the elders in the US due to many Korean Americans who lack the ability to speak Korean and hence their greetings will be more “American” or “casual.” However, most of this is also prefaced with, “oh well he/she was born here” to justify the poor manners.
      In Korea, it’s much worse and frowned upon heavily. Which is also why you hear the expression, “saggaji up suh” so frequently in dramas where the male (or female) protagonist is rude.

      • kcomments says:

        Thanks Bella, jeez! this is serious stuff. And how I wish audio were included, that would be really helpful^^

  5. supah says:

    This is super helpful stuff, thank you so much!

    P.s. J’adore that picture of the two Smile families.

  6. bella012 says:

    @Blue- she told me her age promptly, said that my manners were good but was not crazy what the word inferred since she wasn’t “that old” yet. She told me to call her “unni.”
    @Supah- you’re welcome!
    @Everyone- if there is anything else that you would like clarifications on, a separate post will be dedicated to it so please post your questions in the Ask B&B section.

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