Within an Immediate Family / For Relatives / Usage Extended Beyond Blood Relationship
Suppose that you’re visiting an American couple at their country home. All of their four children are also there to celebrate a special occasion: Michael (age 27), Claire (age 20), Bill (age 16) and Mary (age 15).
A lively conversation has begun at the dinner table. How would Claire call her older brother? She would call him Michael, of course, because that’s his name. And how would Bill call Michael? Bill would also call Michael Michael. What’s the point of all these boring questions? Well... the way they call each other would be very different if this was a Korean family.
In a Korean family, Claire would call her older brother Michael not by his actual name but by saying “oppa”, a word meaning, simply, “older brother”. When she talks directly to him, she would say, for example, “Oppa, did you try this?” The same word is used when she speaks about Michael to a 3rd person — for example, “My oppa is an accountant.”
But the word “oppa” should only be used by a female speaker.
When Bill calls his older brother Michael, he has to use a different word, “hyung”, instead of “oppa”. “Hyung” also means “older brother”, but it’s used between brothers only. (The pronunciation of “hyung” is similar to the English word “young”, except that it begins with an /h/ sound.) When Bill speaks to or about Michael, he would say, “Hyung, did you try this?” or “My hyung is an accountant.”
For “older sister”, they use different words. When Mary calls her older sister Claire, Mary would not call her by her name but by saying “unnie”. (It’s a 2-syllable word: “un” sounds like the first syllable of “under”; “nie” sounds like “knee”.) For example, Mary would say, “Unnie, did you try this?” or “My unnie is a college student.” However, “unnie” is used only between sisters. So, when Bill calls his older sister Claire, he has to use a different word, “noona” (pronounced noo-nah). For example, “Noona, did you try this?” or “My noona is a college student.”
How do Koreans call their younger brothers or sisters? Do we have to learn another set of 4 words? Luckily for first-time learners of Korean, the complication stops here. When Koreans talk directly to younger family members, they just call them by their names. So, Michael would say, “Claire, did you try this?” and “Bill, did you try this?”
In the example above, Claire has only one “oppa”, but Mary has two. Mary would call both Michael and Bill “oppa”. Bill has two sisters but only one “noona”. Michael, being the oldest, will never have a chance to use any of the 4 words within his immediate family. But he may get to use some of the words to his relatives.
Usage Extended to Relatives
The traditional Korea was centered around farming villages, where it was common for distant relatives to live close by and meet each other often. The Korean vocabulary is loaded with terms describing blood relations. There are specific words for elder male cousins, elder female cousins, mother’s brother, father’s cousin’s daughter, and the list goes on and on.
Koreans, however, prefer to use the same set of words we just learned (oppa, hyung, unnie, noona) to call their older relatives who belong to the same generation, regardless of the distance. When someone calls a distant relative “oppa”, it means that she would rather cut out the layers of distance and simply treat him as if he was her own brother. The same is true for hyung, unnie and noona. What’s important here is the concept of being in the same generation, which is defined by genealogy and not by the age group. In an extreme case, it is possible that a son of your father’s cousin can be older than you by a few decades. But, since he is still in the same generation in the genealogical sense, he would be called “oppa” or “hyung”.
Usage Extended Beyond Blood Relationship
You may not have much emotional bonding with the children of your father’s cousin, unless you have spent time together with them in your formative years. You may be actually closer to someone whom you met outside the bloodline boundary. Many Koreans choose to blur the boundary when they interact with older friends they met socially by calling them “hyung”, “unnie”, “oppa” or “noona”. By using these terms, you show your willingness to be informal as if they were your own brothers or sisters. Suppose that a 20-year-old baritone singer joined a church choir, where he was introduced to a 24-year-old tenor. Initially, he may address the older singer somewhat formally. After some socialization, if they mutually feel that their relationship deserves brother-to-brother informality, the young baritone may begin to call his new (older) friend “hyung”. Similarly, when a young woman meets a slightly older woman, she may at some point begin to call her “unnie” — again, only if they feel that their relationship deserves sister-to-sister kind of informality.
The initial, formal period may be a week, a day or as short as 2 minutes. Or, it may never end. In fact, there are many Koreans who would never use (and never want to be called by) these family terms outside of the real blood relationship. So, the extended usage is by no means mandatory.
Whether they would opt to use these terms also depends on when the first encounter happened. A 35-year-old woman who recently got to know a slightly older man socially would probably never call him “oppa”, although she might have done so if she was 22 years old and certainly much more readily if she was 17. Yet, you may find a woman in her 60’s calling an older man “oppa”, because they probably met when they were young and she has been calling him that way for decades. Moreover, you sometimes see a married woman who calls her husband “oppa”, because that’s the way she called him before she married him and it was probably awkward to switch to a new term right after marriage.
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