Korean Honorifics 101—Because Not All Boys Are Your “Oppa”

K-Dramas have always been the talk of the town. Literally everyone’s on their TVs or laptops, watching and streaming the newest and most popular K-Dramas released in the past three years at least. No wonder the hype was so high and real that finger hearts are in almost every photo, and the most basic Korean words—the easiest to remember and say—were dropped.

Like calling every handsome-looking man “oppa.” Which unfortunately, even if we hate bursting people’s bubbles, can be quite wrong.

Confused? This article may be the answer to your questions! If you’re new to the Korean drama fandom, or any Korean pop culture fandom for that matter, we’re giving you an easy guide on how you can use Korean honorifics–words that reflect a speaker’s relationship to the other person⁠—properly and in proper context. Are you ready? Here we go.

The Generic “Ssi”

The honorific suffix “-ssi” (-씨, pronounced as “shi” with a tiny bit longer “sh” at the beginning) is the generic honorific for anyone. It pretty much is the same as calling someone you aren’t that too acquainted with as “mister” or “miss.” Make sure you know the name of the person if you’re using this, though, because it is as mentioned, a suffix⁠—it does not stand alone. For example, you have a colleague at work you aren’t really that close with named Jino. You may call him “Jino-ssi.” It works for both boys and girls, regardless of the speaker or the subject person.

Older Brother: Oppa or Hyung?

One of the most common misconceptions about the word “oppa” (오빠) is that it means “boyfriend” or “handsome.” We’re not surprised given that in many K-Dramas, those who are called “oppa” are actors who are generally…well, you got it right, handsome.

But “oppa” is commonly used to a younger female speaker to her older brother or to an older man whose age is not commonly 10 years older or more. This applies to both your family relative, that is, your actual kuya, or a friend or a boyfriend who is older than you. This is why you hear female drama leads calling their boyfriends “oppa” because 1) the speaker is female, and 2) their boyfriends are older than them, otherwise they would not use the honorific.

But what if you’re male and you have an older brother, or an older male friend? Then you use “hyung” (형, pronounced somewhat like “yong” with an “h” at the beginning). Remember that you can’t call an older brother an “oppa” if you’re a guy because that is only for female speakers!

Older Sister: Unnie or Noona?

The same rule applies for older sisters as that of the older brothers. For females, older sisters or older female friends/relatives are called “unnie” (언니, pronounced as “un” as in “under” and “nie” as in “niece”). Males can call their older sisters “noona” (누나). Similarly, boys who have older girlfriends can call their lovers “noona.” Pretty simple right?

You may also add these honorifics to names just like how “-ssi” works: Jongshin-oppa, Sooyoung-unnie, Mina-noona. See?

Parents: Appa or Abeoji? Eomma or Eomeoni?

“Appa” (아빠) and “abeoji” (아버지), among others, are honorifics for your father. They are both accepted although most of the time, you hear “appa” more than “abeoji” in Korean dramas. It may be quite confusing to call someone else’s father as “appa” because they are, to begin with, not your father, right? So you can use “abeonim” (아버님) if you’re referring to, let’s say, your friend’s father.

Both “eomma” (엄마) and “eomeoni” (어머니) are honorifics for mothers, and you can address your own mom as such. Similarly, if you’re referring to someone else’s mother, you may opt using “eomonim” (어머님) instead.

Grandparents: Harabeoji and Halmeoni

The rules are pretty much the same as those of parents above. “Harabeoji” (할아버지) is for your grandfather, and “halmeoni” (할머니) is for your grandmother. If you’re referring to someone else’s grandparents, you may use “harabeonim” (할아버님) for grandfather and “halmeonim” (할머님) for grandmother.

The Middle-Aged Ones: Ahjussi and Ahjumma

These ones are just as common in K-Dramas as the brother, sister, and parents honorifics. “Ahjussi” (아저씨, the “ju” is pronounced not as “joo” but as “joh,” similar to that of “John”) is the honorific for a man in his middle ages, that’s why it is typically translated to “uncle” although they are not really your uncle. “Ahjumma” (아줌마, this time the “ju” is pronounced as “joo”) is for a middle-aged woman, or an aunt. Please take note, however, that these honorifics are not for your actual uncles and aunts. There are a whole different set of terms for the brothers and sisters of your parents and their spouses, one that is quite complicated we cannot really put them all here! But the point is, do not call your uncles and aunts “ahjussi” or “ahjumma.” Got it?

School People!

Teachers are addressed as “seonsaengnim” (선생님, pronounced as “seon” similar to “son” plus “sengnim”). Your seniors in school, like in high school or college, can be addressed as “seonbaenim” (선배님, the “bae” part not pronounced as “bay” but as “beh” like in “better”). You may actually add the honorific after the name. If you have a senior named Jimin, you can call her “Jimin-seonbaenim.”

You may also have heard of the term “hoobae” (후배) which is used to refer to juniors. However, please take note that they are not normally used to refer directly to your juniors, and by directly we mean seeing your junior and greeting them “Hello hoobae!” Nah-uh. The term is used in the third person, that is, when you’re talking to someone and you wanted to mention a junior in the conversation. For example, you’re talking to your teacher and you wanted to tell that your friend Soohyun is your junior, so you tell the teacher “Ah, Soohyun is my hoobae.”

Now that we’re done explaining the basics, here’s a simple table so it’d be easy for you to remember them:

And there they are! These are some of the words that could help you understand the basics of the complexity that is the Korean honorifics system. Please take note that these rules are not absolute and there may be exceptions to some cases. If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to respond the soonest.

Dan Gambe
Dan is born in the 90’s who talks a lot when he writes. He has a love-hate relationship with writing, is fond of cats, and thinks mangoes are the key to world peace. The chances of him phonezoning you lies between 80 to 90 per cent, but he’ll speak to you if you speak to him so don’t be shy!

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