Although ‘Big Daddy’ makes me think of Tennessee Williams, when a Korean kid uses that expression, it means something completely different. A friend of mine, a newbie ESL teacher for Korean kids, once mentioned to me how one of her students always wrote about “Big Daddy” in his English diary.
“He must be really tall,” she chuckled.
“Are you sure he’s talking about his dad?” I asked.
“Hmm? What do you mean?”
“It could be his uncle, you know.”
“Keun Appa. Big Daddy. Dad’s older brother. Uncle.”
“So Little Daddy would be…”
“Dad’s younger brother.”
“I think you should teach him the word ‘uncle’.”
“I think I should!”
How do you call family members in Korean? What are the familial terms? Well, there are a lot of them. And when I say ‘a lot’, I really mean A LOT.
Let’s say that I’m married and have kids. In English, I would be a daughter, granddaughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, cousin, niece, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law. In Korean, I would be a ttal, sonyeo, nuna, unni, umma, emo, gomo, keun umma or jageun umma, sachon, myeoneuri, saeunni, olkae, dongseo, hyeongsunim, jesu, cheohyeong, cheoje, agassi, ajumuni, hyeongnim, and cheonamdaek. Should my kids get married and have kids, add several more titles to that list.
Confused already? I swear it’s not rocket science. But brace yourself; you’re in for a brain teaser.
Let’s start by the basics:
D = Abeoji (아버지) / Appa (아빠) = Father / Dad or Daddy
M = Umeoni (어머니) / Umma (엄마) = Mother / Mom or Mommy
Me = Adeul (아들) = Son
Me = Ttal (딸) = Daughter
With that in mind…
Your dad’s side of the family is called chinga (친가).
1. Harabeoji (할아버지) = Grandfather = Dad’s father
2. Halmoni (할머니) = Grandmother = Dad’s mother
3. Keun Abeoji (큰아버지) / Keun Appa (큰아빠) = Big Father / Big Daddy = Uncle = Dad’s older brother
4. Keun Umeoni (큰어머니) / Keun Umma (큰엄마) = Big Mother / Big Mommy = Aunt = Wife of dad’s older brother
5. Jageun Abeoji (작은아버지) / Jageun Appa (작은아빠) / Sookbu (숙부) / Samchon (삼촌) = Little Father / Little Daddy = Uncle = Dad’s married younger brother, unmarried brother is called Samchon
6. Jageun Umeoni (작은어머니) / Jageun Umma (작은엄마) / Sookmo (숙모) = Little Mother / Little Mommy = Aunt = Wife of dad’s younger brother
7. Gomobu (고모부) = Uncle = Husband of dad’s sister
8. Gomo (고모) = Aunt = Dad’s sister
What you call your uncle depends on family tradition. My dad’s family always used the ‘Big Father’ equation. Since my dad has four older brothers, we have Keun Abeoji (큰아버지), Second Keun Abeoji (둘째 큰아버지), Third, and Fourth. Some families continue calling the younger uncles Samchon even after they get married, probably out of habit.
What’s interesting is Gomo. The same equation using keun and jageun doesn’t apply. For instance, your dad’s older sister isn’t necessarily Keun Gomo, nor is your dad’s younger sister Jageun Gomo. If you have two aunts, you may call the older one Keum Gomo and the younger one Jageun Gomo, although they both may be older (or younger) than your dad.
Your mom’s side of the family is called oega (외가).
1. Oe Harabeoji (외할아버지) = Grandfather = Mom’s father
2. Oe Halmoni (외할머니) = Grandmother = Mom’s mother
3. Oe Samchon (외삼촌) = Uncle = Mom’s brother
4. Oe Sookmo (외숙모) = Aunt = Wife of mom’s brother
5. Emobu (이모부) = Uncle = Husband of mom’s sister
6. Emo (이모) = Aunt = Moms’ sister
‘Oe’ is pronounced ‘weh’. (The official Romanization method for Hangeul isn’t necessarily pronunciation-friendly, in my honest opinion.) The ‘oe’ is generally dropped when directly addressing your relatives.
In both cases, to your grandparents you’d be a sonja (손자, grandson) or sonyeo (손녀, granddaughter). To your aunts and uncles, you’d be a joka (조카, nephew or niece). The word jilnyeo (질녀, niece) is rarely used anymore and joka is used for both genders. Oh, and cousin is sachon (사촌).
Confused yet? Wait, there’s more.
Oppa. Unni. Probably two of the most heard Korean words in the K-pop fandom. Both usually screamed at ear-blasting decibels by frenetic teen girls at concerts. So what do they mean?
“Older brother” and “older sister”, from the perspective of a girl. (Apparently there are way more fangirls than fanboys who are younger than their idols.)
Here’s a breakdown of what to call your siblings. When you’re a boy:
1. Hyeong (형) = older brother
2. Nuna (누나) = older sister
When you’re a girl:
3. Oppa (오빠) = older brother
4. Unni (언니) = older sister
5. Namdongsaeng (남동생) = younger brother
6. Yeodongsaeng (여동생) = younger sister
Younger siblings are referred as dongsaeng (동생) in general and are called by their name when directly addressed by older siblings. What’s interesting in Korea is that even twins are classified into the older and younger category; if you’re born first you’re the hyeong/oppa/nuna/unni. I have never, ever met a Korean twin that called his/her older sibling by name.
Like Gomo or Emo, you add keun and jageun to the older siblings for the eldest and everyone after. For example, I’m the eldest with a younger sister and brother. My sister calls me unni. My brother, who is the youngest, calls me keun nuna (큰 누나) and my sister jageun nuna (작은 누나).
It gets better. What happens when you get married, when your siblings get married? You get new family members! So what do you call them?
1. Siabeoji (시아버지) = Father in law = husband’s father
2. Siumeoni (시어머니) = Mother in law = husband’s mother
3. Jangin (장인) = Father in law = wife’s father
4. Jangmo (장모) = Mother in law = wife’s mother
Although these are the titles of your in-laws, you do not actually call them so. You would normally call both parents in-law “mother” and “father” when addressing them directly.
The parents are sadon (사돈) to each other. When addressing directly eoreun (어른) is usually added, as in sadon eoreun (사돈어른). Mothers are generally referred as ahn sadon (안사돈).
Your in-laws will either call you sawi (사위, son-in-law) or myeoneuri (며느리, daughter-in-law).
The sibling part gets more complicated if your siblings are married.
When you’re a boy:
5 + 6 = Older brother + his wife = Hyeongnim (형님) + Hyeongsunim (형수님)
7 + 8 = Younger brother + his wife = Namdongsaeng (남동생) + Jesu (제수)
5 + 6 = Oldest sister’s husband + oldest sister = Jahyeong (자형) + Nuna (누나)
5 + 6 = Older sister’s husband + older sister = Maehyeong (매형) + Nuna (누나)
7 + 8 = Younger sister’s husband + younger sister = Maeje (매제) + Yeodongsaeng (여동생)
For some reason, jahyeong is used less and less, and being replaced with maehyeong.
And if you’re a girl:
5 + 6 = Older brother + his wife = Oppa (오빠) + Saeunni (새언니, literally “new unni”)
7 + 8 = Younger brother + his wife = Namdongsaeng (남동생) + Olkae (올케)
5 + 6 = Older sister’s husband + older sister = Hyeongbu (형부) + Unni (언니)
7 + 8 = Younger sister’s husband + younger sister = Jebu (제부) + Yeodongsaeng (여동생)
If you’re married, the family of your spouse is your family, too.
If you’re the husband:
1. Hyeongnim (형님) = Wife’s older brother
2. Cheohyeong (처형) = Wife’s older sister
1. Cheonam (처남) = Wife’s younger brother
2. Cheoje (처제) = Wife’s younger sister
If you’re the wife:
1. Ajubunim (아주버님) = Husband’s older brother
1. Sidongsaeng (시동생) / Doryeonnim (도련님) / Seobangnim (서방님) =
Husband’s younger brother / Husband’s unmarried younger brother when addressing directly / Husband’s married younger brother when addressing directly
2. Agassi (아가씨) / Assi (아씨) = Husband’s sister. These days mostly used for younger or unmarried sister.
Hyeongnim (형님) is being used instead for older or married sister, and some families even use Unni (언니).
Oh yes, we mustn’t forget the spouses of the spouse’s siblings, either. (Getting a headache?)
- The wife of your wife’s older brother = Ajumunim (아주머님, this is being used less and less)
- The wife of your wife’s younger brother = Cheonamdaek (처남댁)
- The husband of your wife’s older sister = Hyeongnim (형님)
- The husband of your wife’s younger sister = Dongseo (동서)
- The wife of your husband’s older brother = Hyeongnim (형님)
- The wife of your husband’s younger brother = Dongseo (동서)
- The husband of your husband’s sister = Seobangnim (서방님)
Don’t despair, sometimes even Koreans get confused with the titles for in-laws. Unless you decide to marry into a Korean family, knowing the terms for direct family will probably be enough to get by.
In the meantime, please understand that these familial terms aren’t used for actual family members only. Koreans are incredibly family-oriented and that concept of family has a very wide boundary. Consequently, the elderly are considered as everyone’s grandpa and grandma, so they are called harabeoji and halmoni. When you get close to someone older you start calling them hyeong, oppa, nuna or unni. In homey restaurants, you call the aunt-like serving ladies, “Emo!” When you greet your friends’ parents you call them mother and father. When a close hyeong to you gets married you call his wife hyeongsunim, whether you’re related or not.
We’re all family here.