Talking About Family in Korean: Essential Vocabulary, Titles and Cultural Norms
With big families, it’s always a struggle to remember everyone’s name.
Now, imagine having to remember not just their names, but the specific designated title for who they are within the family.
Of course, we have our “brother-in-law” and “second cousin once removed” business in English.
But what about titles based on the age of the relative? Or even titles based on the gender of the individual whose relative is being referred to?
That’s the confusing world of naming Korean family members!
Let’s dive in.
Talking About Family in Korean: Essential Vocabulary, Titles and Cultural Norms
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The Significance of Family in Korean Culture
Before we get into the specific family member names, you should know a little bit about what the concept of family is like for Korean people, especially within their native homeland.
Family in Korean is 가족 (ga-jok).
Like many other Asian cultures, traditional Korean culture places special significance on the family structure. With the long-time embedding and practice of Confucian principles, the adage “respect your elders” has been and remains quite prominent. It’s strongly expressed within the family, in which elder members are expected to be treated with a certain reverence.
This is shown in different ways, from changing your manner of speaking and checking your sentence grammar, to making sure elders go first during certain activities (such as partaking in a meal).
In Korean society, family is often seen as a collective, with any member often seen to represent more than just him or herself.
Using Titles (Not Names!) for Your Family
Knowing how to name family members is also one of the first things you aim to learn when studying a foreign language and every language has its quirks regarding the matter. In the case of Korean, you’ll quickly notice something: the general absence of using actual names for family members.
In the Korean language, there’s something attached to the act of referring to someone directly by their first name. When people are talking to someone they’re less acquainted with, or to someone who is their superior in some way, they often give them a title. These are honorifics, titles that replace the usage of actual names in order to express an understanding of one’s social position.
Honorifics are just another part of the layered etiquette system present in Korean culture. Sometimes honorifics aren’t given to those who are your junior, although courtesy may incline you to do so in different situations.
Before we go any further, let’s check out this video on Korean honorifics:
When Are Korean Names Used?
If names are to be added to honorifics, then they’d be the surname, which would go before the honorific. This is often done by older individuals speaking to those who are close in age to them. For example, if you were speaking to a 김정후 (Kim Jung-hoo) you may refer to him as 김 씨 (Kim ssi), not 정후 씨.
However, in other contexts, addressing someone in this manner can come off as demeaning or act as a curt social position check, a bit like how in English we’d emphasize a “Mr.” or “Mrs. / Ms.” to get at someone’s attention and keep them in line.
This rule is prominent in the Korean family. While an older sibling may refer to their younger sibling by their name, it’d be quite a surprise if a younger sibling suddenly spoke to their elder brother or sister by their real name sans honorific. It could be quite messy if you do it with your parent or grandparent.
The most obvious time that it’d be alright to use first names would be for some documentation or specification purpose (such when you must point out a certain family member to someone else, like a cousin amidst cousins) and when you’re not speaking to the person directly.
Honorifics act as courtesy markers and show you understand who deserves respect. Within the family, remembering the correct title is a social expectation. Somewhat unfortunately, there are quite a lot of specific titles to remember!
Practicing Korean Family Vocabulary with Real-World Korean Videos
It can feel dizzying to keep all of this Korean family vocabulary straight. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
To learn and practice family vocabulary, it’s a great idea to immerse yourself in real Korean media like Korean movies, K-drama and podcasts. These authentic learning materials will show you how native Korean speakers refer to their family members, while also teaching you about the dynamics of Korean families.
How to Refer to Family Members in Korean
Children (아이들, ah-ee-deul)
아들 (a-deul) — son
딸 (ddal) — daughter
아이 (ah-ee) — child (one)
Parents (부모, bu-mo)
어머니 (uh-muh-ni) / 엄마 (uhm-ma) — mother / mom
아버지 (ah-buh-ji) / 아빠 (ah-ppa) — father / dad
These terms apply to both biological and in-law parents, although there are specific terms to point out parents-in-law when you’re speaking about them.
Grandparents (조부모, jo-bu-mo)
할아버지 (ha-ra-buh-ji) — grandfather
할머니 (hal-muh-ni) — grandmother
To be more formal when addressing your grandparents, you can add a 님 to the end to make 할아버님 or 할머님.
Spouses (배우자, beh-oo-ja)
남편 (nam-pyun) — husband
아내 (ah-neh) — wife
These are what you’d call your spouses when you’re talking about, not with, them. Normally, Korean couples refer to each other with other terms of endearment or pet names.
One of these terms is 여보 (yuh-bo) which essentially translates to “darling” or “sweetheart.” This term is used exclusively by married couples. If a younger or unmarried couple uses this term, they’re trying to be cutesy or pretend to be married.
Another common term of endearment is 당신 (dang-shin), which basically means “you.” However, take note: this term should only be used to directly address a spouse. If you use it to mean “you” in any other context, it can be seen as offensive.
Siblings (형제자매, hyung-jeh-ha-meh)
형 (hyung) — older brother for male
오빠 (o-ppa) — older brother for female
누나 (nu-na) — older sister for male
언니 (un-ni) — older sister for female
남동생 (nam-dong-seng) — younger brother
여동생 (yuh-dong-seng) — younger sister
Here’s our first look at how honorifics will differ based on the gender of the speaker.
If you’re at all familiar with Korean drama shows, or K-dramas, you probably already know these constraints. Unless jokingly, a Korean girl wouldn’t call her older brother 형 or a Korean boy call his older sister 언니.
These honorifics are also usable for non-blood-related individuals if they’re close enough to you. Nowadays, they also are used flirtatiously.
For the younger siblings, note that 동생 itself means “younger sibling” and has no single gender attached to it, so you can actually just refer to your younger sibling with 동생 if the gender distinction isn’t necessary. The character before it denotes the gender of the sibling: 남 for boy originates from 남자 (nam-ja, “man/boy”) and the 여 from 여동생 originates from 여자 (yuh-ja, “lady/girl”).
Your Biological Siblings’ Spouses
If you’re male, use:
형수 (hyung-soo) — older brother’s wife
매형 (meh-hyung) — older sister’s husband
제수씨 (je-su-ssi) — younger brother’s wife
매제 (meh-je) — younger sister’s husband
If you’re female, use:
새언니 (seh-un-ni) — older brother’s wife
형부 (hyung-bu) — older sister’s husband
올케 (ol-kke) — younger brother’s wife
제부 (je-bu) — younger sister’s husband
Yes, the gender distinctions in sibling titles still apply for your siblings-in-law! If you’re close enough to them, you can just address them with the typical sibling titles without the specifying preceding character.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry: most Koreans aren’t even familiar with these terms, especially younger Koreans. They’re good to know, but it’s okay if you can’t keep them straight.
Extended Family (대가족, dae-ga-jok)
사촌 (sa-chon) — cousin (typically, address them with standard sibling titles listed above)
조카 (jo-ka) — nephew
조카딸 (jo-ka-ddal) — niece
손자 (son-ja) — grandson
손녀 (son-nyuh) — granddaughter
Maternal side (외가, oe-ga)
이모 (ee-mo) — aunt / mother’s sister
이모부 (ee-mo-bu) — uncle / mother’s sister’s husband
외삼촌 (oe-sam-chon) — uncle / mother’s brother (age not relevant)
외숙모 (oe-sook-mo) — aunt / mother’s brother’s wife
Paternal side (친가, chin-ga)
고모 (go-mo) — aunt / father’s sister (younger or older)
고모부 (go-mo-bu) — uncle / aunt’s husband
삼촌 (sam-chon) — uncle / father’s brother (younger and unmarried)
작은아버지 (jag-eun-ah-buh-ji) or 작은 아빠 (jag-eun ah-ppa) — uncle / father’s brother (younger, usually married)
큰아버지 (keun-ah-buh-ji) or 큰아빠 (keun-ah-ppa) — uncle / father’s brother (older, unmarried or married)
숙모 (sook-mo) — aunt / father’s brother’s wife (generalized). To specify:
큰어머니 (keun-uh-muh-ni) or 큰엄마 (keun-uh-ma) — aunt / father’s older brother’s wife
작은어머니 (jag-eun-uh-muh-ni) or 작은엄마 (jag-eun-uhm-ma) — aunt / father’s younger brother’s wife
As a quick note: these are the words you’d use as the child of your mother and father. As a child, you’d call your father’s side of the family 친가, but your mother can refer to her own family as 친가 as well, whereas you’d say 외가 for the same group of people. Keep that in mind!
You probably also notice that there’s more complication with naming your father’s brothers. When talking about them, one would normally attach Korean ordinal numbers to the title, which designate their order in age.
For example, the very eldest paternal uncle would be 큰아버지, the second eldest paternal uncle would be called 둘째 큰아버지, the third eldest 셋째 큰아버지, and so on.
This also applies for your father’s younger brothers, though you’d use 작은아버지 instead of 큰아버지.
If you’re wondering why this special treatment exists specifically for the male portion of the paternal side, part of it is likely due to those traditional Confucian principles mentioned before, which also put an emphasis on the role of the man within the family.
In-laws (사돈, sa-don)
사위 (sa-wi) — son-in-law
surname of son-in-law + 서방 (suh-bang) — son-in-law (when directly addressed)
며느리 (myuh-neu-ra) — daughter-in-law (when speaking about her to someone else)
애기야 (eh-gi-ya) — daughter-in-law (when directly addressed)
These are the terms that a wife would use to refer to her in-laws.
시아버지 (shi-ah-buh-ji) — husband’s father / wife’s father-in-law
시어머니 (shi-uh-muh-ni) — husband’s mother / wife’s mother-in-law
When you’re talking to your parents-in-law, you’d still refer to them with the standard 어머니 or 아버지, although you’d probably tack on the more formal 님 to show more respect.
도련님 (do-ryun-nim) — husband’s younger, unmarried brother
아주버님 (ah-ju-buh-nim) — husband’s older brother (This also means the husband of a wife’s older sister.)
형님 (hyung-nim) — husband’s older sister or husband’s brother’s wife
동서 (dong-suh) — husband’s younger or older brother’s wife (If the 동서 is older than the wife, the wife may also call her 형님.)
아가씨 (ah-ga-ssi) — husband’s younger sister
서방님 (suh-bang-nim) — husband’s married younger brother / husband’s sister’s husband (서방님 may also be used as just meaning “husband.”)
These are the terms that a husband would use to refer to his in-laws.
장인 (jang-in) — wife’s father / husband’s father-in-law
장모님 (jang-mo-nim) — wife’s mother / husband’s mother-in-law
Again, you’d probably address your wife’s in-law parents with the standard 어머니 or 아버지 with the addition of 님 for respect.
처남 (chuh-nam) — wife’s younger brother
형님 (hyung-nim) — wife’s older brother
동서 (dong-suh) — wife’s sister’s husband
처제 (chuh-je) — wife’s younger sister
처형 (chuh-hyung) — wife’s older sister
사돈 is a term commonly used by older generations to refer to in-laws, and it can be used for when you’re not speaking to your family. It can come off as rude if, say, a son-in-law addressed his in-law parents directly as 사돈, so it’s recommended you don’t do so to your own in-laws.
While you’d refer to your parents-in-laws with 어머니 or 아버지, for the most part, you’d keep the titles for the siblings as is whether you’re a wife or husband.
If you’re wondering: yes, even Korean people struggle to remember all of these titles! Because of the breadth and specificity of Korean family terminology, you’ll easily impress natives if you’re savvy on which family member receives which title.
Know all of this, and you’ll fit right in with a Korean 가족 (family)!