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.”


Recap: Words for “Older Sister”
“Unnie” (
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) is used between sisters “Noona” (
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) is used between a brother and his older sister
Unnie meaning older sister written in Korean ( Play Sound
)
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Noona meaning

older sister written in Korean ( Play Sound )
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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.

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Usage Extended to Relatives

Koreans use the same set of words we just learned (oppa, hyung, unnie, noona) beyond their immediate family. Suppose you were shopping at a mall with Paul, who is your father’s cousin’s son (and older than you). And you ran into your colleague. When you introduce Paul to your colleague, you have two choices: you may say, “This is my yook-chon oppa (my father’s cousin’s son who is older than me)” or simply “This is my oppa”. If you use the second option, omitting the preceding qualifier before the word “oppa”, Paul would feel that you consider him almost as close as your own brother. “Yook-chon oppa” is the more accurate description of the relationship, but it sounds somewhat distant. 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. Likewise, hyung, unnie and noona are also used for distant relatives who belong to the same generation as you. 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 can be your “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 more traditional term after marriage.
Q & A
Q: I’m a sophomore currently attending a college in Korea as an exchange student. In my class, I met a guy who is 2 years my senior. Is it okay if I call him “oppa”? A: It depends. If you want to address him as “oppa”, you can certainly do so. However, you should keep in mind that by calling someone “oppa”, you are signaling that you wish to assume a traditional female role relative to the person, seeking “protection” and “advice” from him, for example. If you want a simple friendship on an equal footing, this is not a term you want to use – you can call him by his name.
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