What it Means to Be Oppa, Unnie, Hyung, Noona (Older in Korea)

Oppa (오빠) = Older male (to females) | Unnie (언니) = Older female (to females)
Hyung (형) = Older male (to males) | Noona (누나) = Older female (to males)

Depending on where you’re from, the saying “age ain’t nothing but a number” might ring true. But in Korea, it’s a BIG number. Knowing someone’s age will instantly let people know where they stand on the super hierarchical Korean respect scale. Instantly, they’ll know how to act, how to speak and how to listen.

But to first understand this post properly, you’ll have to know your Korean age. Koreans calculate age by birth year. And this means even if you’re only 1 month older than someone, but born in a different year (i.e. December 1987 vs January 1988), you’re still considered older! Just think of January 1st as a line that isn’t crossed; you’re either on one side or the other.

Here’s what to expect once you’ve figured the other people’s age:

 

Same Age = Friend (친구)
Being the same age in Korea means you’re equals, and you’ll be instantly labeled a friend. It doesn’t matter if you’re a really nasty person and the Korean person you just met seriously hates your guts. For people of the same age, the actual term used in Korean to refer to people of the same age is “friend” (친구 – chingu). And although most Koreans will use honorific language to show respect to people that they don’t know too well, many Koreans will drop the really annoying honorific stuff and just go straight to casual Korean once they find out they’re the same age. And it’s not just language. Finding out that someone is the same age automatically makes Koreans a little more comfortable as there aren’t any expectations that are associated with being younger or older.

Tip: Dropping honorific language is common for younger Koreans. But the older you get, the less professional/mature you look by speaking casual Korean, even if you’re the same age.

 

Being Older (Oppa/Unnie/Hyung/Noona)
Since Korea is super Confucian (some say more than China!), being older, even by 1 year, automatically means you’ll be getting what Aretha Franklin wanted: R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Now that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting super hardcore 90 degree bows from someone that’s only a few months younger than you (darn!). But you’re definitely higher up the totem pole, and that means your opinions are more respected as you’re older and wiser (at least theoretically :P). So that means even if you’re an unproductive 35 year old man-child that pretty much adds no value to society (except for your max level Diablo III character), you won’t be getting much life advice and/or nagging from your 19 year old coworker at the local convenience store. In Korea, it’s just not her place to tell you how much you suck at life. (That’s why things can get tricky when a boss is younger than his/her workers.)

 

Being Younger (Dongsaeng)
But being younger doesn’t mean you have to shut up and be still. Being younger has many perks. Because you’re younger, many older Koreans will generally feel the need to take care of you. And that can mean a bunch of things. If you’re hanging out with Koreans, an older Korean friend might feel the need to go out of his/her way to drive you home, even if you’re at the opposite end of the city. Having a hard time at work might make your older Korean friends feel the need to take you out to a super relaxing spa. Sometimes being cared for means you’ll be treated out to a meal. Being younger than everyone can be pretty awesome in Korea. But remember, you’re always older than other people too :).

 

When Age Doesn’t Matter (as much)
– Generally, the closer the age (+/- 1 to 3 years), the less these views hold true. You’ll still be older, but only by a little. Close enough to be chingu :).
– The closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re very good friends with a younger/older Korean, a lot of this stuff goes out the window, and you just end up being friends :).
– For business relationships, Koreans may try to be understanding of your culture and be totally cool about the age thing.
– The older you are, the less age matters. A 1 year age difference is huge for a teenager, but doesn’t mean much at all for a senior citizen.

Do you have your own experience with oppa/unnie/hyung/noona? Let us know by writing in the comments!

Keith
Keith
Keith Kim is a Korean-American who has been living in Korea for almost a decade. Being in a unique position as both a Korean and a non-Korean, he's put all his experience and knowledge for surviving in Korea in Survival Korean . Read it to learn how you can survive in Korea. Follow him on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

80 Comments

  1. jean camille says:

    uhmm, hi i just want to know something coz i hve a friend on facebook he’s indian and i call him oppa bcoz he’s older than me i’m 16 and my friend is 27
    the n

  2. jean camille says:

    hi! i just want to know something bcoz i have a friend on facebook and he’s indian but i called he’s oppa bcoz i just give him respect in korean way bcoz i am a kpop fan specialy to shinee , and he’s 27 and i’m 16 then what my friend should be call to me is it unnie or noona???.. please kindly read my question kamsahamnida . 🙂

    • Hana says:

      Well, you’re younger than him so he doesn’t need to call you Noona. And Unnie is only used by females to their older sister. I’m sorry if I’m wrong…

      • Ollie says:

        You’re right I think, but isn’t unnie used by a girl for anyone older who demands respect? So it means your older sister but actually it’s respectful to call someone older than you that as it shows you respect them as someone older than you.

    • Sherlock says:

      You are dongseang

    • Mar says:

      your younger so it must be dongsaeng/saeng
      he should call you like that 🙂

    • su says:

      well…if neither of you are korean there isn’t a lot of point in you two giving respect in the ‘korean way’. unless you’re korean or your friend is..or if you are in korea…i don’t see any reason for you to be calling your friend oppa.

    • Jamity says:

      he shud call u dongsaeng

    • KaseyT-21P says:

      Um…well if you read, Unni or Nunna is actually for women older than men so unfortunately, he can’t call you Unni/Nunna. What he should call you is more like Dongsaeng (for older people to younger people).
      😉

    • SDoley says:

      If your friend is an Indian, there is no need to address him as oppa. We Indians don’t follow any particular way of addressing except when the person is much elder to us. If the guy is your friend, then you can call him by his name.

    • Meenu says:

      It’s ok m also Indian there is no problem u can call him

  3. Chelsea says:

    So what do older males call younger females?

    • Ollie says:

      I’m pretty sure that there isn’t an honorific as such for younger people. Officially they are a dongsaeng but you wouldn’t call them that – I think you use their name and if it ends in a consonant you add an “-ah” but if it’s a vowel you add a “-yah” – hope this helps 🙂

      • blake says:

        or “-ie” like for example (sorry bts fan) “jungkook-ie” or “jungkook-ah” either one would work

        • Emily says:

          Great example. 🙂 He is the youngest in the group so they can all call him that, but he can’t call them anything similar unless they say it’s okay (or if he is purposefully disrespecting them to be funny). He has to call them Hyung.

  4. I discovered Korean dramas through a friend and fell in love. It made me want to learn more about Korean language and culture. I was really struggling to figure out why some people in the dramas called others unnie, oppa, noona, etc. Your blog made that so simple and clear. I didn’t see sunbae mentioned, but from watching shows it seems to me like something you’d call a student in a higher grade? That’s my best guess, and if there’s more to it I’d love to learn.

    Thank you for creating such a well designed and informative blog. Your writing style is SO easy for other Americans to relate to and understand.

  5. Maddi says:

    Does this mean that you can’t date someone older or younger?

    • bleh says:

      i don’t think so

    • Flo says:

      As far as I know you can date someone older than you (otherwise dating would be much more difficult lol). Just because Korean has an honorific system it doesn’t mean you can’t get close to people that differ in age to you. I think (and I highly encourage anyone to correct me if this is wrong) that in more serious romantic relationships then titles (hyung, oppa, unnie, noona) can act almost like pet names? I’m probably wrong on that though hah.

  6. Marlyn says:

    Very informative especially to us who loves watching Korean drama.

  7. Ilie says:

    Nice blog & article, still you should work at your menu, it slips out on different resolutions you can use a drop down button if the resolution is under 900px

  8. Nathalia says:

    What does an older woman call a young man who has superior status?

    • minjun says:

      “sunbae” is what you use when someone is more experienced than you at something regardless of their age, like for example they’ve been working for 2 years and you’re a new employee 🙂

  9. Mg Hein Min Thu says:

    Hello! I’m In Myanmar(Burma). My girl friends called me ‘OPPA’. Cause, How can I call to her as Korean.

  10. Jasen Cullen says:

    low

  11. TheScribe says:

    I’ve been enjoying some very meaningful Korean dramas. Started with Empress Ki bcs I read in some drama blog that it’s very good. It gave me a tiny peepatKorean history. Indeed I found the main and even the supporting cast really highly accomplished. I used to dislike the Korean language as it sounded rough to me (and a little like Tamil,an Indian dialect). I was wondering what hyung,oppa,unni etc meant. Thanks for the explanation. I don’t really go for those mushy romantic dramas but I’ve fallen in love with some Korean actors/actresses. They are so talented and good-looking. They could act,sing,dance etc.

    10 years ago my son was working for a few months in Seoul while on practical training in the beginning of his third year engineering course. A Korean colleague liked him and I was worried he might end up marrying a foreigner. He did not pursue the girl bcs he thought a long-distance relationship would not work. Now I wished I had encouraged him LOL. Now after watching a few Korean dramas I understand why he likes Korean culture so much. he was very well-treated by his senior colleagues at the company where he was attached to for those few months.

    Again,thank you Keith.

  12. Jeon Jane Hyung says:

    annyong!!! bangawo, hangugeo jogeum halsu isseoyo,yeong-eo haseyo????ihae doeseyo???hehehehehe…….mianhae mian hamnida jeongmal mianhapnida!!!!!!!hehehehehe….gomawo dae dahee gamsahamnida mianhae jalga anionghi gaseyo annyong geseyo jal it ssoe!!!!BYE!!!!!

  13. Charlie says:

    So if someone is a little older than me, but only for a few months let’s say my birthday is on august and that person birthday is on april. We’re still friends or i have to use a honorific?

    • Kp says:

      It depends on your relationship with that person. Since the example shows that the age difference is only by a few months, it doesn’t really matter as it say in the article. If you are good friends, then its no need as it says in the article.

    • Asaph says:

      If you two are born in the same year (for example, April 2000 and August 2000), you have equal status. No honorifics.

    • Mary says:

      No offense, but maybe learn to spell and speak correct English first before learning another language.

      For example, saying “My birthday is on August” does not make sense you can’t be on a month but, your birthday can be “in August.” Also, the sentence that says “We’re still friends” is not a complete sentence its a statement but, it sounds like your asking a question so it should be written as one. As in “Are we still friends?” and lastly, the sentence that begins as “Or I have to use honorific?” is also not a correct grammar. Since you are asking a question you need to start with a question word like i.e: “Do I have to use honorific?” Please don’t get mad at me I just want to help you with your grammar so you can get your point across better. If you were rushing while typing or was a typo than I apologize in advance. 🙂

      • Noname says:

        If you feel the need to start your comment with no offence you should probably just keep it to yourself

  14. jeno says:

    hello! i’m just asking for example when to an older brother. when I’m addressing with him on a text, let’s just call him mark, should i type “mark hyung’s” or “mark’s hyung”?

    • Kp says:

      It depends if you are a girl or a boy. If you are a boy talking to another boy which is your brother you address him with hyung. Hope you find this helpful.

  15. Anonymous says:

    What if I have a twin? I am only younger by a minute…if I spoke korean and maybe lived in korea would I refer to her in a certain way?

    • Kp says:

      Im not sure but I will give you a few options.
      1. You two have a close relationship so you can consider her/him your friend so no need
      2. Its only by a minute so I don’t think it counts, but if it does
      3. Call him/her hyung/noona/unnie
      I hope you find this helpful, and im not sure that this is correct. So you can just look up more websites about this. Im just trying to help.

  16. DW says:

    I love K dramas, movies and series…everyone is either gorgeous or handsome and they are exceptionally great actors/esses.I am hooked on everything K. This explanation comes in handy since my buddies and I in college have taken up the habit of using K expressions when referring to each other. none of us are Korean. I think am transethnic….lol

  17. Stephanie says:

    How do I know if the guy are oppa or ahjussi? Where is the line?

    • Mary says:

      Oppa, is used for an older guy than you but still young (between High school/College age and to Late 30″s) roughly I think. Ajeossi or Ahjussi, is what you call a much older person than you (40’s yrs old but, not elderly because you would call them Grandmother/Granny or Grandfather) usually used in referring to other male family members or other males who are friends with your parents etc. you would call them Uncle. For an example, a child would refer to their Father’s friend as “ajeossi /ahjussi or Uncle.” I could be wrong but, I believe this is the distinction between the two hope this helps.

  18. Kyra says:

    I’m a huge kpop and kdrama fan and I have picked up a few words/phrases in Korean but I want to learn more. Where can I learn how to speak Korean?

    • Alex says:

      Google Play has several korean language learning apps, and there are many people on Youtube offering free language learning tutorials to teach the basics and you can always find blogs online to help as well.

    • Emily says:

      I am learning on Memrise and it is really great so far! it has little games ans quizzes to make sure you remember what you learned before and you can repeat things too. I learned the alphabet on an app specifically meant to teach you the letters though and I made myself flash cards. I also like EggBun because it’s like you’re chatting with someone who teaches you letters and then shows you what words you can spell with the letters you know!
      There are many options, so try different ones until you find one that seems to help you remember the best. Also, you could try this on YouTube:
      https://www.youtube.com/user/seemile/playlists?sort=dd&view=50&shelf_id=5

      This is just one of many. Hope this helps!

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