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

– Oppa (오빠) = Older brother (used by females)
– Noona (누나) = Older sister (used by males)
– Hyung (형) = Older brother (used by males)
– Unnie (언니) = Older sister (used by females)
Depending on where you’re from, the saying “age is 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 Korea’s hierarchical respect scale, which is very important in Korea. Once you know where you stand on the totem pole, you’ll know how to act, how to speak and how to listen.

Tip: To first understand this post properly, you’ll have to know your Korean age. Koreans calculate age by birth year (not the actual birthday). 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 very unpleasant person, and the other person hates you. 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 cumbersome honorific language and use casual Korean once they find out they’re the same age as you. 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 Korean culture is heavily influenced by Confucianism (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. That doesn’t mean you’ll be getting 90 degree bows (an ultimate sign of respect) from someone that’s only a few months younger than you. But you’re definitely higher up than the other person, and that generally means your opinions are more respected as you’re older and wiser (at least theoretically). So that means even if you’re 35 years old, jobless and in your mom’s basement for the last 7 years, it wouldn’t be right for your 21 year old tech start-up CEO cousin to give you advice. In Korea, it’s just not her place to tell you how to shape up. (That’s why things can get tricky when a boss is younger than his/her workers.)

 

Being Younger (Dongsaeng)
Being younger doesn’t mean you have to shut up and be quiet, however. Being younger has many perks. Because you’re younger in Korea, many older Koreans will generally feel the need to “take care” of you, which can mean a number of different 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. If you’re having a hard time at work, your older Korean coworker might feel the need to treat you out to a 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, so pay it forward.

 

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. And that means you’ll be close enough to be friends (chingu).
– The closer the relationship, the less age matters. If you’re very good friends with a younger/older Korean, a lot of the hierarchy goes out the window, and you just end up being friends.
– For business relationships, Koreans may try to be understanding of other cultures and will not put so much emphasis on age.
– The older you are, the less age matters. A 1 year age difference is huge for a teenager, but doesn’t mean much 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.

99 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 . 🙂

  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 🙂

  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.

    • Dom says:

      That’s what brought me here tooo, k dramas 😊

    • Rebecca says:

      Sunbae is like Senpai. It’s someone who’s been in a profession longer than you. If you were in a musical group, you would call a group who debuted before you your Sunbaes.

    • blake says:

      yes sunbae is for people in a lower schooling year level than you

    • Kent says:

      “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.”

      My feelings exactly, except I found K-drama on my own. This blog has helped me better understand the nuances of Korean culture as presented in the shows I watch. The shows and locations also make a visit to Korea especially appealing to me. Here’s hoping one day I’ll get there.

  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.

      • Insfired606 says:

        Lol kind of true lol. Although it is extremely rare for a man to date a woman older than himself in Korea…
        Anyways, as far as I know, girls do call their guys ‘oppa’…

  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.

    • she's-very-british says:

      You should type “Mark Hyung’s”. Since you’re talking about what your hyung owns, you put the “apostrophe-S” after his name and title. That’s why you say “my friend’s”, instead of “my’s friend”, or “Sean McLoughlin’s” instead of “Sean’s McLoughlin”. “Mark’s Hyung” would be adressing the hyung of Mark. “Mark Hyung’s” is about Mark, who happens to be the hyung of Jeno, and possesses something. I hope this is 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.

    • she's-very-british says:

      No. Honorifics are only used if the person is, at the very least, one year older than you. So, an example. If your brother was born o 1999 and you were born in 2000, then you call him “hyung” (if you’re a boy), or “oppa” (if you’re a girl). But if it’s your twin, then you don’t have to. If they’re only months older than you, you don’t have to use honorifics either. Also, you would have a pretty close relationship with your twin brother-sister, so it wouldn’t be required.

  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.

    • EAD says:

      Imagine you are 20 old girl. Than can you date with 25 boy? Yes. 30 man? Umm… Maybe? 40? No. Normally until about 30 old young man. Of course if you are 40 old woman, can call oppa to 45 old man playfully.

  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!

    • SHANNON says:

      LOOK UP …TALK TO ME IN KOREAN. YOU WILL FIND FREE AUDIO COURSES, WORKSHEETS, PLUS THEY HAVE HUNDREDS OF CLASSES ON YOUTUBE. KOREAN UNNIE AND SWEETANDSASSY TV ON YOUTUBE ARE ALSO REALLY GOOD TOO.

  19. Kimiko says:

    Is it weird I call my older guy friend Hyung even though I’m a girl. Cause Oppa sounds more like a relationship name.

  20. John says:

    The correct spelling using Latin alphabet is oppa, hyeong, eonni and nuna. Better to use the official romanization!

  21. Seiruka says:

    I’m female and I call people hyung, oops

  22. Seiruka says:

    I’m female and I call people hyung, oops and wow too

  23. Sophie says:

    I’m not sure about this, but is it okay if you say their nickname and then use honorifics? For example, then name is Jackson. And their nickname is Jacky. Is it okay to say:
    Jacky-oppa??

  24. P.Shaili says:

    Can i call my frnd who is younger than me as unni

  25. dan says:

    what to say them when they call you oppa.

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