Along with speech levels, titles are an essential part of Korean that beginners need to know. This is another potentially new concept for native English speakers, since we usually reserve titles and honorifics for formal settings and occasions. We mostly use them with people whom we don’t personally know well; we don’t need to do so with our close friends or people who are part of our daily lives. But in Korean, it’s not quite the same – formality is certainly one aspect, but it’s mostly about being polite. South Korea is a hierarchical society, and age and status play a major role. So no matter what your relationship with someone else is, you can’t just directly address them by their given name in Korean. You have to include some kind of title, but there are plenty you can choose from that range from formal to casual. In this post, I’ll look at some common ones that you’ve probably already heard in K-pop or on K-dramas and variety shows.
(Please keep in mind that the posts in this column are a basic introduction to Korean. I’m an American studying Korean, so I don’t have the same knowledge and experience as a native Korean speaker. And while I’ve been living in South Korea for a couple of years, my level isn’t high enough for me be an expert. There are many more nuances and details to this subject, but I’m staying with what I can confidently explain.)
In general, “씨” is very safe and neutral to say in most situations. Addressing someone with this honorific is basically the English equivalent of saying “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.” If it’s your first time meeting someone and you don’t know their age or status (in comparison to yours), using “씨” is the way to go. If you watch a lot of variety shows like Weekly Idol, you might hear the MCs use this honorific for their guests – for example, “유아 씨 (Yooa-ssi)” or “형원 씨 (Hyungwon-ssi).” Though “씨” isn’t necessarily age-specific, it happens a lot when the guests are on the younger side and/or not close with the hosts. So in these cases, the MCs’ use of “씨” indicates they’re being polite and respectful to the guests – but not overly familiar.
“오빠” / “형” / “누나” / “언니”
If you’ve seen any Korean drama or variety show, you’ve definitely heard at least one of these four titles. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re among the first few Koreans word that most K-culture fans pick up. While these titles are used to address people who are older than you (and your older siblings if you have any), they’re less formal and imply some level of familiarity. For example, many K-pop idols encourage their fans to use these honorifics as a way to establish a bond with them. But with the average Korean person, it’s probably best to wait until you’re at least acquaintances.
Which title you use depends on your age and gender, as well as those of the other person:
|Title||Common Romanization||Use this if…|
|“오빠”||“oppa”||You’re female and the other person is an older male.|
|“누나”||“noona” or “nuna”||You’re male and the other person is an older female.|
|“형”||“hyung”||You’re male and the other person is an older male.|
|“언니”||“eonni” or “unnie”||You’re female and the other person is an older female.|
Since this is a K-pop blog, I’ve made additional charts further explaining these titles with JYP Entertainment artists. Since seniority and debut years are an added factor when it comes to how K-pop idols address each other, I included one idol from each of the agency’s active groups – which all debuted in different years. Here are the idols I chose:
Please keep in mind that the following chart is a hypothetical example and doesn’t necessarily reflect what these idols actually call each other in real life. I obviously don’t know any of them personally, so I have no idea what their actual working relationships are like. They could be like SM Entertainment artists, who are known to be close and treat each other as one big family. On the other hand, it’s also entirely possible that the working environment is more formal. Which means that the younger idols would refer to the older ones as “seniors” or use more respectful titles – especially with anyone from 2PM, a group that’s been around a lot longer than the other three. But if these idols were friendly enough with each other to use these titles, here’s how they might address each other:
“아” / “야”
The younger version equivalent of “오빠” / “형” / “누나” / “언니” is “동생.” However, it’s NOT commonly used as a title – so don’t call someone younger than you “______동생.” Instead, people often add “아” or “야” to the names of friends who are the same age or younger than them. (Adults do this with kids, as well – like my co-teachers and my students.) If the person’s name ends in a consonant, you use “아.” If the person’s name ends in a vowel, you use “야.” Going by the hypothetical JYP examples I used above, the senior idols could call the junior ones “창빈아 (Changbin-ah)” and “유나야 (Yuna-yah).” These name endings are considered SUPER casual, and definitely should not be used in any formal settings or with people you don’t know well.
You might also occasionally hear people add “이” to a younger person’s name (if it ends in a consonant). For example, you’ll sometimes hear NCT Dream refer to their youngest member as “지성이 (Jisung-i).” This is fairly similar to the concept of “아” and “야,” and it’s often used to express fondness towards the younger person. (You can use “아” and “야” to be affectionate too, but you also tend to use them when you’re scolding someone.) My co-teachers sometimes put “이” after our students’ names when the class is taking individual speaking tests – I think it’s to make the situation less stressful and intimidating for the kids so they don’t find us strict and/or scary.
To be clear, “친구” is NOT a title and should not be used to address people. However, I wanted to briefly talk about this word since the concept behind it is different from what you might think. Technically, “친구” translates to “friend” in English. However, the term really just applies to your friends who were born in the same year as you. If your Korean friend is older than you, they’re your “오빠” / “형” / “누나” / “언니.” If they’re younger than you, they’re your “동생.” So don’t call your Korean friends “친구” unless you share a birth year, because you might confuse them otherwise.
“님” is the most respectful title that’s commonly used in the Korean language. Personally, I think it’s somewhere between “Mr.” and “Sir” (or “Mrs.” and “Madam”). But unlike the previous examples I’ve shown you, “님” isn’t necessarily added to someone’s given name. Usually, it’s often built into another word to create a specific title. For instance, the Korean word for “mother” is “어머니.” At work, sometimes my co-teachers have to communicate with our students’ parents – usually the mothers. When this happens, my co-teachers address them as “어머님.” Here are some other examples of titles with “님” –
- “선배님” – The Korean word “선배” means “senior” (as in levels of seniority, not like a senior citizen). When K-pop groups talk about other artists who debuted before them, they always use this honorific: “BTS 선배님,” “IU 선배님,” “BLACKPINK 선배님,” etc. Sometimes, they will directly address the older idols with this title as well. You’ll often see it Romanized as “sunbaenim” in subtitles for shows.
- Outside of K-pop, “선배” can also refer to people who are ahead of you in school. So at university, people who are in older grades would be your “선배.”
- The opposite of “선배” is “후배,” or “junior” (usually Romanized as “hoobae”).
- “사장님” – This means “CEO.” You might see K-pop idols using this honorific for the heads of their agencies.
- “PD님” – “PD” is slang for “producer-director” or “production-director.” Basically, these are the people in charge of producing and running any kind of television broadcast or movie. You usually don’t actually see them in variety shows with idols, but they’re often the ones talking behind the camera or giving the idols directions for missions and games.
- “선생님” – This means “teacher,” but sometimes you’ll hear Koreans use it to address people who aren’t actually teachers. In this case, it’s kind of like using “씨” but even politer. It’s not super common, though.
- You might occasionally hear the word “쌤,” which is the shortened version of “선생님.” This is how my coworkers constantly address each other. Some students will also call their teachers “쌤” – this happens a lot with my 5th and 6th graders. I think it’s mainly because my co-teacher (their regular English teacher) is in her early twenties. So the students – who are 11-12 international age – feel comfortable calling her “쌤” since she’s young and cool and they feel close to her. If your teacher is much older and has a more formal learning environment, I’d probably stick with using “선생님.”
- “고객님” – This is the word for “customer.” When you order a package or food delivery, you’ll often get a confirmation text that starts with, “고객님!” Or if you’re at a cafe and you’re waiting for your order, the barista will usually add this honorific to the call number – for example, “137 고객님!”
- “부모님” – This is the word for “parents.” Even if you speak casually with your parents at home, you would refer to them with this honorific when talking about them with other people.
NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here. I made the other images through PowerPoint. The idol pictures aren’t mine, and belong to JYP Entertainment. But I edited and formatted the images myself, so please don’t reuse or repost them without my permission either.
The idol photos are teaser photos:
Junho’s is from 2PM’s comeback with “Make It”/Must
Nayeon’s is from TWICE’s comeback with “Alcohol-Free”/Taste of Love
Changbin’s is for Stray Kid’s upcoming comeback – the name of their title track hasn’t been revealed yet, but the album is called NOEASY
Yuna’s is from ITZY’s comeback with “In the Morning”/Guess Who