Korean Kinship Terms





Korean Kinship Terms

Different cultures have their unique ways of identifying kinship ties. In some cultures, kinship terms are not detailed where distant relatives might not have a definite term while in other cultures, such as in Korean societies, different relatives will have different names. However, in most cultures kinship terms are classified into two types, one that relates to the gender of the person and one that is not gender specific. For instance, in western countries, a sister to the father or mother is an aunt. In Korea, each of these sisters will have a different name. In addition, Korean kinship considers other factors such as age of the speaker as well as social situation.

            One of the first and most fundamental distinctions in understanding Korean kinship terminology is paternal versus maternal versus affinal relatives. This means that one has to distinguish between relatives on the father’s side, mother’s side and relatives by marriage or in-laws. For instance, a grandfather from the father’s side is called ‘harabeoji’, while the grandfather from the mother’s side is called ‘oe harabeoji’. The paternal aunt is called ‘gomo’ while the maternal aunt is called ‘eemo’. This distinction is extremely important because it determines to which side of the family a relative belongs to, whether paternal or maternal. When it comes to relatives by marriage, different terms are used. For instance, when one gets married, the wife’s father is called ‘jang-in’, and mother is referred to as ‘jangmo’. The husband’s father, on the other hand, is called ‘si-abeoji’ while the mother is called ‘si-ameoni’. Brothers and sisters-in-law as well have their different terms.

            While still under maternal versus paternal versus affinal terms, a crucial distinction is made. This is about age, where different ages of uncles, from the paternal side will have different terms. For instance, a father’s older brother will be called ‘kuen appa’ while his younger brothers are called ‘jageun appa’. After getting married, the older brother-in-law is called ‘ajubeonim’ while the younger brother-in-law is called ‘si-dongsaeng’. Additionally, a wife’s older brother is called ‘hyeong-nim’ while the younger one is called ‘cheonam’. In most cases, the maternal terms are differentiated by adding a prefix before the term used for paternal relatives. An example is ‘harabeoji’ for paternal grandfather and ‘oe harabeoji’ for maternal grandfather.     

Another distinction in Korean kinship terminology is terms used while addressing a relative (hoch’ing) and those used for reference (chich’ing). Hoch’ing is used when one is calling or addressing another relative while engaged in communication while chich’ing is used when one is talking about another relative in the third person.  

The kinship terminologies in Korea are determined by seven factors. The first one is the relative age of the speaker. An example is a situation in which young children address their mother as ‘ȏmma’ while older people address their mother as ‘ȏmȏni’. In addition, the younger children do not classify older relatives where they call them ‘ajȏssi’ and ‘ajumȏni’. They call older brother and sister ‘ȏnni’ and ‘oppa’ respectively. The second factor is gender of the speaker. The current kinship terminologies discriminate against female relatives, where male relatives are given more details. For instance, the father’s older brother is called k’ȗn-abȏji and the younger one is called chagȗn- abȏji. In contrast, the father’s sisters are called ‘komo’ irrespective of being older or younger.

The third factor is the degree of formality in the relationship between the two people, as well as the social circumstance. It is usual for teenage children to call their mother ‘ȏmma’ and father ‘appa’ at home. However, this can change to ‘abȏji’ and ‘ȏmȏni’ in the presence of other people. The fourth factor is the social class where the upper class is more formal while using kinship terms than the lower class people do. The fifth factor is the kinship category itself where the paternal relatives are elaborated up to the ninth generations while maternal relatives are limited to fewer generations. The sixth factor is marital status of the kin. When the older brother to one’s husband is married, he is called ‘chagȗn-abȏji’ while the unmarried one is addressed as ‘samach’on’. Their wives also have different names. The other factor is regional dialects that vary with different areas as discussed from the example of South Korea.

With the changing setup of families from traditional one to modernized ones in the urban sector, Korean kinship terminology is changing. The urbanization and industrialization changes are drawing people away from extended families to nuclear families. This has made it harder for younger children to learn all the kinship terminologies used for the extended families such as making a distinction between older paternal relatives to the younger ones. One of the main areas that have been affected is the ‘hoch’ing’ terms used for addressing relatives. Today, fewer and fewer young people are finding it hard to use the right address terms. For instance, young couples are often heard referring to each other by their names instead of using their kinship terms. For instance, a husband is supposed to address his wife as ‘yeobo’, which is a means honey in English. Another way of addressing a wife is using dangshin, which is a polite way of saying ‘you’. When referring a wife to other people that are not relatives, one is supposed to use ‘anae’. The younger generation is finding this hard to keep up with, considering the influence of globalization and other rapid changes within the region.  

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