How to really use “Oppa”

If you’re a fan of K-Pop or an avid watcher of Korean dramas, you’ll more than likely have heard the terms 오빠, 형, 언니, and 누나 used frequently. If you looked up these words in a dictionary, they would be defined as “brother” or “sister.” However, as you’ve come to know, addressing other people in the Korean language is never that straightforward.

First, let’s take a look at their literal meaning.

오빠Female's older brother
Male's older brother
언니Female's older sister
누나Male's older sister

Their first use is towards birth siblings. So, if you are female and have an older brother, you’d address him as 오빠, rather than his name, and if you had an older sister, you’d call her 언니. If you’re male, you’d address your older brother as 형 and your older sister as 누나. That part is simple.

However, kinship terms carry a lot of hidden meanings and over the years the terms have been expanded to being used towards people whom you have a close relationship with too. For example, a female may call her older cousin 오빠, her older best friend 오빠 and even her boyfriend 오빠!

Calling your boyfriend “brother” seems a little more than creepy in the Western world, but the term 오빠 implies admiration, and therefore, labelling your boyfriend as 오빠 shows that you respect him. In return, the boyfriend takes on the role as the protective older brother and is expected to take good care of his girlfriend.

Be sure to use these terms with caution though as you can only call someone that is older than you 오빠, 형, 언니 or 누나. By older, we mean someone who was born in a year prior to your birth. So, even if the person is a few months older but born in the same year as you, addressing him or her this way is a big no-no. That being said, although there isn’t a set age limit, addressing someone who is over the age of 40 with any of these labels seems a little strange and awkward.

So how do you refer to your younger siblings and close friends? Well, when talking about them, you can call them the following:

동생Younger sibling
남동생Younger brother
여동생Younger sister

You only use the above kinship terms in third person. When you address your younger brother, sister, best friend, cousin or lover directly, you can simply address them directly by their name followed by either 아 or 야.

아 is attached to names ending with a consonant and 야 is suffixed to names ending with a vowel.

Following a consonant
Following a vowel

Unlike how the honorific suffix -씨 can be used with any name, 아 and 야 are only attached to Korean names.

현성아현성 ends with a consonant
은비야은비 ends with a vowel

We know, at first, all these labels are confusing! As always, we don’t expect you pick all of this up straight away. You can refer back to these lessons at any point of your learning and many of these terms will be used in future lessons to embed them into your memory.

August 27, 2016

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