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Korean Pronouns / Korean Kinship terms

English has an extensive list of pronouns: I (me, my, mine), you (your, yours), he (him, his), she (her, hers), it (its), we (us, our, ours), and they (them, their, theirs). Korean has its own list of pronouns as well, but its usage is much limited with different usage rules. Generally speaking, pronouns are used much less in Korean than in English. In Korean, any contextually understood sentence elements (including the subject and the object) are often omitted. For instance, when two people are talking to each other, personal pronouns often drop out in normal conversations, since both speakers know who is the first person talking and who is listening. This differs from English, where the use of the pronoun (or subject noun) is mandatory in all situations. For instance, it would be grammatically wrong or incomplete to say “ate lunch?”

The first person pronoun

The Korean first person pronouns have the plain and humble forms:

나 (plain singular)저 (humble singular)
내 (plain singular possessive)제 (humble singular possessive)
우리 (plain plural/possessive)저희 (humble plural/possessive)

There are two things to remember when using the first person pronouns.

First, the use of either plain or humble pronouns depends on who you are talking to. It is always safe to use the humble form when you talk to adult speakers who you do not know well. In addition, the use of humble form is normally collocated with honorific elements (e.g., the deferential speech level endings, the honorific suffix ‘-(으)시-‘, the euphemistic words, and so forth).

Second, 저희/우리 “the first person plural pronoun” has a wider usage. Due to the collectivistic value system, deeply embedded in the Korean language and culture, 저희/우리 is also used as the first person possessive pronoun, when referring to communal possessions (e.g., one’s family or household, the school he/she attended and so on). Consider the following two sentences:

저희(우리) 형이 뉴욕 올바니에 있습니다. “Our(my) older brother is in Albany, NT”

제(내) 형이 뉴욕 올바니에 있습니다. “My older brother is in Albany, NY”

Both sentences are grammatically and pragmatically correct. However, the first sentence is preferred over the second.

The second person pronoun

The Korean second person pronouns have the pain and polite forms:

너 (plain singular)당신 (polite singular)
네 (plain singular possessive)당신의 (polite singular possessive)
너희 (plain plural)당신들 (polite plural)

The use of Korean second person pronouns is much more limited than that of English. For example, Koreans use 너 only when addressing a child, a childhood friend, one’s younger sibling, one’s son/daughter, and so forth. The use of 당신 is mostly used between spouses.

In fact, there is no second person pronoun for addressing an adult equal or senior in Korean. One possible explanation is that addressing someone by the pronoun sounds too direct and confrontational in Korean. As a result, Koreans avoid using the second person pronoun unless the addressee is someone they know well (e.g., friends), and/or is of equal or lower status (e.g., one’s subordinates).

One may wonder then how Koreans actually address someone. The safest way is not to use any pronoun at all. However, if unavoidable, the best alternative is to use addressee terms as second person pronouns. As shown below, Korean has many ways to address someone. When using an address term, a speaker has to know the addressee’s social status as well as the relationship with the speaker him/herself.

For instance, a businessman 김영수 “Kim, Youngsoo” can be addressed in his work place at least in the following ways:

  • 과장 님: “Section chief” (professional title 과장 + honorific title 님, when his junior colleagues address him).
  • 김 과장: “Section chief Kim” (last name 김 + professional title 과장, when his boss addresses him).
  • 김 선배: “Senior Kim” (last name 김 + rank term 선배, when his junior colleague who happens to have graduated from the same high school/collage addresses him).
  • 김영수 씨: “Mr. Youngsoo Kim” (full name 김영수 + neutral title 씨, when adult distant friends who are of equal or higher status address him).

Notice that the difference in status (e.g., who has the higher status or power between the speaker and the addressee) and the familiarity (e.g., how close or familiar the speaker is with the addressee/referent) determines the choice of therm.

In his personal life, Youngsoo Kim can be addressed by different terms. For instance, his wife may call him 여보 “darling,” 당신 “dear,” and 오빠 “older brother” (if she is younger than him). If he has a son or a daughter, the wife can even call him 아빠 “dad.” His friends can call him by just his first name 영수. His parents can call him by the first name with the vocative -야, as in 영수야.

Then how would you address someone in a store or restaurant settings? Again, the safest way is not to say any pronoun at all. Instead of pronouns, you can get people’s attention by saying 여기요 “here” or 실례합니다 “excuse me.”

The third person pronoun

Strictly speaking, Korean has no true third person pronoun. Koreans use a demonstrative (e.g., his, these, that, and those) and a noun (e.g., man, woman, thing, people, and so on) to refer to the third person:

  • He: 그 “that,” 그 사람 “that person,” 그 분 “that esteemed person,” 그 남자 “that man”
  • She: 그 “that,” 그 사람 “that person,” 그 분 “that esteemed person,” 그 여자 “that woman”
  • They: 그들 “those,” 그 사람들 “those people,” 그 분들 “those esteemed people”…

Besides these terms, Koreans use various kinship terms in place of the third person pronoun.

Kinship terms

Due to the collectivistic and hierarchical values embedded in the Korean language and the culture, Korean has a list highly satisfied and extensive kinship terms. The Korean kinship indicate how one is related to others in intricate ways (e.g., whether the relative is a male or female, whether the relative is older or younger, whether the relative is on the mother’s or father’s side, and so on).

The Korean kinship terms can be divided into two groups. The first group has two kinship term sets depending on the gender of the person related.

A male’sA female’s
father-in-law장인시아버지
mother-in-law장모시어머니
spouse아내 (부인)남편
brothers형제오빠(들), 남동생(들)
older brother오빠
older sister누나언니

The second group includes the kinship terms, used by both genders.

  • grandparents 조부모
  • paternal grandfather 할아버지
  • maternal grandfather 외할아버지
  • paternal grandmother 할머니
  • maternal grandmother 외할머니
  • parents 부모
  • father 아버지
  • mother 어머니
  • son 아들
  • daughter 딸
  • grandchild(ren) 손주
  • grandson 손자
  • granddaughter 손녀(딸)
  • younger bother 남동생
  • younger sister 여동생
  • paternal uncle 큰아버지 (an older brother of one’s father), 작은아버지 or 숙부 (a married younger brother of one’s father), 삼촌 (an unmarried younger brother of one’s father), 고모부 (the husband of the sister of one’s father)
  • paternal aunt 고모 (both older or younger sister of one’s father), 큰어머니 (the wife of an older brother of one’s father), 작은어머니 or 숙모 (the wife of a married younger brother of one’s father)
  • maternal uncle 외삼촌 (both older and younger brother of one’s mother, regardless of their marital status), 이모부 (the husband of a sister of one’s mother)
  • maternal aunt 이모 (both older or younger sister of one’s mother), 외숙모 (the wife of both older or younger brother of one’s mother)
  • son-in-law 사위
  • daughter-in-law 며느리
  • cousin 사촌

Koreans use kinship terms as both address and/or reference terms for their kin-members. For instance, it is rare for younger brothers or sisters to address their older siblings by their first name.

Due to the collectivistic and hierarchical value orientations of Korean, Koreans use some kinship terms when they address or refer to non-kin members, such as friends, friends’ family members, and/or even strangers. For instance, Korean often use 어머니 when addressing and/or referring to their friends’ mother. When addressing a stranger who looks obviously old (say, over 60s), Koreans use 할아버지 or 할머니.

Indefinite pronouns

People use indefinite pronouns when they refer to something that does not have a specific referent. The examples of indefinite pronouns in English include something, someone, sometimes, somewhere, anything, anyone, and so forth. Korean interrogative words such as 어디 “where,” 언제 “when,” 누구 “who,” 무엇 “what,” and 어느 “which” function as question words as well as indefinite pronouns. What determines the use of these words as question words or indefinite pronouns is intonation.

When the word is used as a question, the sentence that contains the question words has a rising intonation at the end. However, without a rising intonation, the question word function as an indefinite pronoun.

As a question word: 누가 와요? (with a rising intonation) “Who is coming?”

As an indefinite pronoun: 누가 와요. (with a falling intonation) “Someone is coming.”


This post is a part of “Basic Korean: A grammar and workbook”, Andrew Sangpil Byon.

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