Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

Not too long ago, I was made aware of an interesting linguistic phenomenon involving the Korean kinship term, “hyung” (형).  Usually, this term is used only between younger males and their older brothers/close friends as an honorific term.  But it seems that some, college-aged, women are also calling their older male friends “hyung.”

Despite the insistence of some on the internet that this does not happen, or that it is simply a fluke or a speech-error, I have witnessed half a dozen or so instances of this phenomenon.  And while many people simply have no interest in the subject or want to down-play its role in the Korean language, as an amateur linguist I am very interested in the socio-linguistic motivations for women to use ‘hyung’ instead of ‘oppa’.

Scholarly information seems to be limited on the subject and because I am not an expert in Korean linguistics or sociology, my ability to accurately describe the situation is no better than most of the ignorant masses on the internet.  Which, by the way, includes¸ many average Korean people.  So, with that, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) This linguistic act is mostly used by the 18-30 demographic.  It is possible that older speakers use it to an extent, and perhaps younger speakers use to some extent. (though the little data I *have* collected suggests that people younger than college-age do not use this term).

It could be that this is necessarily an 18-30 linguistic feature.  And not a linguistic change occuring in the 18-30 demographic.  Which would mean that as the women who are currently 18-30, leave their 30s, they may abandon the use of “hyung”.  This would suggest the usage is specific to a certain group or register.  As the photos show, it is considered a “university” usage.  It could also be that as the 18-30 women age, they will continue to use it, marking a broader linguistic change.

2) This linguistic change is being led by women and is above the level of conscious-awareness.  Here, we are specifically talking about the use of ‘hyung’ by women (which is really the only interesting usage).  But it is also possible that ‘onni’ could be used by men to describe older women, or in some other fashion.  As of yet, however, the only data I have seen suggests only women are making the kinship gender switch.  It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether or not all men, or some subgroups of men, make a similar kinship-term switch.

In conjunction with reason (3), this change comes “from above”, meaning it comes from a dominant social class (the middle), appears in careful speech (meaning, speakers choose overtly to say it) and is driven by extra-linguistic factors.

3) This linguistic change is happening mostly in the middle-class.  An interesting part of this phenomenon is that is it popularly acknowledged as something that happens in Korean universities. Suggesting that both before and after university, women are not expected or it is not considered appropriate for women to call older men, ‘hyung’.  This is a very tenuous hypothesis at this point, I’m basing it mostly under the assumption that those people who are attending Korean Universities are mostly middle-upper classes, and then making a guess that upper-class women don’t use ‘hyung’ for older men based on the idea that they have little need for social mobility, as they are already on top.

It would be interesting to see whether or not this linguistic change is more popular at less-prestigious universities or technical schools, where there are fewer of the upper-class attending.

This point, if true, is interesting in that it might suggest something about how women use ‘hyung’ as social capital.

To conclude, I invite any native speaker with anecdotes or other information, intuitions, to leave me a message somewhere, in the comments if you wish.  It would be very helpful to me.  If anyone knows any scholarly work that I get a hold of, I would love that.  And, of course, if you think I’m wrong about any of these hypothesizes, correct me!


One thought on “Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

  1. It’s neither new but nor is it very common, growing phenomenon.

    This phenomenon existed as early as the early 1970s for young women who were participating in traditionally male sporting/physical activities, mostly centered around the martial arts when they were still young adult, not children’s activities.

    In the martial arts and athletic contexts as young adults, there are many social situations where the senior/junior 선배/후배 distinction between males and females (as they would in say, classmates in the same university department) will not suffice, nor will oppa 오빠 even come close to conveying the correct amount of mutual respect.

    To put it another way, males forms of respectful address end in -님 (형님 or 누님) as opposed to the more familiar/intimate 형 or 누나. This form of address simply isn’t available to females. 오빠 and 언니 imply more familiar relationships and while there is an archaic, out-of-use term (오라버니) for a female to refer to an elder brother, it’s not common. In fact, while most modern Koreans would be familiar with the term and know what it means, many wouldn’t be able to tell you in which social context it should be used which follows that they’ve never used the terms themselves.

    So take this female who is in an almost exclusively male environment in a traditionally male activity, who will in speech refer to males in the third person (grammatically correctly) as 형/형님s when addressing other males it soon follows that she herself (more than likely a ‘tomboy’) refers to those specific elder males as hyung.

    This phenomenon exists but is limited to athletics (particularly martial arts such as judo/yudo and taekwondo), professional military, professional police and classmates in 2-3 year vocational/technical colleges.

    I’m not sure if this form of address is something that women are expected to grow out of, particularly after marriage. My own experience to how that changes over time is limited. It’s well known in my family that one the tomboy aunts (on my mother’s side aka 이모) referred to my father as 형님 until he married my mother, at which point she changed to the kinship term of address.


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