In this lesson, we will learn how, and how not, to say “you” in Korean. It may be surprising, but calling someone “you” in Korean should often be avoided all together in conversation, unless when talking to a close friend. Why is this? To explain it briefly, Korean is a language based very much on politeness and respect, and there simply is no word for “you” that “elevates” the other person, or “lowers” you. What does that mean exactly? Well, it usually comes down to age (and manners). People are expected to show respect to those who are older. Koreans do this by basically “lowering” themselves or “elevating” the other person through the use of language. For example, by using the word jeo (저) to express “I”, Koreans are essentially expressing humility and lowering themselves, while na (나) is only used with close friends and younger people. This brings us to one of the words for “you” in Korean:
In Hangul: 너
(Use only with close friends!)
neo (너), just like na (나), as explained above, should ONLY be used with close friends and younger people. Furthermore, there simply is no substitute for this word that would elevate the other person. There is one minor exception, however, which is the word:
In Hangul: 당신
(Don’t use at all!)
This is the word that will most likely pop up as the first word in the dictionaries. In almost all cases, it will sound insulting if you say it to someone. So do not use it!…EXCEPT! If you use it with your spouse. Interestingly, in that case, it becomes the highest form of “you”. Another exception to this rule is that it can be used in writing, translations, songs and poems. If you are in to K-pop, you have probably heard it plenty of times.
So what should I say instead?
This is often very difficult subject for a lot of foreigners. If it’s really necessary to let the other person that it is he or she you are talking about (remember, the subject and object of the sentence are often omitted in spoken Korean), then the simple answer is to use their title. For example:
If it is a teacher, use seonsaengnim (선생님).
If it is an older friend, use either eonni (언니) , oppa (오빠), nuna (누나) or hyeong (형), depending on your gender and their gender.
For parents-in-law, use abeonim (아버님) for your father-in-law and eomeonim (어머님) for your mother-in-law.
It is also common to call someone by their name if you are around the same age. In that case, if it’s a stranger or someone you’re not very close with, use their full name and remember to add -sshi (-씨) at the end of their name.
There are of course countless of titles, but what if you don’t know their title or their name? Or what if it’s not appropriate to call them by their name? Then the only option is to simply ask. This is done with the phrase:
jega mworago booreumyeon joheulkkayo?
In Hangul: 제가 뭐라고 부르면 좋을까요?
(= What should I call you?)
Always ask this question when unsure. If you happen to still get it wrong, remember that Koreans are usually understanding of foreigners when they make mistakes, and the worst thing that will happen is most likely that they just will correct you.
This concludes our lesson on how to say “you” in Korean. For more common Korean phrases and expressions, please check out our Everyday Korean Archive. If you found this lesson useful, please consider sharing it with your friends or giving it like! If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment below and we will do our best to help!
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