The Culture of Family

Family relationships are very important in Korea. And many Koreans see their countrymen as one big family. Respect, especially for those older than you, is so important that there are two forms of language–the formal polite that is used to show respect for those older and the more informal that is used with friends and those younger. When my friends went over Tuesday’s language post, they shared some additional information that I thought was interesting.

You might wonder why there are so many family words in Korean. After all, English gets back with one word for aunt and uncle. My friends explained that Koreans rarely use first names with each other unless they are the same age or it is an older person speaking to a younger person.

We talked about this at our latest Korean class too. How although my son isn’t related to any of the teens teaching the class, in Korea he would call them “nuna” and “hyung” instead of their names. Even adults who are friends don’t usually use names. Instead women are called aunt or “name of child’s” mother; men are called uncle or “name of child’s” dad.

My friends also explained how some of the words, like the one for uncle, are derived. Relationships in Korea are defined by “chon,” which helps show to what degree a person is related to another. Before showing the example, you have to know that when counting using the Sino-Korean number system, 1 is il, 2 is ee, 3 is sam, and 4 is sa. [Note: There are two number systems in Korea used for different things. I’ll post more on those later.]

So now for the example. 1 chon (chone) = il chon (written in korean) is the relationship between parents and children
2 chon = ee chon is the relationship between siblings

So, sam chon (uncle) is 1+2 = 3 (parent to child relationship + child’s father’s relationship with his brother (father’s brother) / sam=3
Thus, sachon (cousin) is 1+2+1 (parent to child relationship + child’s father’s relationship with his sibling + parent/child relationship of the uncle’s child) /sa=4

But you ask, what happens when you have more than one uncle or cousin? My friends said that one of the ways to differentiate between uncles is to use the name of the city or even country they are living in front of the korean word for aunt or uncles. For example, if an aunt lives in the United States she might be called “Migook Imo,” which translates American aunt.

Also many families have generational names that help to differentiate between generations in families so that proper respect is given in speech. I’ll use an example of this from my favorite Korean drama, Be Strong, Geum Soon. In Geum Soon’s family, Geum is the generational name. Geum Soon’s cousin (same generation) is named Geum Ah. In the family of Geum Soon’s in-laws, Wan is the generational name–the siblings are named Shi Wan, Tae Wan, and Jung Wan.

My friend said she was told that 12 generational names exist and those are rotated through. Some families do this with only the son’s names but some do it with son’s and daughter’s names.

Well that wraps up the post on the culture of family. I found all of this fascinating. I hope you did too.


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