What’s in a name?

One of the reasons I love watching Korean and Japanese dramas is because language often plays a role in the progression of a relationship.  Sometimes within just sixteen episodes of a Korean drama, we can hear the shift from honorific language to polite language to plain language; and, I don’t know if it’s just me, but hearing the change from polite to intimate language makes me giggle and spazz and flail more than physical displays of affection.

In particular, I love hearing the use of honorific suffixes.  I’m sure students of the Korean and/or Japanese language are no strangers to honorific suffixes.  In Japanese we have most commonly  さま (sama)、さん (san)、くん (kun)、ちゃん (chan)、先生 (sensei)、先輩 (senpai) and, unless you’re addressing a peer by his/her last name only, it’s pretty uncommon to hear a name without one of these suffixes.  In Korean, we mostly see 씨 (ssi), 군/양 (goon/yang), -님 (-nim), 선생 (seonsaeng), and 선배 (sunbae), which are similar to but do not directly parallel their Japanese counterparts.  Another related concept is that of occupational titles.  I know in Korean at least, it’s not uncommon to address a person by his/her title such as 양 작가 (Writer Yang) or 김 검사님 (Prosecutor Kim).

Anyway, I love that the intimacy between two characters can be shown through the use (or lack) of honorific suffixes.  For example, I always found it amazing that couples in Japanese anime or dramas would address each other by their last names even though they were “dating.”  For example when I was reading 君に届け (Kimi ni todoke), Kazehaya and Kuronuma fantasized about calling each other by their first names (no honorifics) but just the thought would make them blush, as if it was too intimate to even think about.

In Korean dramas, I’ll admit the most heart-fluttering moment for me is when the guy drops honorifics with the girl.  Best example of this?  Lie To Me.  Throughout the first half, we have Kang Ji-hwan’s character calling Yoon Eun-hye’s character “Gong Ah-jung ssi” and then when he suddenly starts calling her “Ah-jung-ah,” not just once but over and over again?  I just about melted.  Clearly, it had that effect on Ah-jung too, since she kept replaying the recording of him saying the diminutive form her name.

Another one of my favorite examples is in 건빵선생과 별사탕 (Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy) when Tae-in says “Na Bori ssi” instead of “Na Bori seonsaeng-nim,” showing that he regards their relationship as that of a man and woman instead of  student-teacher.  This type of courtship is something you can only appreciate if you understand the language and  the culture to some extent.  And to someone who grew up in a culture that oversexualizes everything, it’s refreshing to watch romance unfold through language.  It almost makes me cry with happiness.

Romance aside, I also love relationship terms following a person’s name:  오빠 (oppa), 언니 (unnie), 형 (hyung), 누나 (noona), all of those terms literally make me squeal.  I remember being surprised but also happy when a Korean-American friend of mine called me 언니 once when we were chatting in Korean, even though I’m not Korean myself.  Haha.  All of a sudden, it made me want to act all elder-sisterly.

In Act II scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare writes “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose //By any other name would smell as sweet” to mean that an object is an object, regardless of what it is called.  Though that may be the case in English, we see that in other languages, how one uses another’s  name is indeed a significant matter to consider.  Whether or not you say that person’s name with an honorific suffix, an occupational title, or a relationship term matters.  Whether or not you say that person’s name at all matters too. In Korean and Japanese, the way a person addresses you can give you insight into how that person perceives your relationship with him/her.  It can be a tricky thing to grasp… but I still wish English had some sort of thing like it.


  1. owbEe says:

    I really like this post. For me I like the term chan. I’ve been exposed to animes and jdramas that I often hear the term chan. I think it’s really cute and it also shows the closeness you have which is not clear in other languages such as English.

    In comparison with Korean, I also like the kinship terms you’ve mentioned. I too have a Korean friend who calls me 언니. I also feel the same way, I want to be the all-too-protective sister for her. ㅋㅋㅋ. But the weird thing about me is that I think using 형 is cuter than using 오빠. If I would have a really close male Korean friend I would like to call him 형 instead of 오빠 with no particular reason.

    My culture has this so called kinship terms too. I think we got that from the Chinese culture. We use ‘ate’ (pronounced as ah-te) to mean older sister and ‘kuya’ (pronounced as coo-ya) to mean older brother. Living in an archipelago, we have several more terms but this is the most common.


    1. Archana says:

      Thanks, Sarah! Actually, it’s funny that you mentioned 형 because I have a Korean friend of mine actually said the same thing! She said she likes calling an 오빠 of hers 형 instead. Hahahaha.
      Yeah, in my culture we have kinship terms too but for some reason I don’t really like it. Rather than affection, I think kinship terms in my culture are more associated with respect and maintaining a distance rather than fostering closeness. My younger sister calls me “akka” (older sister) but I actually hate it when my younger cousins use that with me… because I kind of feel estranged from them. I’d rather they just freely use the diminutive form of my name; I feel closer to them when they do that. But when my younger sister uses it, it feels more affectionate. I don’t really know why haha. XD


  2. Chantelle says:

    Like you, I noticed this while watching 내게 거짓말을 해봐. I think their progression is so cute. In one of the more recent episodes, he refers to himself as her 오빠!

    I love it when really little kids call me 누나. They’re adorable.


    1. Archana says:

      Me too!! Haha. A guy friended me on me2day and we started messaging each other in Korean… then he noticed I was older than him and asked me what he should call me. At first, I was just like, “Oh you can just call me by my name…” and kind of as a joke I added that he could call me 누나 if he wanted and he responded “그냥 편하게 누나라고 부를게요.” I’m always surprised when Koreans actually WANT to call me 누나/언니 but it makes me so happy when they do!!


  3. Aneta says:

    First of all, lovely post, my dear ^^

    It’s very fascinating that they way people speak tells so much about their relationship. I love this feature of the Korean language. Though, it may be hard at first to actually learn and understand all those levels of politeness, honorifics etc. However, this aspect of Korean makes it so magical!

    To me, it’s very interesting that kinship terms are used between speakers who aren’t related by blood. I can’t imagine such situations in the society that I am in. Though, sometimes term ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ is used to describe cousins, but I doubt that someone would call a close friend this way.


    1. Archana says:

      Thanks, Aneta!^^ It is really fascinating, isn’t it?


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