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.