소자 vs. 소신

The good thing about having so many Korean novels is when I get bored/frustrated with one, I can always move onto another.  I’m pretty sure that at the moment I have a bookmark in every single one I own – but I’m close!  So close!  This close to finishing 우리들의 행복한 시간…. and I started reading 해를 품은 달 again (Note: The novels are fun but I do not recommend the drama.)  It’s sad but also amusing that I was reading these two books at the same time way back in 2012 as well.  Amazing how time zips by.

I’m not going to be critical about the fact that I haven’t improved much in Korean over the past couple years because I know I was struggling with bigger issues than just trying to get over a learning slump.  Only in the past few months have I made a real return to reading and listening to Korean on a daily basis again.  And I’m so, so happy to say that it brings me just as much joy now as it did when I first started!

So I reunited with 해품달 again a few days ago and have already read 50 pages or so from where I last left off.  No more skipping paragraphs/chapters and only reading for the Hwon-Yeonwoo Tragic Romance (TM)  Storyline!  Actually, a lot of characters have tragic moments in the novel and somehow – maybe it’s something about actually reading it – I can feel the tugging of my stiff, underused heartstrings more intensely than I did when I watched the drama.

This particular passage comes from Yangmyung’s point-of-view regarding his father, the King.  For those not familiar with the drama or novel, Yangmyung is the older son of the King and one of his concubines but has always been overlooked by his father.  All he ever wanted was to hear a word of praise from the King and, in hopes of achieving it, he throws himself into studying the philosophies and principals of being a good ruler.  But, knowing that Yangmyung will never ascend the throne so long as Hwon is alive, the King sees his academic achievements as “impudent” (건방지다).  Crushed, this is what Yangmyung decides:

이 일이 있고 나서부터 양명군은 ‘아바마마’와 소자라는 단어 대신 ‘상감마마’와 ‘소신’이란 단어만을 입에 담았다.

Something I’ve always found fascinating about the Korean language is its ability to, with almost no ambiguity, accurately define interpersonal relationships – which is why this one sentence alone is sufficient to tell the reader how swiftly and harshly Yangmyeong perceived the change in his relationship with the King.  The key words alluding to it were:

  • 아바마마 vs. 상감마마
  • 소자 vs. 소신

The first bullet is simple to understand – it’s just the difference between calling the King ‘my royal father,’ which is used by princes, to ‘Your Majesty the King,’ which is used by ordinary subjects.  It’s sort of easy to guess the meaning of 아바마마, given that it derives from 아버지 and 마마 (‘majesty’).  On the other hand, I had heard 소자 and 소신 many times while watching historical dramas and knew enough from context that they were both first-person personal pronouns or 1인칭 대명사 (i.e. “I”), but I couldn’t really tell what the difference was.

  • 소자 [小子]:  honorific way for a son to address himself to his parents
    • 小:  작을/젊다 소
    • 子:  아들 자
  • 소신 [小臣]:  honorific way for a subject/citizen to address himself to his liege
    • 小:  작을/짧다 소
    • 臣:  신하 신

The breakdown of the Hanja really makes the difference between the two pronouns clear:  소자 = “young son” and 소신 = “young citizen.”

You could liken it to the difference between 저 (polite) and 나 (casual) except the fall from addressing yourself as a prince to addressing yourself as a mere subject seems much more precipitous!  By changing the way Yangmyung addressed himself to the King, he made clear the change in their relationship – and the severing of familial ties – to everyone in the court. It’s such a simple change and yet it is heartbreaking….  Perhaps I feel the contrast more strongly because I’m not a native Korean speaker!  In any case, I’ll  continue to marvel at these linguistic gems that I pick up from the novels I’m reading.


  1. I’m glad you’re feeling better these days! ^^

    I’m a sucker for historical dramas so I’ve heard for all but one term you mentioned–I’ve never heard 상감마마 before, so this is a great term to know! I usually hear citizens say 전하, but maybe that’s only because I’m not listening well enough. =.=”

    Is 우행시 good? I’ve heard a good deal of praises both for the novel and the movie, but I remember watching the trailer and the ambiance feels a wee bit too depressing. I don’t know if I know enough Korean to understand it, anyway. OTL I have quite a number of Korean novels at my disposal but apart from one real~ly short one that I finished this year I haven’t gotten close to halfway through any of my novels.

    Hope to read more of your entries! I always end up learning something new~ haha!


    1. I’m not sure what the nuances are between the different ways to address royalty… I do hear 마마 and 전하 a lot but I think both of those can be used to address the king, queen, prince, and princess (so any kind of royalty) whereas 상감마마 is used only with the King. I think the meanings differ slightly as well (전하 = Your Highness; 상감마마 = His Majesty, the King; -마마 = His/Her Majesty).

      I like 우행시 a lot though, yes, it WILL make you cry. It’s a heavy read which is probably why it’s taking me so long to finish it. ><

      I'm so glad my posts are helping you learn new things! Yay!


  2. I do love watching historical dramas and learning the words related to royal life. However, actually I can do so only with Japanese because my Korean is still very pour lol But I’m familiar with few words, such us 마마.
    BTW, I’m glad that you feel better :)


  3. 아~ 신기하다. ㅎㅎㅎ I was worried about the books because of the drama haha, but now I want to buy them when I go to Korea. I want to be good enough to read books ㅋㅋㅋ. Right now, I’m reading webtoons and the Naver Kids stories haha ^^.


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