Here in Canada, asking the age of someone you have just met or barely know is considered rude. However, in Korea is it almost a necessity to ask in order to establish how to speak to one another. This is because age and being respectful to those older than you (even by just one year) is so important there, that their entire language system is built around speaking to those older than you differently than someone your age or younger.
Addressing anyone – both directly or mentioning someone to someone else – cannot be done by simply calling someone by their name. There are two commonly used (and safest for beginners) honorifics that you must put at the end of the person’s name in order to be polite: ‘ssi’ and ‘nim’ (pronounced more like ‘shee’ and ‘neem’). For example, if someone that doesn’t know me very well, they would call me ‘Kelly-ssi’ or ‘Kelly-nim’.
But what happens when you get to know someone better? What about your best friends? Well, even if you are someone’s BFF, you still usually use honorifics. They also vary depending on gender. These can be a lot to take in at first sight, so I will try to explain as simply as possible!
When you become friends with someone, you refer to them in the same manner you would as family members. Therefore, you would use the same honorific on your best guy friend as you would your brother, for example.
If you are MALE:
You would call your older brother/older male friend as ‘hyung’ (ex. ‘Jake-hyung’)
You would call your older sister/older female friend as ‘noona’ (ex. Jane-noona’)
You would address your younger sibling/friend (regardless of gender) as their name with ‘-ya’ or ‘-a’ attached at the end. (ex. ‘Jessie-ya’)
If you are FEMALE:
You would call your older brother/older male friend as ‘oppa’ (ex. ‘Jake-oppa’)
You would call your older sister/older female friend as ‘unnie’ (ex. Jane-unnie’)
You would address your younger sibling/friend (regardless of gender) as their name with ‘-ya’ or ‘-a’ attached at the end. (ex. ‘Alex-a’)
Using these honorifics seems….daunting to beginners who are not familiar with a ‘respect system’ in language. The truth is, English is one of the only languages that doesn’t have at least some amount of systems like this. They sound silly to some people, however they are of utmost importance when talking to people in these countries.