Honorific titles can be tricky in many cultures, but can be particularly baffling in South Korea -- where various factors like social status, age, work experience and even social prejudice can be factored in. This series delves into the myriad of ways people address each other in the Korean language. -- Ed.
President Yoon Suk Yeol scrapped Korea’s traditional way of counting age, in which a person is considered one at birth, and grows a year older on the first day of the new year. The revised law will go into effect in June.
Some may wish the same might be done about Koreans’ way of addressing each other.
Over the past two decades, a growing number of South Koreans have been using “nim” as an honorific suffix after names, or as a respectful but informal form of “you.”
There are some reasons behind the proliferation of “nim.”
Traditionally, Koreans had a highly ordered system of addressing each other, with a single person often having multiple appellations. He or she would have an informal one for the home and among friends; an official one which people of lower ranks or age could not use without adding a title or appropriate honorifics; and a “ho,” which is similar to a pen name.
It is still considered rude to call an adult by his or her first name today, despite drastic changes in society. Thus, addressing someone can be rather wordy, awkward or risky -- especially in non-familial and non-professional circumstances.
Koreans’ ways of addressing or referring to one another reflect not only the status or age of the addresser and the addressee, but also their relationship or how the two got to know each other.
Adults can address or refer to each another by adding “ssi” after one’s full name or first name, but not if the addressee is clearly of higher social standing than the addresser.
Koreans tend to use job titles like “teamjangnim (head of team)” or “gyosoonim (professor)” to refer to each other. If the formal title is unclear or unknown, “seonsaengnim,” which literally means teacher, but can also be used as a general honorific.
For owners of restaurants or shops, the most popular choice of address is “sajangnim (president of a business).” Customers are addressed as “sonnim (guest).”
“Because Koreans somehow believed it was more polite to address one another by his or her job title, ‘ssi’ was used for those with no titles, which came to give off an impression of less respect,” said Lee Keon-beom, who leads a civic group called Hangeul Culture Solidarity.
“It’s not just through words that we can show respect for others, but it’s linked to Koreans’ deep-rooted culture of seniority based on age and social status ... so I don’t think it will be easy to change this mindset,” Lee said.
Online roots of 'nim'
In the mid-1990s, a few years before the advent of the Internet, computer communication networks using modems such as Unitel, Chollian and Nownuri initiated the use of “nim” as a suffix on online handles. This practice spread to various online message boards and communities.
Then banks, government offices and customer service centers started using the suffix “nim” instead of “ssi” to avoid the potential risk of implying disrespect.
Some women use “nim” as an alternative to “oppa” -- what women call an older brother or older male whom they know personally.
Lee Ji-min, a 22-year-old who recently graduated from college, preferred calling older male schoolmates with the suffix “nim” than “oppa.”
“Since I’m the oldest child and don’t have male cousins, growing up, I never had to say ‘oppa’ much, and I think I sort of cringe at the nuance of the word ‘oppa,’” Lee said.
“I called my male schoolmates by the suffix ‘ssi’ or ‘nim’ rather than ‘sunbaenim (senior)’ or ‘hoobaenim (junior)’ because the latter felt a bit formal and hierarchical.”
In addition, Koreans address older women who are not related to them as "imo-nim (aunt)” rather than "ajumma," which has come to have a derogatory nuance, for fear of offending them.
When it comes to addressing extended family members, especially in-laws, many younger Koreans also find it hard to keep track of all the titles of address.
Lee of the civic group doesn’t think “nim” or “ssi” would suffice in the near future, since Koreans for decades have reflected in appellations their sensitivity to a widening spectrum of social status and income.
Twenty-two-year-old Lee, on the other hand, is more optimistic that a day would come when Koreans can simply ask each other's names and call them by that with a “nim.”