Given or Negotiable?: Korean Family Address Terms on the Move

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eunsun Lee, a doctoral student in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. 

When you meet someone in Korea, there are several things they will ask you to initiate a conversation. Among many other things such as your occupation and country or city of origin, they will want to know your age, which determines the address term that they can use to talk to you. Age indeed plays a key role in shaping the language you can use with others.

But there is one huge exception to this significant role of age in determining the appropriate address term for use. Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article (Lee, 2018) in Joongang Ilbo, one of the major nation-wide newspapers in Korea.

Park, who is two years in her marriage, complained, “The address terms make it so awkward between family members at holiday gatherings.” Park’s husband has a younger brother and a younger sister, who is 5 years and 6 years younger than Park, respectively. Despite the age difference, Park addresses them as akassi and tolyennim. “I just can’t get used to addressing my brother- and sister-in-law, who are way younger than me, as akassi and tolyennim,” said Park. “I find it bizarre to be using honorifics to them while my husband addresses my younger sister simply as checay.”

So what’s with all these address terms? To give you a bit of the background, below is a table that compares the address terms that women and men are expected to use to address their in-law family and the etymology of each term.

When wife addresses husband’s … Whom? When husband addresses wife’s …
시댁 sitayk (媤宅) ‘Husband’s house’ [+H] Entire family 처가 cheka(妻家) ‘Wife’s house’ [-H]
어머님 emenim ‘Mother’ [+H] Mother 장모님 cangmonim (丈母-nim) ‘Wife’s mother’ [+H]
아버님 abenim ‘Father’ [+H] Father 장인어른 canginelun (丈人-elun) ‘Wife’s father -senior’ [+H]
도련님 tolyennim ‘Young master’ [+H] Younger brother 처남 chenam (妻男) ‘Wife’s brother’ [-H]
서방님 sepangnim ‘Husband’ [+H]
아주버님 acwupenim ‘Older relative’ [+H] Older brother 형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H]
아가씨 akassi ‘Young lady’ [+H] Younger sister 처제 checay (妻弟) ‘Wife’s younger sibling’ [-H]
형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H] Older sister 처형 chehyeng (妻兄) ‘Wife’s older sibling’ [-H]

[+H]: with honorific morphemes / [-H]: without honorific morphemes

In a nutshell, if your husband has a younger brother or sister who is significantly younger than you, your familial relationship with them overrides the age factor, prescribing you to use honorific address terms for them. However, notice that the same does not apply to men when they address their wife’s siblings. That is, age is still the most influential factor for using honorifics. They only use honorific terms for your wife’s parents and older brother (and not her older sister—indicating the influence of the gender factor as well).

Park’s remark in the previous excerpt can then be understood as her uneasiness about the asymmetric terms between husband’s and wife’s family members. And she was not the only one to make such remarks; according to a survey conducted with 4,000 respondents nation-wide in 2016, 65% of the people perceived the gender disparity in the family address terms to be problematic (Lee & Kim, 2018). In the past few years following the survey, several national petitions were  posted on the Cheongwadae (the executive office of the President of South Korea) website regarding the problematic address terms that women have to use for their in-law family members.

In response to these visible changes in the people’s perception of the prescriptive address terms, the government agencies such as the National Institute of Korean Language and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced some policy revisions and public campaigns to address this issue in 2018 and 2019. They have made a few suggestions on the alternative terms that can be used in place of the traditional terms. Given the discrepancy between the prescriptive address terms and the terms that people actually feel comfortable with, it was recommended that each family consider using some of the alternative terms to fit their communicative needs.

This move by the government agencies generated tons of commentaries under a number of online media reports. A lot of the commentaries often took the discussion to an aggressive gender conflict, where male commentators bringing up the honorific address terms men use for their brother’s wife as a counter example and criticizing women for overproblematizing and unjustly claiming for a revision of the standard addressing norms. Some of the comments criticizing the move included (translated by me):

  • Just because there is no ‘-nim’ suffix at the end of the terms doesn’t mean that those terms don’t have honorific meanings. There are so many other problematic language practices these days. What a pity that people are picking up on this trivial issue.
  • Why don’t you get rid of all the address terms altogether and just follow the American way of addressing people by their first name? Wonder how you’d feel about being called by your first name by your nephew.
  • The presence of honorifics in the address terms you use is not as important as the amount of respect you pay in your actual interpersonal relationship with the person. Why denounce the address terms? They’re not gonna change so easily any ways.
  • The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should address other more significant issues than this.

Overall, it seemed that the online commentaries under the media reports were inclined toward a negative attitude to the change. This piqued my interest, as I had initially thought there would be more positive reactions to the change as shown in the national survey results and the number of signers for the national petitions. Is this really what the majority of people think of about this change? How about my family and friends? How would they perceive this change and their own uses of those address terms?

So I decided to conduct my own citizen sociolinguistic interviews with people around me. As a first step, I interviewed my mother, who is in her mid-50’s, positions herself as politically liberal, and most importantly, addresses her husband (my father)’s siblings in the traditional way. Then I asked her to interview her friends, which in turn elicited responses from 13 different women in their mid- to late- 50’s. The questions that my mother and I used were:

  1. How do you address your husband’s siblings?
  2. (In case you had known them before you were married) Were there any changes in the ways you addressed them after you were married?
  3. How do you feel about the terms that you use?

Interestingly, I found more variance in the address term practices than I had expected. Only 3 out of 13 respondents strictly followed the prescriptive rules. In the rest of the cases, they reported a range of alternative practices including:

  • Using the terms that your own children would address them (e.g. Samchon “Uncle”, Komo “Auntie” [-H])
  • Using the terms that your husband would address them along with the honorific suffix -nim (e.g. Nwu-nim “Older sister” [+H])
  • Addressing them in relation to their own child’s name (e.g. Eunsun-emma “Eunsun’s mom”, Kyengmin-appa “Kyengmin’s dad” [-H])
  • Using different terms when your parents-in-law are around and when they are not

Struck by the variance in the practices, I inquired the factors for choosing the terms that they use. Some of the influential factors I have found are:

  • Socialization experiences 
    • In their own family
    • In husband’s family
  • Their perception of the husband’s parents’ conservativeness
  • Their interpersonal distance or age difference with their husband’s siblings
  • The husband’s siblings’ preference / Whether they have children
  • Their own preference
    • The degree to which they feel ‘comfortable’ using those terms
    • The association of knowing the ‘correct’ terms with well-educatedness

Except for the one respondent who reported that she had never questioned using the traditional address terms, all the other respondents reported that they had gone through some adjusting processes when they got married and as their relationship with their husband’s siblings evolved as they had children. Two salient strategies emerged in the processes: a) negotiation, where they talked with their husband’s siblings and reached agreement on which term both sides feel comfortable using; b) silence, where they chose to opt out of using address terms for their husband’s siblings altogether due to their uneasiness with the terms.

Address terms can be a very sensitive issue since it would directly affect how you verbally communicate with the person in face-to-face interaction. This was well-supported by the online data that I encountered and the conversations that I had with my interviewees. Although revising the prescriptive norms regarding the address terms may not be the right remedy for this issue as some commentators online have pointed out, it is evident that major changes have been occurring at the micro-level practices of people’s use of those terms.

Now I am curious to know our readers’ reaction to this issue of family address terms. To what extent do you think there is a value or meaning to the prescriptive rules? How would you want to address your in-law family members? What if there is a conflict in the ways you and your husband or in-law family members think of the terms? How would you go about to address the conflict through conversations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

 


References

Lee, E. (2018, Sep 23). “남편 동생은 도련님ㆍ아가씨인데, 내 동생은 처남ㆍ처제?” (“My husband’s younger siblings are called Tolyennim and Akassi, and my younger siblings are called chenam and checay?”). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/22996250

Lee, E. (2019, Jan 23). 도련님 대신 ‘OO씨’…성별 비대칭 호칭 바뀐다(‘XX-ssi’ instead of Tolyennim … Gender-Asymmetric Address Terms Change). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/23313592

Lee, P. & Kim, T. (2018). Aspects and Problems in the Contemporary Use of
Address Terms and Reference Terms within a Family”. The Sociolinguistic Journal of Korea, 26(1). 277-309