What Dongsaeng Really Means in Korean


This post explains the word dongsaeng from a Korean perspective.

It covers:

  • definition of dongsaeng
  • how to use it in different situations
  • pros and cons of being dongsaeng
  • pros and cons of having dongsaeng
  • and more

I have a lot of experience being dongsaeng since I’m the youngest in my family.

Let’s get started!

Dongsaeng Explained by a Korean

Korean has unique ways of referring to siblings that change depending on relative age and gender. They are:

What does dongsaeng mean in Korean?

Dongsaeng (동생) means “younger sister/brother”, and is gender neutral.

Dongsaeng is a bit tricky to use, since you wouldn’t directly call a younger sibling that on a daily basis. Find out how to use it below.

Actual younger sister/brother

To emphasize that she or he is your biological sister/brother, you add “chin (친)” or “nae (내)” before dongsaeng: chin dongsaeng (친동생) or nae dongsaeng (내동생).

  • Usually, oppa refer to their younger sister “yuh dongsaeng (여동생)” and unnie simply say “dongsaeng (동생)“.
  • Noona refer to their younger brother “nam dongsaeng (남동생)” and hyung just say “dongsaeng (동생)“.

This is done in conversations with others. When speaking to dongsaeng directly, most older brothers and sisters simply call them by name or “ya (야 or hey)”.

Younger relatives and cousins

You can call younger female/male relatives such as cousins, “dongsaeng”.

A younger cousin in Korean is “sa-chon dongsaeng (사촌동생)”, but you don’t normally call them that. Instead, you can call your sa-chon dongsaeng by “name”.

You refer to them as “sa-chon dongsaeng” when introducing them to others.

Younger friend or acquaintance

You can also refer to a younger person in a friendly way.

  • Example: 아는 동생 (dongsaeng that I know or acquaintance dongsaeng)

Again, you don’t call them dongsaeng directly. Instead, call them by their name. When you introduce them or speak with others, use the word dongsaeng.

Underclassmen or juniors

If you’re in school, younger students are hoobae (후배 or junior)”, which is gender neutral. Hoobae are considered acquaintances with limited interaction outside what’s necessary for school.

They can turn into dongsaeng (동생) after you become more familiar with each other. This will increase the intimacy and strengthen the social contract.

Tips!

  • In Korea, age automatically determines honorifics and relations. Older people mostly speak casually to younger people and younger ones use honorifics (존댓말). If older people are well-mannered, they’ll use honorifics at first. Once they become friendly, older ones will tell younger people to speak casually (반말). I’m not a huge fan of this system, but that’s why Koreans always ask how old you are, not because they’re being rude or nosy.
  • Hoobae (후배) are mostly younger in school. But, hoobae can be older at a company if they joined after you or as a K-pop star if they debuted later.

What are the pros and cons of being dongsaeng?

Fight between unnie and dongsaeng featured in Reply 1988

Pros of being dongsaeng:

  • Dongsaeng usually receive more affection from their parents.
    (Korean parents tend to 오냐오냐 (onyaonya), which means being too kind or saying yes to everything for dongsaeng.)
  • They have more freedom to live their life, away from the responsibility or family burdens required by Korean society, such as having well-paying jobs, getting married and having kids. This is because the eldest male sibling will take care of the ancestral rites during the holidays, carry the family name and inherit everything.
  • Dongsaeng can learn from their older siblings.
    (My brother taught me some good tips for high school and university politics. Also, he encouraged me to study harder and gave me math lessons for Suneung.)

Cons of being dongsaeng:

  • Dongsaeng receive less allowance and food, especially from relatives during holidays, compared to the firstborn.
  • They get compared to their older siblings, especially when older ones get better test scores in school.
  • Dongsaeng often get hand-me-down clothing and toys from their older siblings.
    (I have an old photo of me wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt with my oppa’s name embroidered on it.)
  • Dongsaeng usually end up doing chores and running errands.

What are the pros and cons of having dongsaeng?

Pros of having dongsaeng:

  • Dongsaeng can be cute and sweet.
  • Namdongsaeng (남동생 or younger brother) pick their noona up when it gets dark to protect them.
  • Yeodongsaeng (여동생 or younger sister) are nice when oppa joins the army. They see them off and visit with gifts.
  • You’ll inherit everything if you’re the eldest in the family.

Cons of having dongsaeng:

  • Dongsaeng can be mean and demanding.
  • Mild and kind dongsaeng only exist in fantasy world.
  • You have to spend a lot of money on dongsaeng since they aren’t required to pay for anything. Imagine being the older brother of the former CEO of Samsung.

Learning Korean

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Did we miss anything?

Let us know your thoughts on dongsaeng in the comments!

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