Essential Korean Titles: The Real Meaning of Hyung (형) Explained by a Korean
This post goes over the meaning of hyung from a Korean perspective.
- what hyung means
- how to use it in different situations
- cultural background of hyung
- and more
Let’s dive right in!
Korean has kinship terms that change depending on relative age and gender. The most common five are:
Having a hyung in Korea is loads of fun and a great way to figure out the culture firsthand. A good hyung in your corner can make a huge difference.
Hyung vs. Hyeong
Both mean the same thing, but “hyeong” is the correct spelling according to romanization rules while “hyung” is more accurate according to how the word sounds.
Both are fine, but most people use the shorter “hyung” version.
What does hyung mean in Korean?
The literal definition of hyung (형) is “older brother”, used by men. But, there are other situations where the word is used.
To emphasize that someone’s your own brother, you add “chin (친)” or “woori (우리)” before hyung: chin hyung (친형) or woori hyung (우리형).
Male relatives and cousins
You can call older male relatives such as cousins, “hyung”.
An older male cousin in Korean is “sa-chon hyung (사촌형)”.
Older male friend or acquaintance
You can also address an older man in a friendly way by calling him hyung.
- Example: 동네 형 (Hyung from the neighborhood)
About Korean Age
Korean age is calculated differently according to these rules:
- Everyone is 1 year old when they’re born since time spent in the womb counts.
- Everyone ages 1 year on New Year’s Day, January 1st.
When in doubt, compare birth years instead by asking “몇년생이세요? (myut-nyun-saeng-yi-seh-yo?)” to get a quick idea of what to call someone.
Male upper classmates
If you’re a guy in college, you start calling older males by “name + sunbae (선배 or senior)”, which is gender neutral. After you get closer, you can call them by “name + hyung”.
- Example: 뷔 선배 → 뷔 형 (V sunbae → V hyung)
Titles containing “hyung”
Hyung is mostly used by men nowadays, but it was unisex in the past. Here are a few traces of it.
- Married women call a wife of older brother-in-law (their husband’s older brother’s wife), “hyung nim (형님)“.
- Women call their unnie or older sister’s husband, “hyung bu (형부)“, which literally means hyung’s husband.
- Men call their wife’s unnie or sister-in-law, “chuh hyung (처형)“, which literally means wife’s hyung.
Why did this change? The changes happened gradually over the period of many years. So, we’re not sure, but it’s helped a few K-pop songwriters.
- You can call someone of the same age hyung with aegyo when he buys you a meal or when you ask him a favor. This is not considered effeminate for men.
- Some guys call easy-going or boyish older women hyung, instead of noona. This is a term of endearment and the woman doesn’t usually mind.
College students, who were democratic activists in the 1980s, called each other hyung, regardless of their gender.
What’s the cultural background of hyung?
Exceptional hyung do exist. They’ll take care of their younger brother like a nice dad or friend.
However, most hyung wonder how to exploit their younger brother, especially when they’re a lot older or bigger.
My childhood friend was afraid of his hyung. For example, when his mom told him to eat more, he wouldn’t always. But, once his brother said “eat”, he finished his bowl of rice.
Most parents side with hyung in general when brothers fight each other, although it depends on the family. But, at the same time, parents will scold hyung even more behind the scenes, saying “What are you doing as a hyung? Can’t you take care of your younger brother? Why can’t you be a role model for your dongsaeng?”
Brothers will understand each other’s positions once they become adults, but they never find out until then. If their bitter feelings or sometimes hatred is too deep, they may never see each other again.
Still, hyung can be the most reliable allies for younger brothers in times of crisis such as when they’re being bullied.
How to make hyung honorific?
Knowing what to call someone is a major hurdle for Korean language learners.
There are two levels of kinship terms, plain and honorific.
The honorific suffix “-nim” is the most common way to make a word honorific.
“Hyung-nim (형님)” can be used in several situations, when:
- You really respect him
- You meet him for the first time, start speaking casually once he tells you to do so (말을 놓다), and want to behave in a friendly, but respectful way
- You need to speak to the wife of your husband’s older brother (woman to woman)
- You’re in the mafia
In the Gyeongsangdo/Busan dialect, men use 행님 (hang-nim) as satoori or 햄 (ham) as a shortened form.
What does hyung do for you?
For biological brothers:
Hyung, like noona, feel a responsibility to take care of you. They’ll pay for all meals and give life and dating advice.
They tend to assume the leader role in groups of younger people.
Hyung might also order you around depending on how old you are and how nice they are.
Many Korean men choose their majors in university based on the recommendations of hyung. I knew one man who majored in German Language in the 90s because many Koreans were going to Germany for work.
Hyung will also help you deal with bullies and teach you how to fight (mainly by beating you up).
For younger friends:
Having a hyung as a friend is usually great, because you choose them. Hyung will take you to cool places and pay for everything. They protect you from others in school or even an office environment. Just make sure to be the same cool hyung to younger friends.
What do you do for hyung?
Hyung are supposed to be unquestionable, since most men join the military and learn strict hierarchy.
You should start by bowing and using formal language when interacting with them. If hyung like you a lot, they’ll tell you to speak casually. Men only bow 90 degrees to other men and call them hyungnim in gangster movies. This is because they’re a boss, not really hyung.
But, make sure to show respect, because they hate that from younger males more than anything.
It’s also important to listen to their advice, even if you don’t follow it.
When do dongsaeng (동생) or younger brother refuse to call their older brother hyung?
When brothers are twins or one year younger, they don’t want to call the older one “hyung”. It’s kind of allowed, but they’re still expected to call the older brother hyung, according to parents and society.
When the age difference is more than a year, but hyung doesn’t deserve the title or is deeply disliked by dongsaeng, the younger brother will call them by name, nuh (너, you), ya (야, hey) or gyae (걔, that guy). There will be more retribution after this of course.
In Korean culture, it’s very humiliating to be called 너 by a younger brother. This is only seen when they don’t get along at all or dongsaeng despises hyung due to childhood abuse.
What’s the difference between Oppa and Hyung?
Both Oppa and Hyung mean an “older brother” in Korean, but Oppa is used by women and Hyung is used by men.
What’s hyung in Satoori (사투리)?
The most well-known satoori (dialect) for hyung is hangnim (행님) used in Busan and Gyeongsang-do. People even shorten 행님 to ham (햄).
How does a child say hyung?
Korean kids say “hyung ah (형아)” and it sounds cute. When they’re too young to pronounce “h (ㅎ)” yet, they say “eong ah (엉아)“. Even adults say “hyung ah (형아)”, especially when they want something.
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Did we miss anything?
Let us know your thoughts on hyung in the comments!
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