Referring to Older Siblings

I'm on Week 3 of First Step Korean and it's quite interesting because I'm learning new things (I honestly have no idea why I could possibly think otherwise... there's always things to learn, especially in language).

Our textbook has not gone into the family topic yet, so I've learnt a lot of new words related to family.

Also, this course introduced the first 10 native Korean numbers first, for counting the number of siblings that you have. (No Sino-Korean numbers in sight yet.)

There are different words in Korean for referring to an older brother or sister, depending on the gender of the person whose sibling it is.

(These words are not limited to blood siblings only as I've seen it used in some Webtoons... and it's rather common in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture too, to refer to someone like that out of respect for an aunt or uncle... but perhaps in this context... it's more of... trying to be cute?)

A female calls her older brother 오빠 while a male uses 형.

For older sister, the word is 언니 (female) and 누나 (male).

Initially, when this was introduced, I thought, Well, okay, that's what the females call older brothers/sisters, even if they are not their own, and similarly for males.

This "not their own" part was because I was thinking of a female addressing a person directly and calling him/her "brother" or "sister". (This seems to be a common thing in K-dramas, especially for calling a... boyfriend? Even if I don't watch them... well, I have no idea how I learnt this.)

Part of it was because it was phrased this way when it was first introduced:

If you are a female, an older brother is called 오빠.


If you are a male, an older brother is called 형.

I interpreted it wrongly. It's not a case of "female-specific" language or "male-specific language" that some languages do have, where the speaker's gender determines what form they use (off the top of my head, Thai).

If the female is talking to a male and asking about his siblings, she would use the "male" terms.

To refer to his older brother, she would use 형. It's correct for her to say:

형도 있어요? (Do you also have an older brother?)

This is in the context of asking a male friend if he also has a brother.

This was the eye-opening sentence that made me go back and re-watch the first video to figure out what I had missed.

It wasn't quite what I expected (or at least, I hadn't thought through the consequences of this yet).

I had thought the "female" or "male" using a particular form referred to the speaker, but it's actually referring to the person - the person whose siblings you are referring to - is that person male or female, that determines which form to use.

So instead of this:

If you are a female, an older brother is called 오빠.

The way to avoid the misunderstanding for me would have been to say:

If you are a female, your older brother is called 오빠. (Regardless of whether you are calling him that, or someone else is.)

With this knowledge in mind, the accompanying pictures for each of the vocabulary words now make more sense, as they will depict either a boy or a girl with another older (taller) boy or girl, with an arrow pointing to the older child to indicate what the word refers to.

Since I am writing this after the fact and I pretty much explained how it is supposed to be used, I don't think it's nearly as enlightening as discovering that on your own... but this is a nice record of my learning process, which was one of my purposes for keeping a language blog.

I had to update my Anki flashcards which I made yesterday - I'd put the translations down with "(male speaker)" and "(female speaker)" but I've updated them to "(of a male)" and "(of a female)".

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