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Untranslatable Words in Korean and English

November 10, 2014


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It’s time to get learned. In this episode we cover phrases and words in one language that don’t exist in the other, the complicated world of Korean kinship titles, and which British word we completely botched in the last episode of DICKS. Check out the video to see our favourite un-translatable words, and check out our words below for a little more insight into Korean family titles. Tally ho!

가족 호칭 or Family Titles

Instead of calling one’s name, Korean people address another person with 호칭. In English, “aunt” and “uncle” are kind of like 호칭, only in Korean these titles get way more specific. Sure there’s “aunt,” but there’s also “maternal aunt by marriage” and also “husband’s bigger brother.” Someone’s 호칭 tells you how close you are in the family tree and what kind of relationship you have with that person. If you know which title the other person is to you, you instantly know who their parents are, who their children are, and if you are higher or lower than them. You can have numerous 호칭, depending on who is addressing you. This is true in English too. For example, your mother’s brother is your uncle, so you call him “Uncle.” But to your mother, he’s “Brother.” And to your grandfather, he’s “Son.” So to me, my mom’s is “엄마” but to my cousin, she’s “이모.” Confused yet? I tried to make a basic family tree and title name that you call for each family member. 

We have specific titles for older and younger siblings in your immediate family, and of course for your parent’s siblings. 언니 and 오빠 are very common, and not just for family. They could be your own older sister or brother or it could be someone who is a close friend but older. Mostly we put 큰 for older sibling, and 작은 for younger one. Remember how I said there were a billion 호칭? Believe it or not, there are few people missing in these trees, including the spouses of your uncle and aunt. Here are few more that were not in the tree.

Dad’s brother’s wife = 큰 어머니 / 작은 어머니
Dad’s sister’s husband = 고모부
Mom’s brother’s wife =  외숙모
Mom’s sister’s husband = 이모부 
As if that wasn’t enough, I have also prepared a tree for married couples’ family names. If you guys ever marry a Korean person this will come in handy.

촌 / 촌수 aka: bridges

촌수 is way to calculate how close you are as family on a family tree. The closest relationship is as a married couple, which is 0 촌. You and your parents are 1 촌, and you and your siblings are 2촌. This is where 삼촌(uncle) comes from, since he is 3 bridges away from you. Also cousins are called 사촌 because they are 4 bridges away. 

Family can be extended and 촌 can be calculated as many as you want, but come on now, if they are over 10 bridges away they are practically the same as a stranger. Koreans think within in 8 bridges people and spouse family as family so outside of we don’t count as family. That is why we say “사돈의 팔촌” when we barely know a person. It means you’re 8-bridges-away cousins of a spouse’s family, which is extremely far. You might as well be strangers.

If you have any questions about this kinda confusing episode or know of any words that you wish translated into other languages, let us know in the comments section below. Hopefully our silly ramblings made sense and maybe you even learned something?



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Korean Slang


Untranslatable Words in Korean and English


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  1. With regards to the bridges, I saw a good description for a Chinese family in a YouTube video, which made me think of what you’d described
    Don’t know if it works, but I know my own family tree is way less complicated!!

    4 years ago
  2. The English word I’m most frustrated that we don’t have in Finnish is “to ignore”. The closest ones are “olla huomioimatta/olla välittämättä” but it’s not the same.

    On the other hand the Finnish word I have often wished had an English equivalent is “myötähäpeä”, the feeling of embarrasment you get from someone other’s stupid behavior or endeavors. Webdictionaries translate it as “shared sense of shame” or “second hand shame” but those feel somehow too lukewarm to be proper equivalents. Oh how many times have I almost had to stop watching Korean dramas because of the intensity of myötähäpeä I have felt because of them. :D

    Other than that Finnish have many nature words that don’t have translations at least in English, not sure if Swedish or Norwegian have those. “Kaamos” is the dark time of the year when sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, “ruska” is the natural phenomenon during autumn when leaves turn to bright colors, “hankikanto” means the piled up snow that has frozen enough to carry a person’s weight and you can walk over it and imagine you’re an elf :D. We also have bunch of words for snow but I think some Inuit languages have more of those.

    4 years ago