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Korean language and culture series: Aunty, are you there?

While burning some subtitles and Korean dramas for a non-Korean speaking friend, Bella noticed that the subtlety was completely lost with a rather simple reference of the relationship between two characters. Especially since her ever keen friend picked up on and promptly asked if there was a difference between “gomo” and “emo,” recognizing that she hears Bella address her own aunt as “emo.”

In the English language, rarely would you find distinct breakdowns of one’s relation to each other. However, in the Korean language, one can tell which side of the family (maternal or paternal) you are related to simply by their title within the family. This is probably not a foreign concept for some, most notably for those who are familiar with the Chinese or the Vietnamese culture. (In fact, many of the Korean terms for family members are Sino-Korean.) However, those others who are new to this concept are usually left confused by all the different terms.

This post is brought to you by both Bella and Blue, as a joint effort to give a more comprehensive explanation of the term “aunt” in Korean.

As always, we’ll use examples from dramas to illustrate our point.

In Secret Garden, Oska (YOON SANG HYUN) and Joo-won (HYUN BIN) are cousins. In this scene, Oska refers to Joo-won’s mom as “emo.”  Although the subtitles have it translated as “your mom and my mom” (which is theoretically correct), the literal translation would be as follows:

Oska: Do you know what is the difference between Aunt and my mom, from other daughters of wealthy families?

Contrast this with Lie to Me, where the Hyun brothers, Ki-joon (KANG JI HWAN) and Sang-hee (SUNG JOON), call their aunt “gomo.”

In fact, both ”emo” (이모) and “gomo” (고모) mean “aunt” in English. But why do Oska and Joo-won refer to each other’s mother as “emo,” whereas Ki-joon and Sang-hee call their aunt “gomo”?

“Emo” is a term for an aunt, but it’s specific to your mother’s (older or younger) sister. By calling each other’s mother “emo”, we know that the exact relationship between Joo-won and Oska is that their moms are sisters.

“Gomo” also means aunt, but it is a term specific to your father’s (older or younger) sister. By calling their aunt “gomo,” we know that Ki-joon and Sang-hee’s aunt is their father’s sister.

When your mother or father has multiple sisters (and thus, you have multiple aunts), the general practice is to differentiate one from the other by adding the word for “older” (큰=keun) or “younger” (작은=jak-eun) before the “aunt” word. If there are three or more sisters, then you would need to start numbering the aunt. (e.g., First emo/gomo, second emo/gomo, youngest emo/gomo.)

Pretty straightforward so far, right? But we’re sure your keen observation would have noticed that this would still leave out other women considered your “aunt,” but are not your parent’s sisters. For example, there are those women who became your aunt by “marrying into” your family. In other words, are there separate terms for those women who married your parent’s brothers?

Indeed there are! Since there are different terms available depending on the specific circumstances, we’re going to first list all these terms.

1. Keun eomeoni (also called “keun umma”): Literally means “older mom” or “big mom,” it is a term for the wife of your FATHER’S hyung (older brother). [Note: The Sino-Korean word "baekmo" is also available, but rarely used.]

2. Jak-eun eomeoni (also called “jak-eun umma”): Literally means “younger mom” or “little mom,” it is a term for the wife of your FATHER’S younger brother. [Note: The Sino-Korean work "sookmo" is also available, but not as used often.]

3. Weh sookmo (frequently just shortened to “sookmo”): It is a term for the wife of your MOTHER’S brother (either older or younger).

In New Gisaeng Story, Ra-ra (HAN HYE RIN) calls the wife of her father’s younger brother “jak-eun umma.” But in fact, the family holds a birth secret. Ra-ra is actually the daughter of the man and the woman who she called her uncle and her aunt all her life. Hence, the woman she thought to be her mom was really her aunt, and specifically her “keun umma.” (Umm, yeah, this drama is makjang to the core.)

But, you’re not my aunt!

There are two situations in which the term “emo” is used for those who are not family.

1. Your parent’s close female friends (typically, the mom’s close friends): This can also be seen in the Western culture where you call your mom’s close female friend as Aunt so-and-so. In Korea, the term “emo” is used instead. The idea is that these women are so close to your family that they’re practically part of your family.

2. Older female servers at a restaurant: This only works at small mom-and-pop places, but you may notice some people calling middle-aged women running those restaurants “emo.”

There is a scene in Twinkle Twinkle where Seung-joon (KIM SUK HOON) and Jung-won (KIM HYUN JOO) go to a restaurant together. When Seung-joon calls the lady “emo,” Jung-won reacts with surprise, remarking that Seung-joon doesn’t seem like the type of person who would call strangers “emo.” Well, she was right. That lady at the restaurant was indeed his real aunt (his mother’s sister).

However, it’s not uncommon for people to actually call the restaurant ladies “emo.” The idea is that even though you’re just a customer, you’re asking the servers to consider you their own nephew or niece. And just as they would serve hearty portions to their own family members, the restaurant owners would be more inclined to serve heartier portions or perhaps serve you some extra side dishes.

But note that you’re not expected to call the lady at the restaurant your “emo.” Generally, people do this at restaurants where they frequent often and the lady would recognize their face. Also, this practice is limited to mom-and-pop restaurants, where the environment feels tight-knit and familial. No one does this at higher end restaurants! Finally, some people just don’t feel comfortable calling strangers their “aunt,” and don’t do so. The stereotype is that the outgoing, extraverted people would feel comfortable calling a random stranger their aunt. Hence, this explains why Jung-won was surprised to see the uptight Seung-joon call someone at the restaurant his “emo.”

And next in the series… “Uncles!”

22 comments

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  1. estel

    I remember, when I was first learning Korean, how I felt so confused that there were TWO words for “older brother” and “older sister”. Little did I know that nuna/unni and oppa/hyung were just the beginning to the crazy world of Korean family relationships. Trying to remember all the titles for your older brother’s wife, and your younger sister’s husband, or your husband’s second-oldest brother, etc, etc can be frustrating to say the least. Thankfully I think I’ve finally gotten something of a handle on the situation (after almost four years!). Thanks, blue and bella, for offering succinct and clear definitions! ^_^ I think knowing the nuances of the different titles for the relationships between people makes drama-watching a much richer experience.

  2. InLove

    Thanks for this post. I love this Korean language and culture series. All the Korean I know is from the hours (hundreds of hours!) I’ve spent watching kdramas and this will definitely help me tune into the specifics of what’s being said. One day when I have the time and money I want to take Korean lessons because Korean is such an interesting language, but also because I want to watch kdramas right when they air as opposed to having to wait for the subs! Ha :) Looking forward to your next post.

    1. estel

      Viki used to have a pretty good series called Let’s Learn Korean in English…but I can’t find it anymore. There is this, though: http://www.viki.com/channels/360-lets-speak-korean/videos/4288/1. Definitely not as good, but it’s better than nothing, and it’s free!

  3. martha

    You are the best – thank you

  4. snow

    heh, this brings back a note of familiarity – it’s all so hierarchical and there has to be two (or more) of everything: aunts, uncles, cousins, relatives by marriage… i remember i always had to ask my mom how to address the relatives on either side because it’s not just simply “aunt” or “uncle”. on my own, i could never remember the correct proper address.

  5. kcomments

    Thanks Blue and Bella, such a delicate language it is. This reflects the Korean culture, that family hierarchy (relationship/seniority) plays important part in the Korean society. ^_^

  6. Christie

    As a new drama fan, I love this series. Thank you so much!

  7. frac

    Thank you, this Korean language and culture series is delightful. Well…your whole blog is…

    May I ask a question?
    Some dictionaries translate ajumeoni/ajumma by aunt, or madam.

    Is it a generic word, which can be used in place of gomo, emo etc.?
    Does it really refer to the aunt/nephew relationship, or is it only a word used to speak to /name a middle aged woman?

    1. blue

      Thanks! It’s always nice to know that others are enjoying the blog!

      As for your question, translating ahjumeoni/ahjumma as aunt is wrong. Did an official dictionary do that? I’d be disappointed if that was the case…

      The exact definition of ahjumeoni/ahjumma is that it is a term to reference a woman who is old enough to be the addressor’s mom. Perhaps some translated it as “aunt” because they thought it was the closest English word to it, but like you mentioned, I think “madam” would be a better term.

      There is another definition for ahjumeoni used to call a specific in-law. Specifically, it can be used in the same manner as “hyungsu-nim.” That said, I’ve personally never heard it used that way.

      1. frac

        Not only one, but two official dictionaries did that.
        But don’t be too disappointed! They were not english ones.

        The culprits are a french french -> korean giving ajumeoni as a generic term for aunt (I knew this one was a mess), and a korean korean -> french giving aunt (chinjok) or madam for ajumeoni/ajumma, which is more forgiveable but could lead some korean students to some surprise if one day they try to address a french waitress as aunt ^-^

        Thanks for the definition of ajumeoni.

      2. blue

        Okay, I got fascinated by why some dictionaries did that, and decided to look up the English definition of “aunt.” According to dictionary.com, the third definition of “aunt” is “used as a term of respectful address to an older woman who is not related to the speaker.” If so, that is indeed how the words ahjumeoni/ahjumma are used in Korea.

        That said, it’s deceiving to define ahjumeoni/ahjumma just simply as an “aunt” in international dictionaries because that definition of “aunt” is not what most people would think of first when they hear the term, and like you mentioned, may mislead people into misusing the word. Very interesting, indeed!

        1. Rin

          I’m late on reading this but I’ll ask anyway.

          Could ahjumeoni/ahjumma kinda be like Mrs. in a sense? Like I would call someone old enough to be my mom (like a friend’s mother I’m not close with) Mrs. so and so.

  8. momo

    Thank you! Very helpful and well written post.

  9. watchumlots

    THANK YOU for the helpful and informative ‘installment’ on Korean culture. I do know that in India there are also separate words for maternal/paternal aunt/uncle, those related by blood and those related by marriage; i.e., there would be separate words for a maternal (blood) uncle and his wife, a paternal (blood) uncle and his wife. Even though there are many different languages in India, my Indian friend explained that this is still common in their culture. Interesting. In America/English we simply say “aunt” and “uncle,” which may have been influenced by our ‘egalitarian’ culture where we are less inclined to make such distinctions.

    1. diorama

      That’s true, as an Indian myself. There’s a separate word to address every type of relative: you differentiate by gender, generation, blood or marriage status, and exact age relationship. It’s fascinating, and I can see how it adds a whole level of depth that you don’t get in subtitles.

    2. blue

      Ah, thanks for sharing, watchumlots and diorama!
      From what I’ve heard from some my Indian friends, I noticed that there are many similarities between the Indian culture and the Korean culture.

  10. tammu

    There’s the same thing in Chinese so I was able to draw parallels and understand this post perfectly. Thanks for sharing

  11. Aquarius9

    I am Singaporean Chinese with ancestors from the north that eventually migrated down to the south-eastern coast of China -and my great grand father being sent to explore new markets for the family businesses “down in Nanyang” at the turn of the 20th century. My mother’s sisters are “yi-ma” or “yi-mu” and my father’s sisters are “gu-ma” or “gu-mu” (in the common language known as putonghua) to me. Or “yi-
    “yi-bo” and “go-bo” in the Teochew/Hokkien dialects. I was once told by an elderly relative that if you listen closely to Korean, there are many words that sound the same (and with the same meaning ) in Hokkien/Teochew – like ban -yak in Hokkien (or “wan yi” in putonghua literally meaning “1 in 10,000″ or in the unlikely event). I suspect we are all more connected than we know!

  12. gretac

    This language and culture series is wonderful!
    As an English speaker, when a friend or acquaintance speaks of their aunt or uncle, I always want to know, and usually follow up by asking, whether they’re referring to their mother’s or their father’s sibling. So I wish we had these word-markers in English!
    Thanks for the great work.

  13. ck1Oz

    Hi sorry for commenting again.I like your cultural posts.
    There is an online dictionary I used.Just go to the family category and click on it.
    It has a family tree and gives you the different hierarchy for calling the relatives.

    http://www.indiana.edu/~koreanrs/kordic.html

  14. angie

    So well written. And good examples. Thanks so much..!

  15. Jane Ann Smith

    My sister in law explained it to me years ago.
    Reading your explanation, made it all make sense.
    I had my heart set on Aunt Smitty. Years later, I always thank my sister in law for saying I am Gomo.
    I love being Gomo!

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