Tuesday, April 08, 2008

G-Spot 6 - Family Relationships

Whenever I go to my wife's house for Chusok, Lunar New Year's Day or any other event that involves large numbers of in-laws I always get a bit confused about my identity. You see, back home, I know my name and most everyone calls me by name. Other's have names to, sometimes we attach an Uncle or an Aunt to the front of the given names or even a Grandma or Grandpa to the front of a family name. But in Korea, I could be called by at least 10 different names depending on who is doing the calling (just a couple of examples, GoMoBoo, MaeHyung, SohnJa...and the occaisional 'Hey You!'). I just can't keep track of them all. I long to just be called "Uncle Don" by anyone under the age of 30 and "Don" by everyone else but alas, it just doesn't work that way.
Since the words for family relationships in Korean often do not translate easily, students at many levels ask me about the words used to describe family relationships and I have racked my brain to try and come up with an easy way to explain it so that students can visualize it clearly. I'm sure that I've missed it somewhere and I'm open to any suggestions but the basics are this:

American family relational words are based on generational groups alone whereas Korean family relationship words are based on generational as well as patriarchal and matriarchal concepts.

  • Think of yourself as the middle or "0." Anyone in your general age group would fall into one the following: brother, sister, or cousin (I won't get into the distant cousin stuff here. A cousin's a cousin.) and husband/wife.
  • On the next level up or "+1" we have: mother, father, uncle, aunt.
  • One more up, or "+2" and you use "+1" with "grand": grandmother, grandfather, granduncle, grandaunt (note that some dialects choose "great uncle" or "great aunt").
  • Going down, or "-1" we have children: son, daughter, niece, nephew.
  • Finally at "-2" we use "-1" with "grand" again: granddaughter, grandson, grandniece, grandnephew.
There are more than just these family relationships but these are the basics. Most others can simply add a prefix or suffix to change the relationship. For example:

  • "Step-" is added to mother, father, sister, brother to denote that the relationship is a result of 'remarriage.'
  • "-in-law" is added to mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter to denote that the relationship is a relationship created by "Law" or marriage.
  • "ex-" is added to husband or wife to denote a relationship that results from divorce.
  • "half-" is added to brother or sister to denote that the two persons share 1/2 of the same 'blood' that is, the same mother OR father but not both.
  • "adoptive-" is added to mother, father, son or daughter to denote that the person is not a biological parent or child but related by adoption.

Though they are not often used in spoken English, we are able to denote father's family and mother's family as is done in Korean by calling someone "maternal" (for mother's) or "paternal" (for father's) family. For example, in Korean, a "wae-sam-chon (외삼촌)" would be called a "maternal uncle." "Paternal uncle" would refer to the father's brother. Brother's and Sister's family can be referred to by "fraternal" and "sororal." My brother's daughter could be called my "fraternal niece" and my sister's son could be called my "sororal nephew." Again, it should be emphasised that these relationships are not often used in conversation.

Finally, a note on usage: most of these expressions (I'll get to the exceptions in a minute) are used primarily to refer to our family in the third person (She is my aunt, He is my cousin. Why don't you call your Cousin BillyBob or your Granduncle Jethro? ) but not in the second person. It is not common to say for example: "Hi, brother." Instead, we would use that person's first name ("Hi, Guido! Howyadoo'in?"). The notable exceptions are aunts and uncles (referred to as Uncle/Aunt + First Name, "Uncle Don and Aunt Phyllis") and grandparents (referred to as Grandma/Grandpa + Last name, "Grandma Smith and Grandpa Wesson) which can be used in the second person.

In a nutshell, family relational words in English are much less complicated than their Korean counterparts. The most uncomfortable thing (culturally speaking) for Korean speakers of English in this context, is the use of an 'elder' person's name. Even in my own family, my wife is uncomfortable with my son referring to his older sister by her name rather than "noona" regardless of what language they are speaking.

Hope this helps someone out there get it straight.

1 comment:

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