My Chinese friend just used 欧尼, and I looked up the meaning and found out that in Korean, 언니 is used by female, to refer to another woman who is older than the caller.

However, the baidu page also explained the etymology, and it is from a Japanese word お兄, which is for male (used by both female and male but it is far more likely used by female, and in the modern Japanese, very few people use it).

Why in Korean does the word refer to female only? And when did this transition happen historically?

  • As a side note, male call women older than themselves as 누나 and female use the word 언니
    – Curiousity
    Oct 13 '17 at 2:47
  • For the record, that baidu page does not explicitly say that the etymology of 언니 is お兄.
    – MujjinGun
    Nov 26 '17 at 5:33
  • 언니 first appeared in the twentieth century. The transition happened between 1950s and 1990s (ref.). As for the etymology, however, it is uncertain whether 언니 is from Japanese あに (ref.).
    – Klmo
    Nov 12 '19 at 6:16

Not sure if 언니 is from お兄 but the National Institute of Korean Language says that 언니 may be a contraction of 웃 (older) and 누이 (sister), which is pronounced as /운누이/.

  • 1
    Hi would it be possible to add a link to the reference?
    – user17915
    Sep 17 '18 at 8:22

언니 is told to have been used for males(or by males, not sure) in the joseon dynasty, but the meaning changed over the last few hundred years...

This is very common in Korean language.

Not sure about the Japanese term, though. It is possible, because the Korean and Japanese language has always affected each other a lot..... Could be the other way around.


Definition #2 from the Naver Dictionary entry for 언니 is as follows:

2 .남남끼리의 여자들 사이에서 자기보다 나이가 위인 여자를 높여 정답게 이르거나 부르는 말.

ex) 동네 언니

ex) 그보다도 언니! 남편 되시는 분 말이에요.

This is the typical way for female, Korean native speakers to address other women with whom they are less familiar while employing a friendly tone.

In Korean, the terms 언니 and 형님 show respect for a person that is older, as if an older sister or older brother (even though there is no family relation).

언니 is the term one uses when the person they address is their elder, where the other person is older. In contract, a female speaking to another younger person uses the term 동생 (female or male), while a specifically female term would be 여동생.


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