I'm talking to someone and they told me that because I'm a girl, it's wrong to use 형제 to describe my siblings. I know that 남매 means siblings (both male and female), but I was sure that 형제 could be used in the same manner (I've seen and heard it used that way). I searched it up and there are contracting answers. One person said that the younger generations don't use 형제 like this, and others say 형제 is only used for males to refer to their male siblings. Other people say 형제 is fine. So am I wrong for using this word?

Edit: this person I'm talking to is not a native


I think 형제 is a bit of an outlier in Korean: it behaves like English words as "guy" or "man" or "dude" which are (to different degrees) usually a male person, especially when talking about a specific person, but can be applied to both genders (or non-gender-binary person or whoever).

So, for example, you could say:

형제가 있으세요? = Do you have siblings?

저는 형제가 없어요/셋이에요. = I have no/three siblings.

Although they could theoretically mean "Do you have brothers?" or "I have no/three brothers," in most cases, these sentences would include sisters as well.

남매 is more specific, and always refers to male-female sibling relation. Ditto for 자매 (sister-sister relation).

A word of caution: when talking about a specific person, try not to use 형제 or 남매. In many cases, the word 형제 is not used like English "brother": its meaning is closer to "sibling relation". E.g.,

(A) 우리는 형제예요. = We are siblings. (OK)

(B) 저 사람은 제 형제예요. = That person is my brother. (?????)

Although you could be understood, a real Korean will almost surely not say (B), because it's simply not how a Korean sees their siblings. In English, your sibling is either your brother or your sister; in Korean, your sibling is one of your 언니/오빠/형/누나/동생, depending on the gender and relative age.

So, just like an English speaker would almost never say "That person is my younger sibling," (unless they really want to emphasize the relative age), a Korean speaker would not say "저 사람은 제 형제예요," but instead say (for example) "저 사람은 제 (오빠예요/동생이에요)."

For the same reason:

제 형제가 전화했어요. (Wrong)

제 동생이 전화했어요. (OK)

In fact, you can easily speak an hour about your sibling, without ever using the word 형제/남매/자매 once. Just use the "right" word: one of 언니/오빠/누나/형/동생.


형제 is brothers. And it has an another usage : All children (=형제자매=brothers and sisters)

1) 자넨 형제가 어떻게 돼 ? What is your brothers and sisters ?

저는 다섯 형제 중의 장남입니다. I am oldest among five children.

2) 남자의 손위(older) 여자형제=누나, 여자의 손위 여자형제=언니, 남자의 손위 남자형제=형. That is, the word 형제 is used to explain the relation.

And 누나, 언니, and 형 are callings between children. 자매(=여형재=girl brothers), 형제 and 남매 are callings at outside position.

@ When 형제 means 형제자매, through context, we can guess. If we see 육형제 바둑판 advertisement, then it must be Go plate made by 6 brothers.


  • 3
    ...Honestly I don't think any native Korean speaker would use expressions like "손위 여자 형제" when "누나" is a perfectly good word for it. Are you a native speaker? – jick Aug 14 '18 at 17:58
  • I am a native. I agree that almost Korean does not use the terminology. But my reference is ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/형제자매 (My sample sentence may be misused) – HK Lee Aug 14 '18 at 18:09

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