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November 25, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Kajok (Family)

Kajok (가족) is our KDrama word for today, and a very central word to Korean drama (and life) it is. The first syllable, kah, is pronounced like the “co” in “cot.” The second syllable is closer to “joke” than to “jock,” bearing in mind also that the final vowel is barely touched upon (which is why you may see it Romanized as kajog or gajog).
A Korean kajok consisting of a man, woman and baby sit in a park with a river and city buildings in the background


In spite of the importance of kajok to just about every Korean drama ever made, the word itself is not heard all that often. Maybe this is because dramatic conflicts often revolve around a particular person or persons in the 가족.

I am debating whether to include words for different family members in our KDrama words series. There are many helpful webpages for these terms already. They can be a lot more complicated than their English equivalents. For example, you can’t just speak of your “brother” in Korean, as there are different words for older and younger siblings. In addition, the word for a woman’s brother is different from the word for a man’s brother!

Words for other kajok members are similarly specific. Terms vary depending on whether they refer to father’s or mother’s relatives. Birth order can also be a factor. Here’s a pretty inclusive page on some of the distinctions. Notice how long it is!

Korean screenwriters depend heavily on these terms to identify relationships between characters. Korean-speaking audiences learn immediately who characters are when they call each other “big brother,” “father’s sister,” “mother’s mother,” etc.

However, these crucial identifying titles are often dropped from subtitles and replaced with personal names. This leaves non-Korean-speaking viewers totally in the dark about how characters are related to one other. We figure it out eventually, but may have missed many key nuances in dialogue by that time.

To complicate matters even further, unrelated people may address each other using family terms. We see co-workers calling older colleagues with whom they are friendly hyeong/oppa and noona/eonni all the time. It is even trickier when friends call each other by sibling terms, since the informality of their relationships makes it easy to mistake them for actual siblings.

I was extremely confused by this when I first started watching Korean dramas. I assumed (not unreasonably, right?) that a child who called an adult man 아저씨 (uncle) was in fact his niece. Hah, if only it were so simple! In fact, characters frequently call total strangers mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather or grandmother. And don’t even get me started on a woman’s use of the word for big brother to address her boyfriend!

So, drama viewers, arm yourself with a comprehensive list of relationship terms like the one linked above. Keep it handy when characters are making their first appearance. Careful listening at the beginning of a drama can save you a lot of confusion later on!


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