Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Our husband (우리 남편)? Our wife (우리 아내)? (Chồng của chúng tôi? Vợ của chúng tôi)


The Korean language has a unique and versatile phrase ‘우리 [uri],’ which means ‘we/our’ in English. There are two things you should keep in mind when using this expression.

The first is that it’s used as both the pronoun ‘we’ and the possessive adjective ‘our.’

① We
우리가 했어요 [uriga hesseoyo]
We did it.
우리 [uri] we
가 [ga] (noun ending with a vowel +) subject marker
하다 [hada] to do
우리는 내일 떠나요. [urineun neil tteonayo]
We leave tomorrow.

우리 [uri] we
는 [neun] (noun ending with a vowel +) topic marker
내일 [neil] tomorrow
떠나다 [tteonada] to leave
② Our
우리 수업 [uri sueop]
our class

우리 [uri] our
수업 [sueop] class
우리 프로젝트 [uri peurojekteu]
our project
우리 [uri] our
프로젝트 [peurojekteu] project
The second thing is that it’s not always as all-inclusive as the English ‘we’—that is, it might not include the listeners, and it might not even be plural. 

True, it doesn’t make sense in English to say ‘our home’ or ‘our school’ to someone that doesn’t have the same home or school as you.

You may find it strange that Koreans routinely say ‘우리[uri]’ to mean ‘my.’ The most common situation where you find this usage is when Koreans talk about their country and family.

Korean wordLiteral meaningMeaning
우리나라 [uri nara]our countryKorea
우리 집 [uri jib]our homemy/our home
우리 학교 [uri hakgyo]our schoolmy/our school
우리 가족 [uri gajok]our familymy/our family
우리 엄마 [uri eomma]our mothermy/our mother
우리 아빠 [uri appa]our fathermy/our father
우리 부모님 [uri bumonim]our parentsmy/our parents
우리 아내 [uri a-ne]our wifemy wife
우리 남편 [uri nampyeon]our husbandmy husband

Korean people often replace ‘한국 [hanguk] (Korea)’ with ‘우리 나라 [uri nara] (our country).’ Also, they refer to their family and parents as ‘우리 가족 [uri gajok] (our family)’ or ‘우리 부모님 [uri bumonim] (our parents),’ not ‘ 나의 가족 [naui gajok] (my family)’ or ‘나의 부모님 [naui bumonim] (my parents).’

Perhaps the most famous examples are ‘우리 아내 [uri a-ne] (our wife)’ and ‘우리 남편 [uri nampyeon] (our husband).’ (Oops! Don’t misunderstand: Korea is a monogamous society!)

There’s been a lot of research about why Koreans use the word ‘우리 [uri]’ so frequently, rather than ‘나 [na] (I)’ and ‘나의 [naui] (my).’ Some scholars believe ‘우리 [uri]’ is proof of the group, rather than the individualistic, mentality that dominates in Korea, the result of Korean culture’s emphasis on the whole rather than the individual.

From a linguistic and historical point of view, I tend to agree with the argument. But as there’s no foolproof way to prove this theory, all that matters to you is that you remember this interesting custom as a learner.
Still confused? Let’s think of “royal ‘we’.”

You may know that in British English, the royal “we” is the way a person, usually a ruler, may use a plural personal pronoun to refer to himself or herself. The queen of England is most famous for the usage: “We are not amused,” for example. The phrase suggests that the king or queen is something more than a singular person and the ruler speaks both as an individual and as a representative of his or her people. 

Though the reason for the royal “we” is quite different from the reason for Korean’s “우리 [uri],” this still gives you an idea of how a plural pronoun doesn’t always mean precisely “more than one.”
  1. Amen H, Park K, Padrón A. Korean For BeginnersTuttle Publishing; 2010.
  2. Harris R. Roadmap To Korean. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym; 2003.
  3. De Mente B. The Korean Mind. Tokyo: Tuttle Pub.; 2012.
  4. ‘We Are Not Amused’ – A Guide To The ‘Royal We’. Royal Central. 2012. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2016.
  5. What is the Royal We? (with pictures). wiseGEEK. 2016. Available at: Accessed September 18, 2016.