What does sŏnbae mean? Or, if you’re using Revised Romanization, what does seonbae mean?
Your sŏnbae is someone who entered an organization–a university, a company, the military, almost anything–before you did, regardless of age or current status.
From the Classical Chinese 先輩, prounounced sŏnbae in Korean. Sŏn 先 means before. Bae 輩 is someone who has become a member of a group. So, it means someone who has become a member of a group before you.
This word is related to the Japanese word senpai (also 先輩, or せんぱい) and possibly entered Korean through Japanese like many other Sino-Korean words–this is the resident historian’s theory, although several hours of a Friday night spent searching the internet hasn’t yielded any detailed or definite details about sŏnbae‘s etymology aside from the root characters.
Sŏnbae has no equivalent in American English. It’s such a culturally engrained concept that even when speaking English with groups of Koreans, it’s hard to avoid, and I’ve heard awkward substitutes used, like senior (in a company) or upperclassman (in a university), especially with non-Korean speakers (e.g., before I spoke Korean well or with people who don’t realize I speak Korean). This can be confusing because while these words could refer to the same person, it’s really not the same concept at all.
Like oppa, sŏnbae is both an address term and a reference term (Koh 2006). What does this mean? An address term is a term you call someone, like mister or ma’am in English. A reference term is used to refer to someone, like upperclassman and, in most standard Englishes, teacher. Some terms are used for both reference and address, like professor or doctor or aunt; sŏnbae is one of these.
Sŏnbae an be used alone or attached to names. Just as you can say to your professor, “I have a question, professor,” you can use sŏnbae to address an interlocutor who fits the definition. Also like professor, you can use it to refer to a third person, as in, “I met a sŏnbae for a drink last night.”
Again like professor, you can attach the word to names: in the case of sŏnbae, first, last, or both together. This chart from Koh 2006 (p. 148) outlines this:
When you use the term for address, you can make it more formal by adding -nim (님), an honorific suffix.
The opposite of sŏnbae is hubae (후배)–literally, “person who joined the group after,” although hubae is only used as a reference term, not for address. Instead, you’d address your hubae by their name or another title, depending on the circumstances.
The sŏnbae/hubae (or sŏnhubae 선후배) relationship takes different forms in different contexts. Much of my reference comes from working for the Korean military and talking to aspiring or beginning office workers; in these cases, while there is some guidance and mentoring involved, there is also at least some–and sometimes a lot of–what many Americans would consider bullying or harassment that goes on. For example, in the military, sŏnbae would sometimes force hubae to eat ramyeon or chocopies until they vomited.
On the other hand, a friend who I’m pretty sure has spent her whole adult life in academia–completing her BA and MA at a top Korean university and now working on a doctorate in the States–expressed surprise at my interpretation of the relationship: Apparently, her sŏnbae had been more like older siblings or mentors.
School, work and the military aren’t the only places you’ll find sŏnbae: According to this 2007 story from the Joongang Ilbo, new gangsters have to treat their sŏnbae with special care:
Crime Syndicate (Jongno Clan) Rules of Conduct:
- When you speak to your sŏnbae, definitely attach the title hyŏngnim [a respectful way for a male to say older brother].
- Bow 90 degrees when greeting your sŏnbae.
- Dress formally when you meet your sŏnbae.
- When getting in a car, bow 90 degrees to your sŏnbae and then get in the car last.
- Don’t smoke cigarettes in front of your sŏnbae.
- When you end a phone call, always say, “Please rest, hyŏngnim.”
- Answer the phone even when you’re sleeping.
- Don’t hang out with members of other gangs.
Most of these rules are related to sŏnbae–and frankly, they don’t sound all that different from much of what I observed in the army.
Koh, Haejin Elizabeth. 2006. “Usage of Korean Address and Reference Terms.” Korean Language in Culture and Society. ed. Ho-min Sohn. pp. 146-154.
“-배.” 네이버 국어 사전, n.d. Web. 30 April 2016.
“선배.” 다음 한국어 사전, n.d. Web. 30 April 2016.