Monday, August 30, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: How Does Korean Language Affect the Way Korean People Think?

Absolutely fascinating article from the New York Times about how languages affect our mode of thought. A few highlights...
And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think. In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”).

...

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune?

...

Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.
Does Your Language Shape How You Think? [New York Times]

Applied to Korean context, what is something that a Korean speaker must think about when constructing a sentence? One example of Korean language's peculiarity is its use of particles -- in which the choice of one wrong particle (which is in most cases no more than one syllable, sometimes two) leads to a pretty strong change in tone. For example: "개가 짖는다" and "개는 짖는다" mean the same in English -- "Dog barks." But the tone is different; the first sentence sounds like it is describing a general scenary of which the dog is a part; the second, like there is another animal that is not doing the barking and there is a need to distinguish which animal is barking. But how does this direct Korean speakers' attention to a particular thing, like the way German and Spanish speakers are a little more attuned to gender as they speak their language? Hmmm.

Actually, the interesting thing is that the Korean cannot really think of too many things within Korean language which obliges a Korean-speaker to have in mind. Korean language is one with pretty loose requirements. There is no need for the subject in a sentence. Tenses are looser in Korean. Singular/plural rules are not strict. Active/passive voice switch is very natural. Perhaps Korean language is characterized by the relative lack of constraints? It's something to think about.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

31 comments:

  1. TK - In Korean you must constantly think about whom you are addressing in terms of age, social standing, etc to determine the correct politeness level.

    There's a bit of a chicken and egg problem here though - did this linguistic requirement evolve from the culture or vice-versa? Is it possible a virtuous cycle, whereby the culture helped create the honorific forms and the constant use of these reinforced the culture?

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  2. Yeah -- the Korean did not deal with honorifics because that seemed to be a response to a specific need, and not necessarily a grammatical requirement like gender for all nouns.

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  3. Here's an interesting story that's somewhat related: I was listening to On My Own from Les Miserables (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY-OXb38_r8), and had a revelation when I heard the line "the river's just a river".

    Being a fob, I thought this line meant "강은 강일뿐" and wondered how Eponine came across the teachings of 성철스님 (http://tiny.cc/ms9k3).

    Well, the revelation came when I realized that the key to that verse lies in the articles. When she sings "THE river's just A river" she's lamenting that a specific river which Marius and she had shared a fond memory is now merely an ordinary river of no significance because Marius is no longer there to bring her joy (this point it further stressed by the following verse "Without him, the world around me changes").

    This very simple, elegant, yet powerful way to express deep longing was completely lost in translation until I became fluent in English because, as you know, there are no articles in Korean language.

    I wonder what other beautiful verses I've missed, and also wonder what beautiful verses the Korean learners are missing.

    Another fun note: In One Day More (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odrZ6NtPR2M) "they will wet themselves with blood" would best translate to "피똥싸게 해주마".

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  4. FYI, the basis for the NYT article has been systematically dismantled by Mark Liberman on LanguageLog: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2592

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  5. it's so funny you post this now

    I've been thinking about this for the past few days
    because i read another article on the same topic earlier
    this week.

    like one of the articles said about English being Agent specific...meaning we always put emphasis on who did the action rather than the action being done. That's total contrast to Korean where, as you said, it's very flexible as to whether you need a subject or not..so you pay more attention to the action being done rather than the person doing it.

    i found all this to be fascinating. Especially the aboriginal part.

    This also reminds me of the quote "to learn a second language is to gain a second soul"

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  6. Maybe the lack of constraints was what made the Korean language accessible to all types of people?

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  7. Desi, I read that article too. It's here: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868.html

    Very interesting, and it has lots of good specific examples.

    The one you refer to about agents can be possibly used in a Korean example. Because Korean does not always focus so much on agents of negative things in the way English does the legal system in Korea differs from that typical in English-speaking countries in that Korean law focuses on compensating victims, whereas in English speaking countries it tends to be more about punishing perpetrators. Although I'm sure TK is actually in a better position to comment on this ;)

    All I'd say is that the US has imprisoned a higher proportion of its population than any other country or culture in history, whereas in Korea offering to pay off a victim is perhaps more often a good way to end any legal dispute.

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  8. I remember a specific study in which they dealt with a language that has no number beyond two. There were words for none, one, two, and many.

    In the case of this language, the speakers were shown a number of beans, and asked to pull out of a pile, the same number of beans.

    Most of the study's participants could pull out the exact amount when the numbers were low. But once the number of beans got to be around 20 then the participants could only estimate the number, often getting the wrong number of beans. As the number increased, the accuracy of their count got progressively worse. This is because nobody can know how many of something there are without actually counting them, and they need the language to count exactly.

    If you see 53 of something, and you need to replicate 53, then you first count the original item, then count out from the pile the exact number.

    With no words for 53 and all the numbers in between it an 2, the best you can do is grab a handful that looks about the same size.

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  9. I wish I could speak Korean on a level to have the slighest idea about this...(therefore there are a lot of surprises waiting for me kk)

    But one thing is for sure: the more someone is able get the idea of what are those things, in another language, which the natives pay more attention to, the quicker he/she is able to improve his/her language skills. And for this purpose poetry, lyrics, or movies are excellent materials, or basically anything, which is originally made for the native speakers only.

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  10. And even if my Korean vocabulary is very limited, I can understand a lot of things. In that it is similar to English. But this is absolutely not the case in Japanese, or in Hungarian kk

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  11. I recently watched the drama Coffee Prince and I was thinking about how, in Korean, it's very easy to talk about a girl without referring to her as "she."

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  12. Korean is a very context-dependent language, right? Many components of a sentence can be curtailed or even omitted in a daily conversation... so maybe that encourages people to view things comprehensively?

    Korean language, to me at least, seems to love ambiguity. A bit exaggerated, but whenever I ask my mom how to make something, the dominant adjective in her description is "적당히". She once jokingly said "적당한 물에 적당한 양의 재료를 적당한 크기로 썰어서 적당한 불에 적당히 익히다가 적당히 양념을 넣어서 적당히 기다리면 돼." :D

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  13. Like @ bum. I've seen "적당히" used even in a cooking book.

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  14. "maybe that encourages people to view things comprehensively?"

    I'm absolutely agree with that. When I started to learn English, I thought that, English speakers are stupid, because they are always precisely describing everything. Now, later, I think, maybe it's also stupid, and not true, but I'm often thinking about that: my skill of analyzing things step by step, with the method of properly telling about the similarities, and the differences, improved because of using English, and at the same time annoying others around me, just as English bothered me at the beginning.

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  15. Korean language requires the speaker recognize the social standing of the listener relative to the speaker. A young college student would not speak to an older professor using casual language. But that same professor can use non-formal or casual language when replying to the student.

    Because the tone / honorific dictates how the entire conversation / interaction happens, Koreans would be forced to quickly identify the social status of the other members of the conversation. We all know it as the "20 questions" that happens whenever you meet someone in Korea for the first time. In line with the theory in the article this would make those speaking Korean as their mother tongue very cognizant of their own social status vs everybody else. This could be stretched further to say that because we talk to ourselves via inner monologue (inner thoughts) using our mother language, that those restrictions would effect how they (the Korean speaker) would see and converse with themselves.

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  16. Korean friends have told me that it can be very stressful figuring out the right forms of speech to use to someone they haven't met before - which seems to go against the article's assertion that obligatory coding in a language leads its speakers to perform advanced feats of cognition unconsciously (Probably that's just because it's just a lot less complex to divine the points of the compass than relative social status).

    As a fluent bilingual, would the Korean be able to analyse the differences and similarities between '개는 짖는다' and '개가 짖는다' (sp?) on the one hand and 'the dog is barking' and 'a dog is barking' on the other?

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  17. People seem to be focusing much on honorifics, but the Korean thinks that is misplaced. Honorifics is not a grammatical requirement like gendered noun is. One can construct grammatically correct Korean sentences without any honorifics at all, although it may not be situationally correct. In contrast, e.g., if you have the wrong gendered article in front of a certain noun in Spanish (like el gente instead of la gente ("the people")), that sentence is grammatically incorrect. And the focus of the NYT article was about how certain grammatical requirements compel us to constantly think about something. Koreans might constantly think about hierarchy, but it's not a grammatical requirement.

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  18. I think the honorific system is still a grammatical requirement in that you can't complete a sentence without deciding how to end the verb.
    When learning Spanish, the biggest hurdle an English speaker must get over is the gender of everything- it seems inane to us to assign a gender to inanimate objects at first. When learning Korean, one of the bigger hurdles is the honorifics. Not how to use them, but like gendered nouns, they seem to us extraneous.
    One of my students related a theory regarding the verb at the end of the sentence. It had to do with easing another person into actions and requests, providing more information for a person before jumping to the shock of a verb.
    Here is an interesting article by Marshall Rosenberg, the writer of Non-Violent Communication (which has an active branch in Seoul- in Korean and a smaller group in English). He talks of the hurdles in the English language which make non-violent language particularly challenging.

    http://www.nwcompass.org/compassionate_communication.html

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  19. @ bumfromkorea: Interesting, My mom does the same. Every time I ask my her "shhal? (How much?) she invariably responds by "Leqyas" (The right amount/measure) which is infuriating because had I known why would I bother ask in the first place?!
    That's in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) by the way.
    When I'm asked in Darija I sometimes do the same, I don't really bother being specific. However, when asked "Combien?" in French, I must exert an effort to say something as vague as "Just assez". So when using one language I lean toward evasiveness, and when using another, toward specificity...

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  20. The honorific aspect of Korean definitely affects the way they think. I think Malcom Gladwell made an extremely good example about it in his book "Outliers" about the Korean Air pilots. The fact that the first mate always had to speak with the captain in an honorific way made him unable to communicate properly and caused an accident. Korean Air used to have one of the worst flying records because of this problem. Once Korean pilots were retrained to address the problem, they were taught to only communicate in English and their record improved dramatically, because they no longer talked to each other in honorifics or had power dynamics that don't exist in English. This is not an indictment on Korean language, it simply was not suited for that specific purpose. Rather is a testament that Korean pilots were able to change their behavior and improve by learning to eliminate the hierarchy they were normally used to running under.

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  21. As someone who speaks four languages (and fakes her way through a few others), I found this NYT article very interesting. I have only a basic knowledge of linguistics/cognitive science, so won't speak to its 'provability' but I *feel* there is something to the effect of language on thought.
    As many others have pointed out, the community-focused nature of Korean culture definitely plays itself out in Korean language.


    I really noticed this for the first time recently when my mother was telling me a story and started to say, "나는..." but then stopped and corrected herself, "엄마는..." before continuing with her story. I agree with Erik who makes the chicken/egg point-- how much of this discussion of language's effect on thought is a projection in hindsight? I do think Korean's linguistic rules serve as reinforcement of your role in a setting, and thus can motivate your choices (i.e., language has an effect on your understanding of the world and on your conceivable agency, etc.-- if your culture doesn't lie, it won't have a word for "to lie").

    In English, as with most other Western languages with which I'm familiar, the subject is important and preferably active-- "I" the individual. The obvious if somewhat crude extrapolation is to see Western individualism as selfish, compared to the sublimation of self in Korean culture (that certainly has its own set of problematic issues like martyrdom).

    Also, I must humbly disagree with the Korean and say that honorifics are as important as correctly gendered articles-- it's the difference between successful communication (as Broken English, for example, often is) and native-speaker communication.

    I'll modify the Korean's example slightly to French, as it's the language I'm more familiar with. If you were to say "le personne' instead of 'la personne', chances are that a Frenchie will understand what you're saying-- but they will also correct you since the grammatically correct article choice is 'la'. Same would be true if you incorrectly "tutoyer" or "vouvoyer" someone; it will likely be corrected.

    Equally, if you use an informal form in Korean to address your professor, s/he will understand you-- but would also correct you.

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  22. As someone who speaks four languages (and fakes her way through a few others), I found this NYT article very interesting. I have only a basic knowledge of linguistics/cognitive science, so won't speak to its 'provability' but I *feel* there is something to the effect of language on thought.
    As many others have pointed out, the community-focused nature of Korean culture definitely plays itself out in Korean language.


    I really noticed this for the first time recently when my mother was telling me a story and started to say, "나는..." but then stopped and corrected herself, "엄마는..." before continuing with her story. I agree with Erik who makes the chicken/egg point-- how much of this discussion of language's effect on thought is a projection in hindsight? I do think Korean's linguistic rules serve as reinforcement of your role in a setting, and thus can motivate your choices (i.e., language has an effect on your understanding of the world and on your conceivable agency, etc.-- if your culture doesn't lie, it won't have a word for "to lie").

    In English, as with most other Western languages with which I'm familiar, the subject is important and preferably active-- "I" the individual. The obvious if somewhat crude extrapolation is to see Western individualism as selfish, compared to the sublimation of self in Korean culture (that certainly has its own set of problematic issues like martyrdom).

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  23. Also, I must humbly disagree with the Korean and say that honorifics are as important as correctly gendered articles-- it's the difference between successful communication (as Broken English, for example, often is) and native-speaker communication.

    I'll modify the Korean's example slightly to French, as it's the language I'm more familiar with. If you were to say "le personne' instead of 'la personne', chances are that a Frenchie will understand what you're saying-- but they will also correct you since the grammatically correct article choice is 'la'. Same would be true if you incorrectly "tutoyer" or "vouvoyer" someone; it will likely be corrected.

    Equally, if you use an informal form in Korean to address your professor, s/he will understand you-- but would also correct you.

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  24. victoire,

    Allow the Korean to push back a bit. The Korean thinks the distinction is between situational correctness and grammatical correctness. If someone were to point to a cat and say, "That is a dog," her sentence is incorrect in a way that has nothing to do with grammar. She just used the wrong noun. Similarly, if a Korean person used the wrong honorifics as she spoke to another person, that has nothing to do with grammar -- that is just situationally incorrect.

    In contrast, getting a noun's gender wrong does not depend on the situation. A "port" (puerto) is always male in Spanish, while a "door" (puerta) is always female in Spanish. There is absolutely no situation in which a port is a female and a door is a male in Spanish.

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  25. The basic test to this is a thought experiment.

    You have Person A and Person B. Person A wish's to express a thought to Person B. Communication is just expressing thoughts and feelings to other beings. In English and most western languages all you have to worry about is the thought itself, but in Korea you must worry about the ages and respective social status of the two individuals involved.

    This means Person A must be conscious of their own social position, then be conscious of Person B's social position, then make a comparison of the two and determine which grammatical system to use. This entails much consideration, either in the conscious part of the brain or when trained the background subconscious part of the brain.

    Its many times more complicated then the proper gender to use, genders are things that you learn as part of the noun itself, its a property. Korean makes relative social position a property. This makes social position a key part of the language which further makes social position a key part of the culture that language is attached to.

    Again just imagine Person A as a lowly first year university student and Person B as the director of the entire campus. What would happen if Person A used the personal style of Korean when telling Person B about some subject. Then what would happen if Person A used the informal style of Korean, then again what would happen if they used the formal style. Those three distinctly separate reactions and their severity is what I'm talking about.

    In English there are a few honorifics, typically words like "Sir" and "Ma'am". But most of those are actually part of the tone used and not the words themselves.

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  26. This makes social position a key part of the language which further makes social position a key part of the culture that language is attached to.

    The Korean thinks that the reverse is more likely to be true -- that is, social position is a key part in Korean language because social position is a key part of Korean culture. But this is not something that can be proven definitively.

    Again just imagine Person A as a lowly first year university student and Person B as the director of the entire campus. What would happen if Person A used the personal style of Korean when telling Person B about some subject. Then what would happen if Person A used the informal style of Korean, then again what would happen if they used the formal style. Those three distinctly separate reactions and their severity is what I'm talking about.

    But such reactions are reactions to rudeness (or put differently, situational incorrectness,) not reactions to any grammar. The question presented by the NYT article is how language affects modes of thoughts, not how culture affects modes of thoughts. Honorifics in Korean might affect the way Korean people think, but there is no way to isolate what comes first - the chicken or the egg, the language or the culture.

    This is why gendered noun is a better example. Independent of any culture, gendered noun forces one to think about gender in objects that do not have gender. Same with agentive sentence construction referenced in the NYT article -- regardless of culture, it forces one to think about what caused something to occur.

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  27. If you agree that programming languages are much fundamental than natural languages, then you will notice that the fact that English requires subject in its grammer is a very peculiar phenomenon.

    When you think a function f(x), where is the subject?

    When you write a code for a program, the most important thing is parentheses, not such as subject or tense.

    The effect of using honorifics in Korean, which of course is not a syntactic (grammatical) requirement, is too obvious to guess, although I think the Korean's point is quite interesting. In a sense the strict requirement of subject in English is a form of politeness rather than a logical requirement: primitive language does not need subject, but in English it becomes an imperative sentence without the subject, and it developed in the level of grammatical requirement.

    I have no reference to this argument (about English) because I developed this argument for several days myself.

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  28. In fact I do not know much about programming language, but I know well enough about mathematical logic. I have chosen that example just to avoid ....(sorry for my lack of English vocabulary.

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  29. TK, thus we are in the chicken - egg argument. There is no way to determine which came first or whether both grew together to support each other.

    No one can deny that this culture is intensely aware of social position. To that point that it dominates any and all interaction. The only way to avoid it is to be in a close relationship with someone, that it and of itself is difficult unless you happen to be from the same social position.

    The fact that "rudeness" is in and of itself part of the grammar is the issue. Rudeness is a subjective concept, what one person terms as rude another can term as merely blunt.

    My question is, did you actually walk through that thought experience honestly? Or was it glossed over and a counter -argument immediately formulated? If the former was applied I find it incredibly difficult to believe you would of came to the conclusion that the relative social positions wouldn't dominate that conversation. If it was the later then there is no point in further discussion as it would of degenerated into the blind internet posturing that tends to happen.

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  30. My question is, did you actually walk through that thought experience honestly? Or was it glossed over and a counter -argument immediately formulated? If the former was applied I find it incredibly difficult to believe you would of came to the conclusion that the relative social positions wouldn't dominate that conversation.

    Palladin, it's not nice to accuse someone of bad faith. At any rate, of course the Korean agrees that the relative social positions would dominate the conversation. Much like if, while you and the Korean were conversing, the Korean pointed to a cat and said, "that is a handsome dog," the conversation would be dominated by the incorrectness of the Korean's statement.

    The Korean's point is that such reaction is NOT what the NYT article is trying to discuss. We are not disagreeing -- we are only speaking of different things. Your point is that while speaking in Korean, people are compelled to consider the relative social positions. That's a fair point and no one can deny that. The Korean does not deny it either. But where does such compulsion come from? Does it come from Korean language, Korean culture, or in some combination of the two? As you agreed, there is no way to know.

    The question of this thread, prompted by the NYT article, is how language affects the modes of thought. There has to be a way to control the variables if we are to isolate the effects of language as opposed to the effects of any other. So the NYT article mostly relies on the example of gendered nouns and cardinal directions, with a little bit of agentive sentence construction thrown in -- in other words, all grammatical components that are (or at least appear to be) independent from a cultural context. The Korean does not think honorifics in Korean language are equivalent to those examples, because with honorifics there is a chicken-and-egg problem that other examples from NYT do not have.

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  31. One can construct grammatically correct Korean sentences without any honorifics at all, although it may not be situationally correct.

    I think this is the key. Korean language usually depends on situations. So when someone is speaking they must express the situation with honorific particles or grammatical units. And speakers also often can't but mention the relationship with someone when addressing them - since in polite speech there is no word for you, they should use something like 선생님, 아저씨, 언니 etc. This is something the language itself requires. Also, in Korean you cannot talk about your siblings without specifying if they are older or younger than you and whether you are male or female.
    In my language (Bulgarian) for instance, there are words similar to 오빠, 형, 언니, 누나 but there are also words for brother and sister that don't specify age. Also, unlike Korean, there is only one word that means both 오빠 and 형 (same with 누나 and 언니) so you cannot identify whether the speaker is male or female.

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