Saturday, August 15, 2009

What does "우리 부부" mean?

In Korea, it is quite common to hear a Korean men refer to his wife as "우리 마누라," which literally means "our wife." It does not mean he shares his wife with anyone; it is just his way of referring to his wife. In fact, Koreans are known for using 우리 (our) with a great number of words. They even refer to their language as "우리말," which literally means "our language."

A few days ago I came across the following sentence in a book I am reading:
우리 부부가 그동안 땀을 흘린 보람으로 마침내 내 집을 마련하게 되었습니다.
During that time, after much sweat, my wife and I finally got our own house.
우리 부부 literally means "our husband and wife," but I translated it as "my wife and I" since "our husband and wife" does not make sense in English. Of course, if it were the wife speaking, I would have had to translate it as "my husband and I." Using 우리 부부 as it was used in the above sentence may be common in Korea, but I think it was used incorrectly. Also, notice that the writer wrote 내 집 (my house) instead of 우리 집 (our house). Why did it change from 우리 to 내? Was the writer using 우리 부부 to refer to her husband or to his wife?

I think the writer should have written 남편과 (my husband and I) or 아내와 (my wife and I) in the above sentence instead of 우리 부부가, which should be used only when referring to a group of married people. For example, if you went on a trip with other married couples, you could refer to your group as "우리 부부."

Likewise, I think 우리 마누라 should be used only when a group of friends refer to their wives as a group, not to one individual wife. For example, wouldn't the following sentence make sense?
우리 늦으면 우리 마누라가 혼내겠다.
If we are late, our wives will give us a hard time.
Koreans may not say the above sentence with the meaning I wrote, but why not?

I think it is possible that sometime in the past Koreans confused the meanings of 우리 마누라 and 우리 부부 and have been confusing them ever since.


I looked up "우리" in my Korean-Korean dictionary and one of the definitions was as follows:
2 [관형사적 용법] '나의'의 뜻으로 쓰는 말. ¶ -- 나라. / -- 어머니. / -- 마누라.
Notice that it said that one meaning of 우리 was "나의," which means "my." Nothing was said about it meaning "our," which is the plural of "my." So, does that mean that when Koreans say "우리 나라" and "우리 학교," they are actually saying "my country" and "my school," not "our country" and "our school"? According to the dictionary, 우리 can mean either "we" or "my," but not "our." Does that make sense?

So, if 우리 means "my" in Korean, what is the Korean for "our"?

The definition for "our" in my Korean dictionary is "우리들의" or "우리의." Therefore, here is a summary of what my dictionaries say:
  • my country - 우리 나라
    our country - 우리의 나라
  • my mother - 우리 어머니
    our mother - 우리의 어머니
  • my wife - 우리 마누라
    our wives - 우리의 마누라

Korea's dictionaries may be describing the current reality of the language, but it seems clear to me that the original meaning of 우리 has been corrupted. I think it is ridiculous to have to put 의 after 우리 to clarify the meaning of "our." If 내 can mean both "I" and "my," then "우리" should also be able to mean both "we" and "our," not "we" and "my."

Koreans need to admit that the word 우리 has been corrupted and start a nationwide campaign to use the correct meaning. The first step should be to remove the "my" definition of 우리 from Korean dictionaries.

By the way, according to the dictionary definition of 우리, the translation of 우리 부부 should, therefore, be "my husband and wife." It sounds like some kind of weird threesome.


  1. 우리 부부가 그동안 땀을 흘린 보람으로 마침내 집을 마련하게 되었습니다.

    1) 인용한 부분에 우리 부부라고 말하는 사람은 혹씨 자기 와이프보다 일을 더 열심히거나 돈을 더 많이 마련할 수 있었던 경우에 일로 흐린 땀을 낮추어서 말하는 방식이 있을지도 몰르는데 ....

    2) "내"라고 하는 거 분명히 오류인데...

  2. "우리"라는 말이 영어의 "We" 또는
    "Our" 와 정확이 맞지는 않습니다.
    자기 자신이나 자기의 무리를 같이 일컬을 때 혹은 무리의 대표하는 입장에서 자신의 신분이나 상태등을 같이 "우리"라는 말에 포함해서 말할 수 있습니다. "우리 아내"는 영어로 "Our wife"로 들리지 않습니다.

  3. Joseph & Anonymous,

    Please see my "update" to the post.

  4. I read your update, the state of affairs is exactly as you say. Nevertheless, campaigns to clean up languages can become very time-consuming. Everybody has their opinions about languages. But for a country with such rampant hangulization of English words and no central authority like France's Académie française ....

  5. Although the dictionary says that one meaning of 우리 is "나의" ("my"), this should not be taken to mean that 우리 and 나의 are equivalent. They are certainly not always interchangeable. As is often the case, for reasons of brevity the dictionary does not tell the whole story. As you can see from the examples that accompany this definition ("-- 나라. / -- 어머니. / -- 마누라"), this usage of 우리 is only found with entities that are conceived of as communal. Family members belong jointly to the whole family; the country belongs jointly to all the citizens; schools belong jointly to the community of students and teachers. Seen in this light, 우리 부부 is no more odd than 우리 가족 or 우리 나라, in that the possessed entity includes the possessor. You could think of 우리 부부 as meaning "my/our spousal unit (which includes me)".

    As for whether 우리 means "we" or "our" or both, I think this is also a case where the simple dictionary definition can be easily misconstrued. While the literal meaning of 우리 is "we, us", not "our", when 우리 enters into a grammatical construction "우리 + N", the phrase as a whole acquires the meaning "our N". This is possible only with certain high-frequency communal entities. If you like, you can think of these "우리 + N" phrases as semi-lexicalized. In other words, they have become like compound words. In contrast, "우리의 + N" is always a phrase, and can be used with any N without restriction.

    Something similar happens in Chinese, where 我 wǒ is the first-person singular pronoun "I, me" and 我的 is the possessive "my". However, when one says "my mother" or "my country", the possessive 的 is normally omitted, created semi-lexicalized forms: 我妈妈,我国.

    I would guess (although I can't be sure, since I'm not a native speaker) that 우리 나라 and 우리의 나라 have subtle but real differences in feeling for Korean speakers. As a rough equivalent, consider the differences between English phrases "American flag", "America's flag", "flag of America". The differences are real, but subtle and hard to characterize.

    I would submit that the situation you observe with 우리 in Korean is neither illogical nor corrupt; it is simply one of many different ways that languages function. It only looks illogical from the perspective of the way pronouns work in many European languages.

  6. Lance,

    Unless there is a culture where a wife can have more than one husband, I do no see how one's wife can be considered communal property. That is why 우리의 마누라 sounds strange to Koreans, but 우리의 나라 does not. Koreans say both 우리 나라 (my country) and 우리의 나라 (our country), but they only say 우리 마루라 (my wife), not 우리의 마누라 (our wife). That is evidence that 우리 is being used to mean "my," not "our."

    I do not think we should be second guessing Korean dictionaries. My explanation of 우리 meaning "my" and 우리의 meaning "our" agrees with the dictionary meanings and also seem to agree with the way Koreans are using them in their language.

    However, I see no reason why Koreans need to be adding 의 to 우리 to indicate plural possessive (our). I think the reason Koreans say 우리의 is that the misuse of 우리 in such phrases as 우리 마누라 and 우리 부부 have given them the sense that simply saying 우리 is not enough to clarify the meaning of "our."

    Korean dictionaries should be a bastion of the Korean language instead of just reporting on it. For example, instead of just reporting that 우리 is used to mean "my" in 우리 나라 and 우리 마루라, they should also note that it is a misuse of the language. Dictionaries should resist giving in to popular misuse of a language, especially when that misuse ends up adding syllables instead of reducing them.

  7. 위 문장에서 '내 집'이라는 단어를 쓴 것은
    '내집 마련'이 관용적인 표현이기 때문일 가능성이 가장 큽니다...

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. 한 가지 중요한 점을 잊으신것 같습니다.
    "서로 다른 두 언어에서 모든 단어의 의미가 완벽하게 1:1 대응하지는 않습니다."

    즉, 각 언어들마다 가지고 있는 독특한 어감(nuance)은 다른나라 언어로 표현하는것이 불가능한 경우가 있습니다.
    때문에 한국어로 된 멋진 시를 영어로 쓰면 그냥 진부하고 시시한 작품이 되는 경우가 발생하죠. 마찬가지로, 어떤 멋진 프랑스 시를 한국어로 옮기면 의미는 전달 할 수 있지만 그 독특한 분위기와 뉘앙스를 완벽하게 가져 오기는 힘든 경우도 발생하는 것이죠.

    우리 나라, 우리 집, 우리 가족, 우리 학교의 어감은 우리의 나라, 우리의 집, 우리의 가족, 우리의 학교 와는 차이가 있습니다.(막연한 차이가 아닌 "분명한 차이" 입니다.)

    "내(my) 나라", "우리의(our) 나라"
    의 어감은 나 또는 우리가 나라를 소유한 듯한 어감을 줍니다.
    즉, 문장의 주체가 내가 되고 "나라"는 "그것의 소유물" 개념이 됩니다.
    mine, ours.
    이 경우에 한국어와 영어의 의미가 1:1 대응합니다.

    그러나 "우리 나라" 의 어감은 나 또는 우리가 나라를 소유하는 어감에 나라 역시 나 또는 우리를 소유하는 어감이 추가됩니다.
    즉, 어느 한 쪽이 소유하는것이 아닌 양쪽 다 서로를 소유하는 어감을 주게 되기 때문에 문장의 주체가 나 또는 우리가 아닌 나와 나라, 우리와 나라가 되는것입니다.
    때문에 이런 문법, 화법은 주체가 대상을 일방적으로 소유하는것이 아닌 상호 소속감과 친밀감 느끼게 만들죠.

    이것은 영어권 국가에선 없는 개념이기 때문에 영어로는 표현 할 수가 없습니다.

    때문에 영어권 사람들이 이것을 영어로 이해해야 할 때에는 어쩔 수 없이 가장 가까운 의미인 my contry or our contry 로 표현한 것입니다.
    실제의미는 "우리" = "my or our"가 아닙니다.

    내(나의) = my
    우리의 = our
    우리 = Can not express using only proper one word in English. because there are no notion it correspond to.
    exception) as an pronoun, 우리 = we

    우리의 나라 = our contry (o)
    우리 아내 => 역시 영어로 표현이 불가능하기 때문에 한국어를 배우는 외국인들은 쉽게 이해하기 위해 편의상 의미가 최대한 비슷한 my wife 라고 표현함.
    our wife 는 완전히 틀린 표현임.
    우리의 아내??? = our wife???
    so ridiculous expression!
    It is associate with several husband and one wife.
    So it is not used in English also in Korean.

    "마누라" 라는 표현보다 "아내" 라는 표현을 쓰는게 옳습니다.
    "마누라"는 중년 이상의 아내를 낮춰 부르는 표현 또는 경상도 지방의 사투리 입니다.

    우리 부부 = my married couple (x)
    = our married couples (x)
    영어로 표현이 불가능 함.

    if forcibly represent in English,
    *"my wife & me" or "my husband & me" who have intimacy

    * married couples who are close friendship.
    상황에 따라 두 가지로 의미를 구별함.

    나의(내) = my
    우리의 = our
    우리 = my or our (x)

    my country - 우리 나라 (x)
    내(나의) 나라 (o)
    our contry - 우리의 나라(o)
    my wife - 우리 마누라 (x)
    내(나의) 마누라 (o)
    our wife - (x), 우리의 아내 - (x)

    단, my mother - 내(나의) 엄마 는 다른사람에게 엄마를 소개할때 "절대로" 사용하지 않습니다. 영어로 my mother는 문제 없는 표현이지만 한국문화에서 엄마는 나보다 윗 사람이기 때문에 내가 엄마를 소유한다는 어감이 느껴지는 "내 엄마"는 건방진 표현이 됩니다.
    "나(나의)"는 친구나 아랫사람 물건 동물에게만 사용합니다.

    like the preceding,
    내 선생님(x)
    내 아버지(x)
    내 사장님(x)
    내 친구(o)
    내 학교(o)
    내 장난감(o)

    Q:저 분 누구니?
    A:내 엄마야 (x), 우리 엄마야(o)

    Do you understand "우리" = "our" is incorrect in sentence?
    => my mother 에 대응 하는 표현(=내 엄마)을 사용할 수도 있지만 그렇게 하면 엄마에게 매우 큰 무례를 범하는것이기 때문에 쓰지 않음.

    exception) if you write to your mother, you can use "나의 엄마" to express your friendship like friends between you and your mother.

    It seems that you are confusing because you think "우리" and "our"(or my) the same.
    strictly speaking, both are not the same. nothing of the kind in meaning.

  10. Hi Gerry...

    1st, thanks 4 ur great sharing :)
    2nd, sorry if my English is bad.
    3rd, I've some question, hope all of you can help me :) thx u

    How about 남동생, can we put "우리" there become 우리 남동생 ?

    Because I ever read that just for little brother / little sister we couldn't call them with 우리. But I'm forget where I ever read.
    Please, can you explain to me about boyfriend? Can we call him "우리 자기야" ???

  11. Its 2017..and this article still useful. I wouldn't forget this. Thanks for a great explanation Gerry.


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