A Guide to Korean - 10 facts about the Korean language

Useful facts about the Korean language

Translation in Korean

Check the Korean-only version

1. Where is Korean spoken?

Korean is the official language of both the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), which have a total combined population of around 73 million (50 million in the South and 23 million in the North). Korean is also spoken in large ethnic Korean communities in China, Japan, the USA and Central Asia

2. What you already know about Korean

Probably not a lot! The Oxford English Dictionary lists a handful of words that have come into English from Korean, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing more than one or two. Test yourself on the following:
 태권도 [taekwondo], a Korean martial art
 한글 [hangul], name of the Korean writing system
 온돌 [ondol], Korean-style under-floor heating
 김치 [kimchi], spicy fermented Korean leaf, Korean national dish

Korean contains a high concentration of words borrowed from English including basic vocabulary such as:
 토마토, [tomato], 바나나, [banana], 피아노 [piano], 컴퓨터 [computer],프린터 [printer],유머 [humour], etc.
However, English words (or English-like) words in Korean should be approached with caution since the meaning may be altogether different from English:
 컨닝 [cunning], cheating on an exam
 미팅 [meeting], a group blind date (somewhat similar to “speed dating”)
 오바이트 [over-eat], (pronounced obaitǔ), vomiting
 힙 [hip], your bottom
 바바리 맨 [burberry man], flasher (ie a man wearing a Burberry rain coat)

Korean also has a few words that are identical (or near at least similar) to English by pure chance. Such chance similarities lead early Christian missionaries visiting the Korean peninsula to conclude that the language must be related to English!
 똥 [ttong], excrement (similar to English ‘dung’)
 많이 [mani], lots (similar to English ‘many’)

3. How hard is it to learn?

Korean is generally considered to be one of the most difficult major languages for English speakers to become fluent in. The reasons for this include the different word order (in Korean sentences, the verb always comes last), the elaborate honorifics system, i.e. the use of different verb endings and vocabulary depending on your relationship with the person you are talking to and a mind-blowing array of case particles and verb endings

However, the good news is that picking up the basics is relatively easy, particularly in comparison with other Asian languages. Unlike Japanese or Chinese, the Korean writing system is alphabetic and can be learned relatively quickly. In addition, unlike Chinese or Vietnamese, Korean has no tones and few pronunciations that cause major problems for English speakers. Korean also does not have any of the gender, number agreements or articles that plague learners of European languages such as French

4. Korean tongue twisters

Get your mouth around the following tongue twister, remembering that in Korean soy sauce is kanjang, soybean paste is toenjang and factory is kongjang!
 간장 공장 공장장은 장 공장장이고 된장 공장 공장장은 강 공장장이다
[Kanjang kongjang kongjang-jang-ǔn jang kongjang-jang-igo toenjang kongjang kongjang-jang-ǔn kang kongjang-jang-ida]
The factory manager of the soy sauce factory is factory manager Chang and the factory manager of the soybean paste factory is factory-manager Kang

5. Know any good Korean jokes?

 드라큘라가 아침에 마시는 것은? 코피
[Tŭrak’yulla-ga ach’ime mashinŭn gǒsŭn? k’op’i]
What does Dracula drink in the morning?
K’o-p’i (nose-blood)
 코피 [k’o-p’i] sounds similar to the Korean pronunciation of
 커피 [k’ǒp’i], coffee. As Korean has no f sound, f is usually rendered as p

6. If I learn Korean, will it help me with any other languages?

Korean is considered by some linguists to belong to the Altaic language family. This would mean that Korean is related to Turkish, Mongolian and Manchu in Northeast China. However, in terms of grammar, Korean is closest to Japanese, although the genetic link between the two languages is unclear. In terms of vocabulary, Korean also shares a lot of words of Chinese origin. Korean will certainly help you learn Japanese and may give you a head start with Chinese vocab

7. What not to say and do

Try to avoid words for you and sometimes for my as well.
Korean has at least five words that correspond to the English you. However, all of them have very restricted usages.
The word  당신 [tangshin], for example, which is sometimes perceived as being the closest word to you is typically only used between middle-aged married couples. Rather than using a word for you, use the person’s name, or even better, their title

Korean sometimes prefers the word our to the word my. To Koreans, saying my country, my house, my mother and my husband/wife can sound too self-centred. Instead, it sounds better to say our country, our house, our mother and, more bizarrely, our husband/wife

8. Famous quotations

 죽고자 하면 살고, 살고자 하면 죽는다
[Chuk-koja ha-myǒn salgo, sal-goja ha-myǒn chuk-nǔnda]
The soldier who fights to death never dies, but the soldier who fights for existence never truly exists
Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545- 1598)

 관용은 미덕이다. 군자에 필요 불가결한 미덕이다
[Kwanyong-ǔn midǒk-ida. Kunja-e p’ilyo pulgagyǒlhan midǒk-ida]
Tolerance is a virtue. For noble men, it is an essential and indispensible virtue
Yi Kwang-Su (Writer, 1892-1950).

9. First publication in Korean script

Until the invention of the Korean script Hangul in the 15th century, all Korean literary works were written in classical Chinese. The first literary text to be written in the new script was entitled
 용비어천가 [Yongbiǒchǒnga], Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven. The songs were composed by a team of Confucian literati

10. How to be polite and show respect

Make sure to bow to elders and new acquaintances. Shaking hands is common between men – expect a long, lingering, limp handshake. Hugging and kissing are generally out of the question!

Korean has a complex “honorifics” system – different verb endings and even vocabulary depending on your relationship with the person you are talking to (particularly your relative ages).
So, although you may ask your best friend:
 밥 먹었어? [pap mǒgǒssǒ?], have you eaten your meal?,
to your boss you will have to say:
 진지 잡수셨어요? [cinci capswushyǒssǒyo?], which has exactly the same meaning

In North Korea, the highest honorific forms are reserved especially for the “Great Leader” Kim Jong-il. Indeed, he has his own verb ending,  옵 [-op-], which can only be used for addressing him. Also, when talking in the presence of the North Korean leader, it is important that you use honorific forms only for addressing or referring to Kim – if you address or refer to anyone else, drop the honorifics!

Korean key phrases

Korean phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Korean characters

Korean characters

Hangul, a deliberate invention by King Sejong

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.