Amusing Facts about the Korean Language

The Korean language is a comprehensive language system, considered to have one of the most scientific writing systems in the world. However, learning Korean can be challenging, especially for English speakers.

Here is a list of few fun facts about Korean language which were compiled from Charles Wetzel’s personal experience when learning Korean and working for a Korean company. This list of funny and idiosyncratic Korean language facts common knowledge, but most of them came from my Korean teachers.

The Word “NO”

The official spelling of “no” has been changed in the last two or three years. According to my teacher in the US, the spelling is “anio.” It had been “aniyo,” but it had been officially changed some years ago. However, when I got to Korea and started taking Korean classes at Yonsei University, I was informed that the spelling had been changed back, within the last two to three years. Therefore, the spelling of “no” has been changed twice. It has gone from aniyo to anio, then back to aniyo.

Spellings of “b” Irregulars

The official spellings of “thank you,” “beautiful,” and all other b irregulars except for “to be pretty” and “to help” have been changed since 1988 (I think gopda and dopda are the only ones that haven’t changed, but if there are others, please let me know). “Thank you” used to be “gomawayo.” Now it’s “gomaweoyo.” “Beautiful” was once “areumdawayo.” Now it’s “areumdaweoyo.”

The official spellings of “to be” and “to not be” have changed since 1988. It used to be that they were spelled “isseumnida” and “eopseumnida.” However, they decided that there was a shortage of the letter s, so now the official spellings are “issseumnida” and “eopsseumnida.”

Korean Writing Systems

There are various theories about how King Sejong invented Korea’s writing system. Some say that he created the letters to look like the shapes that the mouth makes when it’s pronouncing the sounds. Some maintain that he came up with the letters while looking at a “lattice”. Some linguists now believe that he based his writing system on Mongolian writing of that time period.

The Beefy Story

The spelling for “beef” is a topic of hot controversy. In the past, it was “sogogi.” Later, it was changed to “soegogi.” However, both are now acceptable. Even though both are now acceptable, some people (especially older people) are very opinionated about this.

Borrowed Words from English

Despite the fact that Korean has absolutely no linguistic link to English whatsoever, many common, non-technological Korean words have been borrowed from English. For example, “jogging,” “shopping,” and “waiter” all come from English. In fact, the Korean syllable “we” is only used with loanwords like “weiteo” (waiter) and “weding deureseu” (wedding dress).

Adoption from German Language

The extremely common word “areubaiteu” comes from German. It means “part-time job.” How did it make its way into the Korean language? In all likelihood, it came through Japanese during the Japanese occupation (Japanese adopted a lot of German words due to German-Japanese cooperation).

The Swiss Army Knife

This one will appeal to you if you’re a fan of the McGyver television series, in which McGyver uses his Swiss army knife and duct tape to get out of sticky situations. The Korean word for “Swiss army knife” is “maekgaibeo kal.” “Kal” is a pure Korean word, but “maekgaibeo” comes from “McGyver.” At first, I thought “I’m sure that’s not the word that’s in common use,” so I went to Dongdaemun Market, pointed to a Swiss army knife, and asked the guy selling it what it was. Sure enough, it’s a “maekgaibeo kal.”

The-Kind-of-Homphone

Korean words often have several totally different meanings. For instance, “bae” can mean “pear,” “stomach,” or “ship.” All of these definitions are in extremely common use — none of them are obscure. “Cho” is another one. It can mean “second(s),” “candle,” or “beginning.”

Who wants to “attach” fire to a cigarette?

In Korean, when you say “light a cigarette,” you are literally saying “attach fire to a cigarette.”

The Forever Alone ‘V’

Korean used to have a “v” sound. However, it was taken out of the language. Nowadays, when the sound is needed, b is used instead, or, on rare occasion, the Roman letter “V” is put into a Korean syllable. For a while, buses in Seoul had “Violet” written in Korean letters, written “vaiollet.”

Renamed Cities

The Korean government officially changed to a new Romanization system, and instantly, the cities of “Soul,” “Inchon,” and “Pusan” simply ceased to exist. However, they were replaced by “Seoul,” “Incheon,” and “Busan.” Cheju Island didn’t survive either. It’s now “Jeju Island.”

The HO HO HO Story

When Santa Claus was first introduced to Korea, there was a problem. You see, “ho ho ho” is feminine. When a Korean woman laughs, she covers her mouth with her hand and says “ho ho ho.” Therefore, something had to be done. Santa Claus’ speech was slightly altered to “heo heo heo.” This is because the vowels “o” and “a” are considered feminine, and “u” and “eo” are considered masculine.

Feminine masculine for “splash”

On a similar note, when a woman jumps into the water, the sound of the splash is “pongdang.” When a man jumps into the water, the sound of his splash is “pungdeong.”

English Gone Wrong

Some words were taken from English, but they didn’t quite get them right. For instance, “cell phone” was taken from English, but instead of taking “cell phone,” they took “hand phone.” “Home run” has a more or less accurate spelling in Korean, but when it’s pronounced, it becomes “home nun.” Sounds kind of raunchy, doesn’t it?

Flower Vocab

The Korean word for “flower” is “ggot.” The Korean word for “bottle” is “byeong.” The Korean word for “vase” is “ggotbyeong.” That’s creative.

Climbing Through a Hole

A really small store is known as a “gumeonggage” in Korean. “Gage” means “store.” “Gumeong” means “hole.” Therefore, a small store is a “hole store.” This is a reference to a store in which the entrance and stairs leading up to it are so narrow, it’s like you’re climbing through a hole.

On a similar note, the word for “nostril” is “kogumeong.” You got it — “nose hole!”

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