25 Fun Facts about the Korean Language that Your Teacher May Not Have Told You

I worked hard to compile this list of funny and idiosyncratic Korean language facts. A few of them are common knowledge, but most of them came from my Korean teachers, or from personal experience (living in Korea or working at a Korean 7-Eleven in the States). This document is copyrighted (Charles Wetzel, 2006)!
1. 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.

2. The official spelling of "eat" has been changed recently, as well. It used to be "meogeumnida." Now it's "meokseumnida."

3. 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."

4. 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."

5. 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" (whatever that is). Some linguists now believe that he based his writing system on Mongolian writing of that time period. The theory that some Koreans may find offensive, however, is the bathroom tile theory. It states that King Sejong came up with the Korean writing system while looking down at the bathroom tiles. This theory is not only considered offensive because it conjures up images of King Sejong sitting on the john, but also because this theory was spread by the Japanese during the occupation to discredit the Korean writing system. Therefore, some Koreans link this story with the brutal Japanese occupation.

6. There's a type of Chinese food that's very popular in Korea, called "jjajangmyeon." However, the official spelling has been changed to "jajangmyeon" to facilitate better compatibility with Chinese characters. However, the vast majority of Koreans still use "jjajangmyeon." For instance, the Korean fast food chain Hansot uses the now-incorrect spelling at all of its restaurants in reference to its "jjajangbap".

7. 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.

8. Ever heard of bosintang? If you haven't, it's "dog soup." This is common knowledge if you've studied any Korean whatsoever, but did you know that a slang term for bosintang is "meongmeongtang" ("bark bark" soup)?

9. 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).

10. 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).

10. 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."

11. Although "mullon" used to be used for "of course," "dangeun" is now more fashionable. "Dangeun" means "carrot."

12. 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."

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

14. 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."

15. The Koreans took the word "seobiseu" (service) from English, and they use it with abandon. When you get "service," you get something extra that you didn't pay for. For instance, I wake up in the morning and go to school, and on the way, I get donuts with red bean paste in them. The woman who sells them to me usually says "seobiseu" and slips in a couple of donut hole-like things. Then, after school, I go to a Korean restaurant and order the ojingeodeopbap ("squid hot rice," I believe), and the lady there says "seobiseu" and gives me extra rice (and sometimes kimchi or yellow pickled things). The guy at Hansot has given me donggaseu sauce (it tastes like A-1) and exclaimed "seobiseu" as well. From a linguistic standpoint, I find it funny that "service" was taken from English. It's also funny when the various shop keepers act like they're doing you a huge favor, say "seobiseu," and then slip something in that's probably more or less equivalent in value to a packet of ketchup. Still, I'm happy when I get seobiseu, because it makes me feel special.

16. There's a rumor floating around that the word "metro" (subway) is only used to describe a subway in the Washington, D.C. area. This is blatantly untrue. It may be true in the United States, but Seoul's extensive subway system is called the "meteuro."

17. 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."

18. 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.

19. 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."

20. 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?

21. Korean has two different number systems. One of them is generally used for small numbers (the pure Korean system), and the other is generally used for large numbers (the Sino-Korean system). Be extremely careful which one you're using! A co-worker once asked me "how old are you?" At the time, I was eighteen. I figured that "10" is "sip," "8" is "pal," and "years" is "nyeon." All of these are correct on their own, but when I put them together, I ended up saying "sippallyeon" (f---ing b----). She was perfectly polite about it, and didn't say a thing, but I heard about my blunder the next day from a co-worker with a slightly better sense of humor.

22. The Korean word for "flower" is "ggot." The Korean word for "bottle" is "byeong." The Korean word for "vase" is "ggotbyeong." That's creative.

23. In Korean, the manager of a business is the "sajangnim." This literally translates to "president," though it's meant to mean "the president of a firm." One time, someone staying at my guesthouse asked the assistant manager if something was permissible. She replied, in English, "I'll ask the president!"

24. 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.

25. On a similar note, the word for "nostril" is "kogumeong." You got it -- "nose hole!"

Copyright (C) 2008 Charles Wetzel. All rights reserved.