Global searching is not enabled.
Skip to main content

Lesson 2

Completion requirements


  • Words
  • Lexicology
  • Words

The Origins of Korean Words


Korean is a distinct and unique language, yet its lexicon (i.e., its words) are not all distinctly or uniquely Korean. In fact, the majority of Korean words are actually from Chinese, though these words are not necessarily the same as those used today in modern or current Chinese (Mandarin specifically). As you do no doubt have learned in Foundational Korean: Hangeul, and Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture, the migration of peoples, the fall and rise of kingdoms both near and far, domestic and foreign commerce, trade, social unrest, etc. have all led to the distinc and unique language that we call Korean today. In this lesson, we will take a deeper look not at the structure of words as we saw in Lesson 1, but rather where these words have come from in significant detail. This will help us understand how the language of origin can also relate to other patterns (i.e., grammar, pronunciation) that we ultimately see and hear! So, let's begin!


First, review the key words if necessary. Then proceed through by starting with Lesson 2.1 to 2.4. To finish, evaluate your comprehension of the Lesson with the Knowledge Check.

Key Words

Click the word to see a definition/explanation or visit the glossary.


2.1 Native Korean Words


In Korean, native Korean words can be referred to as 토박이말 or 고유어 (固有語). Examples of these words are often very familiar and some of the first words you would learn. Why? The reason is relatively simple; they are words that usually describe family and other common items that have been around for a few thousand years; their relatively long usage and engrained place in local society has made these words difficult to replace with others from another language. In other cases, certain word classes such as grammar words are incredibly resistant to ever being changed or replaced. For example, the English pronoun "they" is not actually from English, it's Scandinavian. One theory for why is that there was a lot of mixing/marriages between peoples speaking both languages.

Nevertheless, if words (and the things they refer to) do not exist locally, it's much easier to import them. For example, before the Colombuian Exchange, there was no chocolate, coffee, tomatoes, potatoes, etc. in Korea, let alone Asia or Europe. However, if a foreign word enters the lexicon and doesn't replace a native word, often we see a prestige dynamic emerge by context. For example, a common word versus an academic word that has the same meaning. Nevertheless, the words you are likely to know as being native Korean words are ones such as 아버지 (father), 어머니 (mother), 아들 (son), 딸 (daughter), 하늘 (sky), and 땅 (earth / land /ground). This also includes the native Korean numbers (하나, 둘, 셋, etc.), as well as regional words that are not used widely across the entire Korean speaking population/peninsula. Many native Korean words are also used in the official names of holidays such as 어버이날 or 스승의날.

Table 2.1.1 Native Korean Word Examples

Korean Words

Sino-Korean Counterpart
(if applicable)
하나, 둘, 셋, 넷, etc 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. 일, 이 삼, 사, etc
고맙다 To be thankful, grateful, appreciate (i.e., to thank someone) 감사하다
the sun 태양
고르다 to pick/choose 선택하다
달삯 monthly salary 월급
friend 친구
바람 a wish 소원
달걀 egg 계란
스승 teacher 선생
나라 country 국가

As you can no doubt see from the short list of examples presented here, these words are all very, very common. You have likely even heard them at many times as there are certain contexts where one word is used over another. One very classic example of this is with Sino-Korean and Korean numbers with counting and telling time (this is explored in depth in Survival Korean I: Numbers and Counting. It may be hard at first to get a sense of the difference but the phonetic characteristics of the words are distinct and different. The more you hear them words used and the context in which they are used, you can get better sense of which ones are likely native Korean words versus Sino-Korean ones or the numerous Sino-Korean counterparts. Further, if you every study Chinese (either Mandarin or Cantonese) and Japanese, you will be able to recognize the Chinese words far more easily as they are similar in pronunciation and morphemic structure. In certain cases, they are literally the same to this day.

2.2 Sino-Korean Words


While we might be tempted to think of all Korean as words being "Korean", history is a little bit more nuanced and illuminating. As we saw in both Foundational Korean: Hangeul and in Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture, the many kingdoms that were located in what we know as modern day China had an immense influence on their neighbors in the region. Korea, of course, just so happened (and still happens) to be one them. 

Broadly speaking this occurred (and still occurs) in geopolitical and economic hegemony, but one specific way that has manifest is the influence of the Chinese language on Korean. One of the most notable and obvious forms of this influence is the disproportionate amount of vocabulary in Korean that originates from Chinese or which has been influenced by Chinese. This situation is not unique - the Proto-Indo European language had that influence on the peoples of Europe and Central Asia and even India. In more modern times, Latin had that same influence on English. And of course, English has now had immense influence (in terms of vocabulary) on virtually all modern languages on Earth.

Characteristics of Sino-Korean

Sino-Korean words (which are sometimes referred to as 한자어) refers to words of Chinese origin. These words can be borrowed directly from Chinese, or be new words created from Chinese characters that are not words in Chinese. It is thought that most Sino-Korean words were "borrowed" during the era of Literary Chinese in Korea. About 60 percent of Korean words are of Chinese origin, although the more realistic percentage of Sino-Korean words in actual usage is likely lower and will vary from profession to profession and person to person.

There are numerous Sino-Korean words that are truncated or altered and treated as native to the Korean language as a kind of Korean Chinese word rather than a word originally from Chinese. This is a phenomenon we will see quite often with English loan words in Korean. Of course, as we saw in Foundational Korean: Hangeul, the high amount of Sino-Korean words is one of the reasons why Korean was written in Chinese characters for thousands of years. It was only until relatively recently in the late 20th and early 21st century that Chinese characters have seen a significant decline in usage in modern Korean in both South and North Korea. See Table 2.2.1 for examples of very common Sino-Korean words that are used in Korean.

Table 2.2.1 Sino-Korean Word Examples

Hanja English
감기 感氣 a cold
공책 空冊 notebook
농담 弄談 joke
대중교통 大衆交通 public transportation
맥주 麥酒 beer
선물 膳物 gift/present
성함 姓銜 name (i.e., one's name)
편의점 便宜店 convenience store

Other Sources of Chinese Words

Since other languages in the region have similarly been influenced by Chinese vocabulary over the millenia due to cultural influence and geopolitical interactions, words of Chinese origin have enetered Korean indirectly through third-party languages (which also has happened with English loan words). One (perhaps unsurprising) source of third-party Chinese words is from Japan given the two countries close geographic proximity as well as long, long history of regional interaction. In simpler terms, these are Sino-Japanese words that then entered into Korean (there are Japanese English words that have entered Korean as well like this [e.g., skinship]). Unlike Sino-Korean words, these words are generally only used in Japan and Korea, not in Chinese or other languages (such as Vietnamese) that have significant amounts of Chinese vocabulary. The meanings, however, may be intelligible to varying degrees to those who know Hanja relatively well. Two examples of these are 비행기 (airplane, 飛行機) and 영화 (movie, 映畫). The reason some of these words exist is due to when they occur; airplanes and movies are results of industrialization at a time when Japan had colonized Korea (see Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture) that would not have existed centuries (or millenia prior).

2.3 "Loan" Words


Languages all "borrow" words from other Languages. This is a practical solution when a something does not exist in one place but does in another - often food items or regional plants/fruit names get imported for this very reasons. There is no English equivalent for kimchi, for example. In other cases, something already exists in one place/time and it is simply convenient to use the name already given to it. For example, a phone, computer, application, battery, etc. While some of these words might have Korean language equivalents such as the English word "battery" (i.e., 건전지), the more common English loan word 배터리 is used by most people. In any case there are numerous non-Chinese words from a number of different languages that currently have a place in modern in Korean. An overview is present in Table 3.1.1. These words are bit different than Sino-Korean loan words in that they do not constitute the vast majority of Korean vocabulary, and they have entered the Korean lexicon only very recently (in the last 500 years) due to trade and interactions with those from outside of East Asia. Loan words are can be referred to as 외래어, in which a huge subcategory of that is Konglish - Korean words derived from English. This is a common result of Language contact.

Diverse Loan Word Sources

In Table 3.1.1, you can see a diverse array of words from other languages. While names for food products have generally been left out as they are too numerous, you will notice than many words can be borrowed indirectly through other languages. This is often the case with things like food that became traded and spread around the world as a result of the Columbian Exchange. One example of this are 고추 (a red pepper) that has become an iconic staple of "spicy" Korean food - before the Columbian Exchange and Portuguese traders brought the peppers to Korea, Korean food wasn't spicy. Thus for speakers of Chinese and English, there is a very distinct advantage in being to able to recognize, learn, or already know a good portion of commonly used vocabulary in modern Korean. The meaning of these words, and how they are used, will be different in many cases, however.

Table 2.3.1 Loan Words

한구어 Original Word Source Language Meaning in English
Portuguese bread
아르바이트 arbeiten German to work (a part-time job)
아파트 apartment English apartment
자일 Seil German rope
파자 pizza Italian (through English ) pizza
스킨십 skinship English (through Japanese) physical affection
원룸 one room English studio apartment

One of the most important points to take away from this lesson is that humans, their societies, cultures, and languages, are never really isolated. There has been near constant interaction and contact between Korean the rest of the world for millenia, despite impressions to the contrary. While the Joseon Dynasty was relatively isolationist and which gave rise to Westerner's impression of Korea as "the Hermit Kingdom" (see Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture), this is simply a skewed perspective based on the specific time that Westerners came into closer contact with Korea. Korea's history shows interaction with neighbors in the region and regional/international trade for thousands of years - all of which is reflected in the language itself.

2.4 New Korean Words: Where do they come from?!

Languages, as you should have inferred by now, are living things. They are never fixed or finite; they are always changing to accomodate the needs of its speakers and changes in society, technology, concepts, etc. The words that first evolved thousands of years ago in pre-history will have no way of being able to express or capture modern times. Thus, new words are always be created both unexpectedly and deliberately. The formation of new words can be categorized in a few different ways but we will take a look primarily at neologisms and slang.

Neologisims (신조어)

신조어 are new words in a language, and their origins can be often well documented in recent times. These words are often the results of combining existing words, or by giving words new, unique combinations of unique suffixes and/or prefixes. Neologisms can also be formed by blending words into portmanteaus. As we saw in Lesson 1, there are many portmanteau place names in Korean. Words can also be shortened by abbreviation or through the use of an acronym. An example of this in Korean (which is ironically an abbreviation of an English phrase) is 피디에 or PDA - meaning Public Display of Affection. New words can also be formed by intentionally creating rhymes with existing words or simply by playing with sounds. A relatively rare form of neologism is when proper names are used as words (e.g., boycott, from Charles Boycott) although it's more common with the use of brand names in place of their actual nominal counterparts. For example Q-Tip (it's actually a cotton swab) or a Coke (it's actually cola - which is in fact a "loan" word in Korean).

Neologisms can become popular through memes (who doesn't love a good meme), through mass media, the Internet (after all, we are learning about language and Korean through the internet!), and word of mouth. Slang or jargon can also be considered neologisms in certain settings. While these words often exist in language in isolated pockets, they are not necessarily widespread. However, if a slang or jargon word does become widespread suddenly, it can be perceived as being a neologisim. Other times, they disappear from common use just as quickly as they appeared. Whether a neologism continues as part of the language depends on many factors, probably the most important of which is acceptance by the public. Moreover, neologisms often reflect current socio-cultural sentiments that, once passed, may no longer be relevant thus the terms no longer are as well. Or, they simply appear "dated" and associated with people that are now older than when the word first appeared, marking generational languages in the language.

Table 2.4.1 Examples of Korean Neologisms

Korean Word Etymology Meaning

Name of a character in Chinese writer Wu Cheng'en’s Monkey King Sun Wukong

A person who is hard of hearing and always seems to hear things incorrectly.

It also means early retirement at 45 years of age due to 사(4)오(5)정 (the first syllable of the word 정년퇴직 which means to retire).

오륙도 Name of an island off the coast of Busan, a port city in the southeast part of Korea so called because depending on the weather either 5 or 6 islands are visible. You are stealing the future of the younger generation if you are still working at the age of 56 Composition: o: 5, ryuk: 6, do: first syllable of do-duk (thief)
사르바이트 Earning and spending money in the digital world It is a combination of the first syllable of cyber (사) and to work part time (아르바이트) without the first syllable

Where you will often here many neologisms is in music and the lexicon specific to a certain subculture. This is often why novice Korean language learners can get easily confused and frustrated by listening to Korean songs because they often have very specific slang, jargon, and neologisms that are far outside the bound of regular conversation; it's why they are not necessarily the best learning resources given the very detailed, complex, and intricate socio cultural knowledge needed to understand them both semantically and linguistically. 

Slang (속어)

Slang an have a tricky definition since it isn't necessarily the same as neologisms, though slang is often composed of them. Slang, like jargon, is a specific set of words unique to a sub culture which is often related to a certain period in time (and/or among specific age groups). Thus, while the words may be relatively old, they are not widely used among any given population of language speakers and can appear to be "new". Popular media and modern digital technology, however, has made it much more easier for slang to spread out to more people (i.e., songs, videos, internet memes, etc.).

In table 2.4.2, you can see very common examples of slang that you will see and hear in recent media, and recognizable by most people (i.e., not just by adolescents) though not necessarily found in a traditional dictionary. The reasons for this vary, but a quick summary is that slang is vocabulary of an informal register, common in spoken conversation but one that typically is not used in formal writing. Slang can also sometimes refer to the language generally exclusive to the members of particular in-groups in order to establish group identity (e.g., the words used among people on a team or in a certain sport). The usage of slang can intentionally or unintentionally have an exclusionary effect as well given one's knowledge (or lack thereof) of the lexicon.

Thus, slang in Korean is no different how to slang is used in other languages; slang is not just a collection of vocabulary words but certain words used in a special way in certain social contexts. Since Language is constantly changing, so too is slang and you will never run out of new words to learn, and words that have certain temporal and contextual semantics.

With that in mind, it's time to get ready to move on to Lesson 3: Syntax. However, before we do, evaluate your comprehension with the Knowledge Check. If you have any questions, please leave them in the QnA Forum.  

Table 2.4.2 Examples of Korean Slang

Etymology Meaning
노잼 This word is portmanteau of the English word "no" and the Korean word 재미 (which means fun). 재미 is abbreviated to a single syllable as 잼. To express something that is not funny and boring.
멘붕 This word is similarly a portmaneau of the English word — “mental” and 붕 stands for the Korean word — “붕괴(means collapse or destroyed)”. It mean's a mental breakdown, the result of a lot of stress.
헐 (also often written in text form simply as ㅎ) is an interjection used to express surprise or shock. The interjection is used similarly to saying Oh My God (or OMG) or "What the hell" or any of its variations.
불금 This is a combination of the word for fire (불) and the first syllable of the word for Friday (금). Literally read as a "burning Friday", it refers to Friday night at the end of the workweek akin to the English expression TGIF.
대박 Similar to 헐, 대박 is an interjection that expresses the speakers surprise at something, however, the surprise is generally positive in nature. In English, a similar expression might be whoa, cool, amazing, etc.
썸 is the shortening and semantic repurposing of the English word "something". It means a "crush" that one has one someone.
아점 This is a portmanteau of the two Korean words 아침 and 점심. It is identical in nature to the word "brunch" in English which is a portmanteau of Breakfast and Lunch.
짱  짱 is another interjection that is used similarly to the word 대박. It means cool, awesome, amazing, etc.