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Lesson 4

Completion requirements

Semantics and Pragmatics

  • Gestures
  • Semantics
  • Meaning

The Meaning of Korean Words in Context


In Linguistics, semantics is the study of meaning in language. Native speakers instinctively can rely on semantics or parse what words means due to the manner in which the language was acquired when compared with heritage, second-language, and foreign language learners. In a very technical sense, semantics looks at various logical aspects of meaning such as sense, reference, and implication in addition to the cognitive structure of meaning (e.g., prototype theory).

Pragmatics, on the other hand, is concerned with the meaning of words in context and usage. For example, telling someone one "you're great" could be a genuine complement or a satirical criticism depending upon context and intent. In Lesson 4, we will examine some of the more obvious (but complicated) issues related to pragmatics in Korean for language learners: language prestige, dialects, and speech registers.


First, review the key words. Then, start the lesson at your own pace. 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.


4.1 Dialects

Korean is a language spoken by about 70-80 million people across the Korean Peninsula in both present day North and South Korea, in addition to being spoken by a diaspora of ethnic Koreans, many of whom still speak Korean as a native, heritage, or second language still in China (especially in China - see Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture), Japan, Russia, the United States, and so on. The definition of a Language is often not a linguistic one, rather it is political. The people in power ultimately "define" what is standard or not, what is the main language versus a dialect despite this categorization being entirely arbitrary. As a result, discrimination (both positive and negative) can occur simply based on how one speaks their native language. Thus, rather than think of there being one version of a language with numerous variations being possible, it may be more practical to think of a language like a multiverse; all equally valid ways of communication that vary to some degree with one another.

Language Prestige

The language you typically hear in South Korean dramas, movies, TV shows, music, etc. is typically the dialect associated with the capital-metropolitan region. Thus, even if someone from the 함경 region in North Korea, the capital-metropolitan region in South Korea, or from 경상남도 at the southern most part of the Korean Peninsula say the exact same phrase, there will be certain assumptions and meanings derived based on the pronunciation, cadence, and tonal differences despite the words literally being the exact same. 

Thus, as you learn Korean, it is worth simply being aware that not all of the language you hear will be interpreted or received the same way despite appearing identically. Similarly, variations are received differently as well. Of course, most classes in the Korean language teach the "standard" dialect which is from the central area of the Korean Peninsula, and most closely associated with the dialect of the capital (Seoul). 

The Korean Peninsula is home to at least seven different dialacts (depending what source you reference, the numbers will vary slightly, as well as what constitutes a dialect), all of which are outlined in Figure 4.1.1. You will notice that the names of the major dialects are typically named after the region in which they are located (not very creative but logical). More importantly, however, is that there are often sub-dialects within those broader categories. Most Korean dialects are mutually intelligible phonologically, grammatically, and lexically, but there are a few that are almost impossible for others to understand such as the dialects (or languages) spoken on 제주도 or the 육진 area.

It's not necessary for you to know the exact differences other than that, broadly speaking, some dialects lack certain vowels found in "standard" Korean, numerous words are different, there can be differences in pronunciation of consonants, and so on. Further, verbal morphology for "common" verb endings that you will learn in standard Korean can be different. Some "dialects" are completely unintelligible (notably the language spoken on Jeju Island). 

While although half of the South Korean population lives in the capital-metropolitan area and the dialect spoken there is referred to as 서울말, simply know that this is the prestige language in South Korea and therefore considered standard; the pronunciation, grammatical rules, certain vocabulary and morphology, etc., are considered the default and what is used in all formal manners of communication. 

We simply recommend noting that there are always differences between and within "languages" and dialects, and that there is no "better" or "worse" version. This language prestige is separate (and in addition to) the high/low versions of vocabulary that emerge with native Korean vocabulary, Sino-Korean words, and in very modern, modern Korean, foreign (typically English) loan words. Move on to Section 4.2 to look at Lexical Prestige in more detail!

Figure 4.1.1 Korean Dialects


4.2 Lexical Prestige

Even within the Language and its dialects, there is also lexical prestige despite the semantics being the same. Sino-Korean words are typically used in formal or literary contexts, and to express abstract or complex ideas. Thus, a Korean speakers usage of this particularly lexicon creates differences in meaning despite words having the same meaning. The principle reason for this difference in context is that knowledge of this vocabulary is also a sign of education, and education is often a sign of social status in numerous socioeconomic ways. In very modern Korean, one's knowledge or usage of English loan words (regardless of whether or not these words have the same meaning or usage in actual English) has an analogous effect. By contrast, in North Korean, the state's language policy has been one where the usage of non-native Korean words is considered wrong and and a concerted effort has been made to remove and replace all of these words with original Korean words or pre-existing Korean equivalents. Thus, even between the dialects spoken in the Northern part of the Korean Peninsula versus the Southern, a significant divergence has occurred over the last 70 years that makes communication more difficult due to very significant differences in vocabulary, even if the grammar or pronunciation is relatively similar. Historically, however, a prestige or class divide has been seen with Sino-Korean words and native Korean words. This same divide was seen with the use of 한글 versus 한자 (see Foundational Korean: Hangeul and/or Foundational Korean: People, History, and Culture).


While mentioned previously in Lesson 2: Lexicology, it is important to recognize the different role that Sino-Korean words play in terms of pragmatics. While there are words that have identical meaning in native Korean, the decision to use one over the other is often rooted in context (i.e., formal vs. informal), but one in socioeconomic status (i.e., formal education vs. uneducated) as well as one's regional origin in Korean (i.e., regional dialect vs. standard language). A more modern addition to "prestige" in pragmatics is the usage of English in modern Korean. In the distant future, it's possible that another language might replace English but at the moment, this is the current influential language globally. 


Given the geo-political influence of English in international settings, the Korean language's adoption of English words has been unavoidable like seen in languages across the rest of the world. One's knowledge of English, however, is similarly rooted in socioeconomic and education status which is parallel to how people have knowledge of Sino-Korean words in detail or not. Where Chinese characters and Sino-Korean words were once the "technical" language in textbooks or used to differentiate homophones or to explain complex concepts, often English is now used for this purpose. Knowledge of English words (even if just roots and semantics), is also a sign of prestige and socioeconomic class differences.

We reiterate that such issues in lexical (or even dialectical) prestige are not unique to Korean; this occurs in all languages. For English speakers in the United Kingdom, there differences in the perception of English if the speaker has a London accent versus one from Wales versus one from Cornwall or the Highlands in Scotland despite words or phrases being identical. This is similarly the case in the United States with an English speaker coming from Brooklyn in New York on the East Coast versus someone from Central Oklahoma, New Orleans, or Central California. Even when the language is the same, context plays a role in how the language is perceived and has other layers of meanings.

4.3 Speech Registers

It is equally valid to discuss speech registers under morphology since, well, speech registers are often known very overtly because they are expressed using morphology. However, we include speech registers under semantics and pragmatics since, while phrases can have the same meaning, they are chosen/required based on context and provide different meanings pragmatically speaking. For example, 공부해 and 공부합니다 will translate the same way in many languages and share the same core semenatic meaning (i.e., someone is studying) but there is a big difference in terms of pragmatics.

Speech registers in Korean are also some of the most complicated for learners to get a handle one when speaking with people outside of informal/regular speech registers. If used incorrectly, speakers/listeners can feel embarrassed or offended, though this likely is not that big of a deal for those learning the language; people are naturally very understanding of the complexities involved. 

While there are technically seven levels of honorifics (realistically only four are commonly used), they are generally divided into two categories: formal (격식체) and informal speech (비격식체). Most speech technically occurs in the "informal" category but in a polite form characterized by the ending 요! Knowing exactly which register to use (and why) depends on understanding numerous factors, but it is a bit like the overlapping color diagram - it depends, but there are three major factors to cosnider: formality, politeness, and honor.



First, you need to simply consider the formality of a situation regardless of the people speaking. Colleagues talking together in a business meeting will not speak the same way outside of work in casual settings. Thus, to some degree, the setting dictates a certain speech register. If you meet the President of South Korea, any meeting would be incredibly formal despite being of similar rank, age, or position.


Politeness, by contrast, has to do with the specifics of the relationship between the speaker and listener. As spoken about in previous listens, the specifics can range from anything such as age, social status, rank or experience in an organization (e.g., school, major, work, department, etc.). Different titles (and practices of address) are used along with different speech registers (see Survival Korean I: Titles and Greetings (A). 


Korean learners can often confuse politeness for honor (or vice versa). Honor applies to the person who you are speaking to (i.e., the listener), but also applies to people mentioned or discussed in the conversation. This can occur by bestowing honor on the subject of the sentence, the object of a sentence, or the person you are addressing in the sentence. The subtle differences reveal a lot of information about the relationships of people and the situation they are in.

Table 4.3.1 Speech Register Overview

Speech Register/Level  Description/Purpose Clues Example
1. 해체
This is the most informal, casual speech used between peers of equal status.
It is also commonly known as 반말.
 Absence of formal endings 공부헤
2. 해요체
This is technically still informal, but considered polite and is the most commonly used form of speech.
You are likely already very familiar with it!
Statements end with 요, commands usually use 세요. 공부해요
3. 해라체
This is a very plain form of speech but recognizable in that it can appear "informal".
 It is used in newspapers, academic writing, etc.
Statements ending with ㄴ다 공부한다
4. 하게체
This register is largely not used any more but implies the speaker has respect for the listener.
You will likely will never hear this except for historical dramas or old texts.
Statements end with -네 and questions end with 는가 공부하네
5. 하오체 Similar to 하게체, this register is not really used any more sans "older" generations.
It is used among people of similar status or to those of lower status;
it does not express any kind of humility (which 하십시오체 does).
Statements end with -소, -오, questions end with -오. 공부하소
6. 하십시오체 This is a very respectful and polite form of speech.
It expresses both humility on the part of the speaker and respect to the listener.
Statements end with ㅂ니다 and questions end in ㅂ니까. 공부합니다
7. 하소서체
This form of speech is also not really used in modern Korea or in any normal context;
this is a form used for addressing royalty (or deity) and seen in historical documents.
Statements end with 나이다 and questions end in 나이까. 곱부하나이다

Humble and Honorific Words

It isn't just verb endings that changed based on speech register; subject pronouns and certain nouns/verbs have different versions based on whether the speaker is trying to be more humble, or needs to show more respect/honor to someone of higher status. A few examples of this are outlined Table 4.3.2. Further, when the use of certain speech registers are not necessary but people choose to use them anyway can be a sign of intentionally creating social distance from someone or a way of appearing cold or unwilling to be friendly.

All verbs otherwise can be imbued with honor to when speaking about and to others of higher status by using the morpheme 시 (i.e., 하다 --> 하시다) while certain nouns can be changed to honorific counterparts (or must be changed) such as 밥 to 식사 or 말 to 말씀.

Table 4.3.2 Titles Goes Here

Regular Form Honorofic Form Meaning
1 자다 주무시다 sleep
2 먹다 드시다 eat
3 말하다 말씁하시다
4 식사 food

Our advice, ultimately, is to not worry to much about this! What we mean is that, this is something you will learn over time, and in the situations that you need to communicate in. For example, none of us are likely to ever meet Kings or Presidents thus there is little practical need to learn how to speak this way. We do, however, speak to people in relatively intimate, informal, and polite situations regularly thus this is the best use of our time and efforts. The take away is simply that there are numerous speech registers but there only three that we need to really know that will cover 99% of our daily lives. Move on to Section 4.4 to close out Lesson 4 by looking at culture and it's role in semantics and pragmatics in the context of Korean.

4.4 Context and Culture

Language and Culture have a very intimate connection, and it isn't so clear whether or not features in a language influence a culture, or that a culture's beliefs then influence aspects of the language such as verbal morphology. The simple answer is that both have an influence, but exactly in what ways and to what degree are part of the mystery of human cognition and the evolution of human societies that the system (i.e., langauge) that evolved to help us communicate. Pretty philosophical, eh? But how is this relevant to learning Korean?

What is culture?


There are numerous scholars that have defined what culture is from various perspectives in both western and eastern view points. One view that is easy to understand is that culture is a kind of cognitive programming that, like language, is acquired at birth. How you view space, time, colors, or how you think of gender roles, age, and so on were all determined before you were born. Being raised in society has simply programmed these beliefs and common understanding in to you without you ever, likely, having given it a thought. It's a silent structure that heavily influences your perceptions at levels you will will likely not even be able to articulate! If this sounds too complex, think of the Matrix - it's everywhere, all around you, and invisible, yet it is the construct that controls all of your default actions, perceptions and beliefs. The only way to really understand one's own default cultural perspectives is to get outside of it for extended periods of time; this is often a part of the immigrant experience since everything, in many ways, is new.

Table 4.4.1 High vs Low Context Culture: Attributes

High Low
Work Ethic Relationship-oriented Task-oriented
Working Style As groups As individuals
Rewards Group Achievement Individual Achievement
Relationships Long-term, tight, many Short-term, loose, few
Communication Non-verbal, Subtle Verbal, Overt
Time Sense Past-oriented, Tradition focus Present/Future-oriented
Change Slow to change, tradition-focused Quicker to change

In the case of Korean, Korea (the country) is considered to be a "high" context culture (versus a low context one) because of the high degree of shared background and information. That is, the Peninsula is relatively ethnically homogenous, where historically many mutually intelligible dialects/languages were spoken, and where socio cultural backgrounds have more or less been similar (i.e., Confucianism, Buddhism, etc.) for a very long time. 

Thus, since such a high degree of shared background and information exists, we also often see in Korean a lot of assumptions made about people/situations, as well as the absence of overt or obvious background information since it is likely the same and unnecessary to state or question. In language, then, we see a correlation with how things are expressed or talked about that might otherwise seem vague, curious, or confusing to those from the outside looking in. If you find yourself thinking Korean has been confusing for at least some of these reasons, there is a cultural component that you likely haven't been able to articulate in detail yet (which relates to the language). One example (of many) is the idea of very elaborate and complex honorifics which are very much related to cultural ideas and norms.

Thus when it comes to Korean language learners such as yourself, there are some cultural aspects of the language speakers that need to be, at the very least, need to be recognized and understood appropriately. As you learn a language, you should not only be becoming bilingual, but also bicultural. You should be able to think and behave differently given the different conditions and parameters of the other people-all of which are closely linked to the language they communicate in. In Table 4.4.1, you can see numerous attributes, in an abstract and general sense, of how high and low context cultures differ from one another dichotomously. Please keep in mind, however, that these are large, macro level perspectives, and are not necessarily one and the same as cultural beliefs and practices regionally, or among individuals. A "national" culture is not the same as an individual's behavior. Further, culture, like language, varies from group to group. What we call subcultures are analogous to dialects in language - which one is considered which is largely a matter of socioeconomic and political power.

In Conclusion

To conclude Lesson 4 and the course as a whole, we hope that Korean grammar is much less mysterious to you now that you have a brief background in how the language functions relative to other languages through the lens of Linguistics, as well as through the main features of Korean's grammatical systems such as postposition case markers, word origins, and morphological characteristics. Before you conclude the lesson, please take a few moments to evaluate your comprehension with the Knowledge Check, and ask any questions that you have in the Lesson QnA. We also would love if you take a moment to rate the course using the block on the Course Home Page to let us (and others) know what you thought of Foundational Korean: Grammar!

We also hope you will consider taking another course with us to further your learning journey of the Korean language in the Foundational Korean series, or any of the other courses offered in Survival Korean, Stories in Korea, or even 1:1 Instruction! In any case, congratulations on completing Lesson 4 and the course! 수고 많았습니다!