Learning Korean

Categories: Off-topic


I’m learning Korean at the moment, and wanted to share some of the things I have learned so far. In particular, most tutorials start with the basics and build up step by step - and that’s great, but I personally like to have at least an overview (the big picture) before diving into the details. This article gives those basics in a 20-minute read. This is not intended to be a Korean language tutorial or course, just an overview - and one from an amateur. Please skim this as an intro, then go use a proper course!

Korean is a great language to learn. The Korean culture is interesting, and (for someone from a European culture) is a gateway to other east asian cultures and languages. It also seems to me to be (suprisingly) a relatively easy language for an English speaker; despite being completely unrelated to western languages it still has many familiar grammatical constructs: nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc.

One slightly tricky part of Korean is that it has lots of short words; changing a single letter in any word almost always produces a valid word with a different meaning (ie the language has low redundancy). It also tends to reuse words for very different meanings in different contexts. This does make the language very compact, but the brain needs to work harder sometimes to figure out which meaning applies. Korean is probably a good language for puns..

Another unfortunate aspect is the concept of “politeness levels” which affects many parts of the language and adds a lot of unnecessary (IMO) complexity. But who’s perfect?


The Alphabet

Despite first appearances, Korean is written in a way not much different from English; it use an alphabet of about the same size, has vowels and consonants, has syllables, and is reasonably phonetic (much better than English!).

Of course, the alphabet does use different characters and it is necessary to learn them, but they are elegantly simple shapes. Learning the alphabet and the corresponding sound for each letter takes a week or two, no more. To be precise, the alphabet consists of 19 consonants, 14 vowels, and 7 dipthong-vowels for a total of 40 symbols - but many are variants of a base form.

Because Korean is mostly phonetic (each letter has a consistent sound), it is generally possible to correctly pronounce a word just from seeing its written form. It also means that having heard a word, you have a good chance of guessing how it is written. There are exceptions, but far fewer than in English. Some Korean letters have a sound that directly corresponds with an English letter, for example is very similar to the English letter n and is pronounced very much like a standalone o (eg “o’clock”). Some correspond to a sound that in English we write with more than one letter, eg is pronounced exactly like ee and sounds very much like “yo” (as in “yo, man!”). A few letters are trickier, with sounds that don’t quite match anything in English; is somewhere between a p and a b while is somewhere between a t and a d. In short, learning correct pronunciation is not trivial, but also not truly hard - certainly no harder than learning to speak Spanish with an acceptable accent.

Letters do sometimes change their sound depending upon context.

Like European languages, letters are grouped into syllables. However what is special about Korean is that the letters in each syllable are joined together into a “syllable block”, sometimes by joining letters horizontally and sometimes by stacking letters on top of each other vertically. The result looks initially something like Chinese or Japanese but is quite different; with only a little practice it is easy to join letters or to pick apart a block into its separate letters.

Each syllable consists of either

  • (consonant, vowel) – about 50% of the time
  • (consonant, vowel, consonant) – about 40% of the time, or
  • (consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant) – about 10% of the time

ie every syllable contains exactly one vowel.

Every vowel is either “horizontal” (tall and thin) or “vertical” (short and wide). When horizontal then it is written next to the initial consonant and the following consonants (if any) are written on the next row. When vertical then it is written below the initial consonant (ie on row 2) and the following consonants (if any) are written on yet another row. The maximum “width” of a syllable is therefore 2 characters, and the maximum height is 3 rows. This also means that the letters in a syllable are read left-to-right and top-to-bottom. A syllable that “wants to” begin with a vowel-sound uses the consonant as its first letter (which is silent when at the start of a syllable) and thus syllables always have at least 2 characters. These (relatively common) leading circles give Korean writing a distinctive appearance.

The consonant(s) following a vowel (if any) are called a “batchim” - ie any syllable except those of form (consonant, vowel) has a “batchim”. These have some effects on pronunciation and verb conjugation; details are discussed later.

When hand-writing Korean, choosing the right size for letters is a little tricky; a letter within a 2-row syllable should be half as high as when written in a 1-row syllable.

Text is laid out just as in English - syllables are written left to right within a line, lines are top to bottom within a page, and pages are front to back within a document. This isn’t true for Japanese!

There are no uppercase or lowercase versions of letters. However a few letters have different appearance in different “fonts”. In particular, the letters ㅈㅅㅎ (roughly corresponding to “zh”, “s”, and “h”) have multiple forms.

A few letters look like a “doubled” form of a simpler letter (ㅃㅉㄸㄲㅆ). These are still treated as a single letter, and take up the same amount of space (each part is written half as large).

Some pairs of vowels combine to form what is effectively one letter - ie in those rules about (consonant, vowel, consonant) etc., the vowel can be a dipthong-vowel-pair. These always consist of one vertical and one horizontal vowel, so don’t change the rules regarding layout of syllable blocks. In most cases the sound of the resulting combination is like quickly pronouncing both parts - though some combinations have their own distinct sound. There are 7 such possible combinations.

Unlike some asian languages, Korean is not “tonal”, ie the meaning of a letter or word does not change depending on pitch or accent.

Numbers are written using European symbols (also known as “arabic numerals”..). Like English, numbers can also be written as words (equivalent to “ten”, “twenty-three” etc in English).

Fortunately, when typing Korean on a keyboard, the rules for combining letters are consistent enough that the computer will automatically build the correct syllable blocks. And the fact that there are only 33 different characters (ignoring the dipthongs) means that keyboards are similar to English ones; English actually needs 26 upper-case and 26 lower-case letters so the Korean alphabet is smaller. A Korean keyboard puts the 26 most commonly used letters on the “main” layout, just like English, with the less-used letters (particularly double-consonants) accessed via the shift key. Dipthongs are formed by typing their components out as separate letters and letting the computer figure out that they need to be combined. Cleverly, the consonants are on the left side of the keyboard while the vowels are on the right, making typing most commonly left-right-left-right-left-right.

Because there isn’t a 1:1 correspondence between the sounds of letters in Korean and English, it is best to learn the Korean alphabet early and then to read and write Korean using its native alphabet rather than trying to use English equivalents (“romanized korean spelling”). You’ll need to learn the Korean alphabet anyway if you ever want to read street-signs or restaurant menus and, because English is so un-phonetic, any Korean word could be written in a dozen different ways in English while a written englishified spelling can be pronounced a dozen different ways with only one of them being correct. And yes, this article does generally give pronunciation “approximations” in the English alphabet - but that’s only because this is for absolute beginners. Just learn the alphabet and its corresponding sounds!


Just like western languages, spaces are used to separate words (although they can be a little hard to spot until you are familiar with the letters). In addition, the western full-stop, question-mark and exclamation mark are used - and in the same way.

As noted above, Korean does not have upper/lowercase letters.

?? What about quote-marks, commas, etc ??


Nouns (the names of concrete things and abstract concepts) work exactly as in English. Unlike the majority of European languages, nouns do not have “genders”.

The plural form of any noun can be formed just by appending a single syllable ( - roughly pronounced “durl”). There are (as far as I know) no exceptions - much nicer than in English where adding “s” or “es” is mostly but not always right. However the plural suffix is typically omitted in situations where it is implied by context; for example “I like dog” clearly implies the plural.

Noun Markers and Cases

In a sentence such as “I give the ball to her” (or “I give her the ball”), there are three nouns with distinct roles:

  • “I” is the actor performing the verb (give)
  • “the ball” is the primary object the verb is acting on
  • “her” is the target of the verb

Many European languages make the role of each element in a sentence clear by allocating a “case” to each part (typically called nominative, accusative, and dative); the “nominative” case is allocated to the actor, the “accusative” is allocated to the primary target of the verb and the “dative” is allocated to the (secondary) target of the verb. These cases then affect the endings of various words (pronouns, articles, adjectives) in sometimes complex ways.

English doesn’t use cases quite as extensively/consistently as some other European languages, but we can see in that example sentence above the use of “I” and “her”. The words “I/he/she” are used for nominative while “me/him/her” are used for other cases. English does not generally modify other words such as “the ball”; instead the roles of the elements in a sentence must be deduced from word order and context.

Korean distinguishes the roles of things in a sentence in a very elegant and consistent way; there is a “topic marker syllable”, a “subject marker syllable” and an “object marker syllable” which are simply appended to the relevant nouns. Actually, there are two variants of each marker, depending on whether the word they are appended to ends in a vowel or not (just to make pronunciation flow better). Because nouns do not have genders, the complexity that occurs with “cases” in some languages simply don’t exist in Korean - pronouns, articles, and adjectives don’t need to “agree” with the role/case they have in the sentence.

These markers are:

  • Topic: /
  • Subject: /
  • Object: /

There are also time and location markers.

The topic marker indicates who is doing the action (the subject), but in a neutral way - the emphasis is on the object (if any). It also sets the “default topic” for further conversation. Note that a sentence has at most one topic-marker.

The subject marker is similar to the topic marker, but places more emphasis on the subject part of the sentence, ie makes the subject the “point of focus”. Examples of places where the subject marker should be used include:

  • when the exact identity of the subject is being clarified: “Who is dancing? Sam (subject) is dancing.”
  • when a sentence has more than one subject: “I (topic) hope that you (subject) are happy”
  • when asserting attributes about a noun (the subject), eg “the car (subject) is red”
  • and there are a few verbs which always use the subject-particle, in particular 있다 (to exist) and 없다 (to not exist).

Another way to think about the difference between topic-marker and subject-marker is that every verb requires a subject and there are two ways to specify it: via an explicit subject-marker, or by letting it default to the “current topic”. The (noun + topic-marker) part of a sentence can then be thought of as a completely different sentence - something that sets the default subject to be used later. This explains:

  • why the subject-marker emphasises the subject: it’s overriding the default topic - ie there is something important about this subject
  • why a sentence using a topic marker isn’t emphasising the subject: it can be seen as first setting the default subject, and then letting the next verb use that default.
  • why a subject-marker can occur multiple times in a sentence: a subject is needed for each verb
  • why a subject-marker is used with adjectives (descriptive verbs): it’s just weird/confusing to “describe” attributes of an implicit topic

Topic-markers always occur at the start of a sentence, and can be translated as “As for (topic), ….” or “Regarding (topic), …” ; any following verb without a subject is assumed to be related to that topic. English does something similar; eg n the sequence of sentences “Regarding my car, it is very old and it is not reliable. However I like driving it.” the word “it” refers to the default topic (“my car”). Korean simply omits the word “it”.

The object marker is used in sentences where the verb performs an action on something, eg “throw” (“I throw the ball”) or “see” (“I see the cat”). It indicates which noun is the thing the verb is acting on (ball, cat). However it is not unusual for the object-marker to be left out - particularly in casual speech.

The (“nurn”) suffix has (at least) one other unrelated use. See:

  • adjectives as noun modifiers (“the hungry cat ..” -> “hungry + + cat + …”)


Just like English, there are words for “I/you/he/she”.

However Korean has the concept of “politeness levels” or “formality levels” which are very important. Some pronouns therefore have two forms, one being more “humble” with respect to the listener than the other. The concept of “politeness levels” is discussed further later.

The available words are:

  • I: (humble) or
  • we: 저희 (humble) or 우리
  • you (singular): 당신 (very seldom; see below) or (casual)
  • you (plural): 여러분 (can also be used as a formal singular form)
  • he:
  • she: 그녀
  • they: 그들 - literally “he plural”

However Korean commonly omits pronouns whenever they can be deduced from context, eg “do you like it?” can drop the “you” and “it” and just become “like?”.

The use of “you” is tricky when combined with Korean’s concept of politeness/formality. When addressing someone formally, the term “you” (singular) is simply avoided - mostly by omitting the pronoun completely as described above. If needed, it is replaced by something else. For example, “you are correct” becomes “correct”, “that is correct”, “(you-plural) is correct”, “(addressee-personal-name) ssi is correct”, or “(title) nim is correct”. The “ssi” is something like “Mr/Mrs” (but not gender-specific) and the personal-name is used at least partly because there are so few distinct family-names in Korean. The “nim” is something like “honorable”. See the section on politeness.

The 당신 (“dangsheen”) form for you-singular is rarely used. It translates as something like “darling” or “dear friend”, and can be used by a couple to address each other. It can also be used ironically/sarcastically. In short: it really does leave the same impression as the very dated English expressions “darling/dear-friend” and should be avoided by beginners completely!

The terms he/she are actually fairly rarely used, and can be impolite. In general it is better to initially use the person’s name plus the topic-marker, then the subject can “default” to that person - ie it isn’t necessary to repeat their name over and over.

Even when talking informally, the informal you-form () is appropriate only between close friends or relatives of similar age, or adults to children. For something slightly more polite, “(name) ssi” can sometimes be used, where ssi () is an “honorific”; this shows politeness/respect without the humility of the formal forms. There is a similar-sounding modifier for verbs which has a similarly “respectful” effect; this is discussed later.

The term “it” isn’t really used. English uses this term to refer to “the current topic of conversation”; Korean instead assumes that any verb without a subject is referring to this current topic - ie “it” generally isn’t needed. There are words for “this” or “that” (see later).

TODO: what about using “it” to refer to the object of a verb, eg “I like Kimchi. Is spicy.”? Is there a “default object” as well as a “default subject”?

Korean does not have separate words for different pronoun roles/cases (I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them, etc). Instead one of the “marker syllables” described above is appended to any pronoun depending on its role in a sentence. Sentences such as “I like ..” or “I go” will start with the pronoun for “I” (using appropriate politeness level) followed by the “subject marker” because in this case “I” is the subject of the sentence. A sentence such as “.. with me” or “.. to me” will contain the pronoun for “I” followed by the “object marker”.

The subject of a sentence may be omitted in Korean when there is a “current topic” - ie a noun has been recently used with the topic-marker suffix. It is also sometimes omitted in other cases when the subject is simply obvious. In English, this might look something like:

I(+topicmarker) went to the beach. Swam. Ate lunch. Met some friends. My friend Sam (+topicmarker) got sunburn. Went home early.

Articles (“A” and “The”)

English uses “the” or “a” before nouns to specify whether we are talking about a specific item, or any item of that type, as does German/French/Italian/Spanish. However there are many languages which don’t use this approach - and Korean is one of them.

There are words for “this” and “that” if you need to specify something within eyesight. And you can use the word “that” if you really want to make clear that you are talking about a specific book (presumably from an earlier part of the conversation). The words “it” and “that” are identical..

Otherwise the item in question is deduced from context, eg “I bought book about Korea. I lost book.” where the last sentence implicitly refers to that specific book.


It’s common to say that something “belongs to” something else, eg:

  • the dog’s colour
  • the child’s toy
  • my shoe

Korean possessives work identically - you just add a suffix to a noun to indicate it “owns” the following noun. That suffix is always (“ui/ooee”).

Possessive forms are very often used with pronouns - in fact so often that there are some common “short forms”:

  • (I humble) + -> 저의 (my) with short form - eg 제 이름은 (my name)
  • (I neutral) + -> 나의 (my) with short form - eg 내폰 (your phone)
  • 너의 (you casual) + -> 너의 (your) with short form
  • 우리 (we neutral) -> 우리의 (our)

The other pronoun possessives do not have short forms.

The syllable should be pronounced “ui/ooee” but in the case of possessives is often pronounced “ae” instead.

Syllable (your) is actually pronounced “ni” to avoid confusion with (my).

Korean tends to use “our” more often than “my”; when speaking about anything which you share with others, use “our” - eg “our mother” instead of “my mother”, “our house” instead of “my house”. Only things which are exclusively your property should be referred to with “my” - eg “my shirt”.


Korean verbs are very similar to those in English. The infinitive form of a verb always ends in (roughly sounds like “da”).

English verbs change form depending upon who is doing them (“I run”/”he runs”) and the tense (“I run”/”I ran”). And these changes are sometimes unpredictable/irregular. In other European languages, verb endings can be even more complicated.

Korean verbs change suffix depending on tense, politeness level, and mode but do not depend upon who is performing them. And the vast majority of verbs are regular. There are a few forms to learn, but it’s generally simpler than in most other European languages.

Tenses are: past, present, future.

Politeness levels relevant for beginners are (roughly speaking):

  • formal (aka formal high) - used for talking to people in authority, strangers, customers, or otherwise showing extra respect
  • polite (aka informal high) - normal chat between colleagues or acquaintances
  • casual (aka informal low) - between good friends, couples, and family siblings of similar age

Modes are:

  • declarative - statements about the current state of things or the general state of things, eg “the weather is hot”, or “I like Kimchi”.
  • interrogative - for asking questions
  • prepositive - for making suggestions/recommendations
  • imperative - for giving commands

The most important conjugations:

  • present formal declarative -> verb root + adapter + “-mnida”
  • present polite declarative -> verb root + adapter + “-yo”
  • present casual declarative -> verb root + adapter

where the “verb root” is the infinitive minus the “da” ending, and the “adapter” depends upon the ending letters of the verb root. The rules for choosing the right adapter are slightly complicated - but once learned are at least consistent for almost all verbs.

By the way, note that “-mnida” ending. This initially sounds like an infinitive verb itself (ends in “-da”), but it is not. While all infinitive verbs end in “da”, not everything that ends in “da” is an infinitive verb!

There are similar rules for building past-formal-declarative, past-polite-declarative, future-formal-declarative, future-polite-declarative, etc.

The mode of the sentence also plays a role in conjugating verbs. As an example, when asking a question in present formal form, verbs must end in “-mnika” instad of “-mnida”. When making a (polite) command, they must end in “-shiyo” or “-shimshiyo”.

This all sounds rather complicated, but it’s not too bad. Most courses concentrate first on learning the “present polite declarative” form. This is unfortunately one of the more complicated conjugations (the “adapters” come in several forms) but once that is mastered it is really pretty simple to change the endings to form past or future, casual or formal, interrogative or imperative.

The declarative mode allows statements about things “in general”, eg “I cook eggs” means “I often cook eggs” or “I can cook eggs”. The form “I am cooking eggs” is the progressive mode. This is not done with a dedicated verb ending; instead you use “(verb root) + + (conjugated form of verb 있다/to-do)” ie effectively “I cook do”. Alternatively, you can use form “(verb root) + (subject-marker) + + (conjugated form of verb 이다/to-be).

Sometimes verbs modify other verbs. In english, we say “to want to go”, eg “I” + “to want” (conjugated) + “to go” (infinitive) gives “I want to go”. Korean works similarly, but in a different word order: “I” + “to go (root)” + “ko” + “want” (conjugated).

Examples of such verbs:

  • to want to : 싶다 (“sheepda”)
  • to need to (“must”)

The Korean verb “to do” (하다 - pronounced “hada”) can be used to turn many nouns into a verb, eg:

  • “love” (noun) + “to do” -> “to do love” -> “to love”
  • “speech” (noun) + “to do” -> “to do speech” -> “to speak”

The verb “to exist” (있다 - pronounced “itda”) can also be combined with various nouns to form a new verb. Examples:

  • “flavour” (noun) + “to exist” -> “to be tasty” (맛있다)
  • “fun/entertainment” (noun) + “to exist” -> “to be fun/entertaining/enjoyable” (재미있다)

Grammatically, both these -hada and -itda verbs can be seen as either one word or as noun+verb. In the second case, it is therefore possible to put an object-marker after the noun ie “in the middle”.

In a sentence that has multiple verbs, only the last one (the one at the end of the sentence) is fully conjugated. Depending on the particular grammatical construct being used, other verbs may just use the root or may be “partially conjugated in the present tense” which is the same as the “casual” conjugation - which is the same as the polite conjugation without the “-yo”.

There are some modifiers that can be embedded in verbs. For example, (“shi”) can be inserted before the (“da”) ending of a verb to indicate extra politeness/humility/gratitude. The conjugation rules then get applied to this new suffix rather than the original verb root.

Descriptive Verbs vs Adjectives

Adjectives in English describe attributes/properties of nouns. They can do this in three ways:

  1. as a noun modifier (eg “the old house …”, “the red car …”, “the cold water …”)
  2. as an assertion (“the house is old”)
  3. together with a “linking verb” (“the food smells good”, “the water feels cold”).

Korean works somewhat similarly, but is not identical. It has two categories of verbs:

  • “action” verbs which “do things”
  • “descriptive” verbs which “describe attributes of things”

It is these descriptive verbs which serve the same purpose as English adjectives. Descriptive verbs mean “to be {something}” or “have the property of {something}”. As with other verbs, they end in “-da”.

For case (1), the descriptive verb can be turned into an adjective by taking the verb root and adding the topic-marker or to that root. This resulting adjective always goes before the noun it describes. The noun being described is then followed by the subject marker (not a topic marker). However there are a few quirks:

  • if the verb root happens to end in already, then an is just added to the same syllable.
  • if the verb root ends in then remove it and add
  • if the verb root ends in then replace it with

Note that descriptive verbs don’t really have a “subject”; there isn’t anyone or anything doing a descriptive verb such as “The book is heavy”, so the subject-marker suffixes here have a slightly different meaning.

Case (2) simply requires conjugating the verb correctly; “the house is old” becomes “house + (subject-marker) + to-be-old (conjugated)”. The (descriptive) verb goes at the end of the sentence, as usual with Korean. There is a special case for verbs of form (noun+hada) or (noun+ittda); these can optionally be written as separate words with a “subject marker” (not a topic marker) attached to the noun - ie “in the middle”.

Case (3) is formed in a similar way to English, but with a different word order. The English expression “bread smells good” is equivalent to “the smell of bread is good” and this is how it is said in Korean: “bread + subject-marker + smell (noun) + to-be-good (conjugated-descriptive-verb)”.

As an example: House is and “to be small” is 작다 so “the house is small” is 집이 작아요 (house + subject-marker + to-be-small-in-polite-form) while “the small house ..” is 작은집은 .. (small + adjective-suffix + house + topic-marker (or subject marker) + rest of sentence).

As noted above, Korean nouns do not have genders, so adjectives never need to “agree” with their noun.

Helper Verbs

There are a few verbs that can be combined with other verbs.

The verbs “hada” (to do) and “ittda” (to exist) have already been discussed; they really build verbs from nouns (eg love + to-do -> to love).

The verb “shipda” (to want to) is used by taking the root of some verb, adding a little glue, and then adding the conjugated form of shipda to form things like “to want to go”, “to want to buy”, etc. In this case, only the verb “shipda” is conjugated.

The verb 주다 (“chuda”), when used alone, means “to give”. However it can also be used with other verbs to request somebody to do something or to express gratitude for some action. A request is formed by using (some-verb-partially-conjugated-in-present-form + chuda-conjugated-in-imperative) eg .. 말해 주세요 (“.. malhay chusayo”) meaning “please speak ..”. It can also be used to express gratitude: “you did (action) so thank you” ie “thank you for doing (action)”.

The verb 보다 (“poda”), when used alone, means “to see/watch” but can be used to form expressions meaning “try (some action)” or “see what happens when (action)”. In the past tense it can mean “I tried (action)” or “I did (action)”. It can also be used to soften a command; in English the command “do X” can be softened to the suggestion “try X” and “poda” can do the same in Korean. It uses the same form as “chuda” above, ie “(verb-partially-conjugated) + (poda-conjugated)”.

This and That

Technically, the words for this/that are also adjectives - they modify a noun. We have:

  • this (a thing near the speaker): (“ee”)
  • that (a thing near the listener): (“gur”)
  • that over there (a thing not near speaker or listener): (“chaw”)

As with an adjective, these words need to be followed by the noun they modify. They can be followed by any noun (“this apple near me”, “that book near you”, “that house over there”). However they are often used with the word “thing”: (“gawt”):

  • this thing near the speaker: 이것 (“eegawt”)
  • that thing near the listener: 그것 (“gurgawt”)
  • that thing over there (not near speaker or listener): 저것 (“chawgawt”)

Yes: 그것 is the same word used for “it”. And yes: is the same word for “him”. And yes, can mean I/me. And yes, can also be a subject marker. The actual meaning needs to be deduced from context.


Despite their name, English adverbs enhance not only verbs but also adjectives or other adverbs with additional attributes such as “quickly”. In English they usually come before the word they modify, but can occasionally come afterward to add different “emphasis”, eg “he quickly ran to the house”, “he turned quickly to the left”. Note that adjectives always apply to nouns, and adverbs never do.

Korean adverbs work just like in English, but always come before the word they qualify. As in English, they always have the same spelling (do not need to be conjugated).

Examples of adverbs:

  • (“chal”) - well
  • (“daw”) - more
  • 빨리 (“bballi”) - quickly
  • 아주 (“ahchu”) - very
  • 조금 (“chogurm”) - a little
  • 정말 (“chawngmal”) - really (similar to “very”)

Examples of adverb usage:

Korean adverbs can also modify other adverbs, in which case they also come before the adverb they modify. This is just like English, eg “he very quickly ran” has identical structure in Korean. Examples:

  • I Korean well speak (qualify a verb)
  • I Korean very well speak (qualify adverb which qualifies a verb)
  • House very small is (qualify an adjective)

And note that the “hada” verbs can be considered either one verb or noun-plus-verb. Therefore adverbs can be placed before the whole thing, or just before the “hada” part (ie in the middle). As an example, the verb “to study” is “(study) + (hada)” and so “to study hard” is “study + hard (adverb) + hada (conjugated)”.

Politeness Levels

There are 7 politeness levels that affect Korean grammar. However only 3 are relevant for spoken Korean. One or two can be found in books and newspaper reports, and the remainder are basically obsolete/archaic.

  • 하십시오체 (“Hasipsio-che”) - known as formal, this level is used when referring to someone older than you, or with authority over you, or otherwise deserving extra respect. Waiters and shop attendants use this with customers. Strangers often address each other in this form.

  • 해요체 (“Haeyo-che”) - known as polite or informal, this level is used when referring to someone younger than you, or subordinate to you, or to acquaintances of the same age. However it can also be used with strangers at a pinch - particularly by foreigners; it’s not actively rude, just lacking in elegance.

  • 해체 (“Hae-che”) - known as casual or intimate, this is used between close friends or family members. In the present tense, verb conjugations are identical to the polite form but without the “-yo” suffix.

  • The plain level can be used by adults talking to children, by children addressing each other, and is also used in written texts. It’s not something for beginners to worry about.

In general, verbs are conjugated at a level depending on the addressee, ie the person being talked to.

As noted in the verb section:

  • formal present tense declarative typically ends in “-mnida”.
  • polite present tense typically ends in “-yo”
  • casual present tense is the polite form without the “-yo”

Any sentence should end with an appropriately polite form depending on addressee. This happens automatically with declarative statements because sentences end with verbs, and verbs are conjugated depending upon addressee. However tweaks are needed for questions, and (polite) commands:

As mentioned earlier, the pronoun for “you” () doesn’t have a formal form. Instead, speakers avoid the use of “you” when addressing someone with respect. One option is to use the person’s name or title; when doing that, the word (not suffix) (“nim”) must follow it: 선생 (teacher) becomes 선생님 (honorable teacher). Titles based on family role are also common, eg 할머니 (grandmother) becomes 할머님 (“honorable grandmother”) - typically used for someone else’s grandmother rather than one’s own. This sounds weird in English, but is standard Korean usage (and Japanese too). Nim can also be used after a person’s name where it is similar to the English “Mr.” : “Park Seokmin nim”.

The honorific “ssi” () can be used instead of “nim” between people of approximately equal status. It’s a touch of politeness/elegance/respect without being overly humble.

Verbs can also be modified with “shi” () to show respect without humility. In this case, this syllable is appended to the verb root before the the verb is conjugated, eg 가시요 instead of 가요. Note that and are different.

You might see the word 존댓말 (“jondaemal”) which is “high speech” - all politeness levels from very-polite to moderate-polite. The alternative is 반말 (“banmal”) which is “low speech” - things used within a family or with very close friends.

To talk about things in the past, there is a different set of verb ending . And to talk about the future, there is yet another set of endings (unlike English which uses auxiliary “will”).

See Wikipedia on Korean Speech Levels for more details.

Sentence Structure

Korean sentences have a word-order that is different from English. They typically have the form “subject object verb”, eg “I pizza eat”, “I home went”. More generally, sentences are typically structured “subject location time object verb”. However due to the use of “markers” for important nouns (subject, object, time, place), sentences can be put together in just about any desired order - as long as the verb is at the end.

Korean sentences also tend to put the most important words at the end, with the least-informative (and most redundant) words moving to the start of the sentence. And as noted earlier, Korean often leaves out words where they are implied by the context; the candidates to leave out will be those words which are (or otherwise would be) near the start of the sentence.

English sentences often indicate the roles of words using word-ordering, eg “the cat ate the bird” is quite different from “the bird ate the cat”. As noted above, this problem doesn’t occur in Korean due to explicit subject and object markers.

Because most of the present tense polite verb suffixes end in “yo”, and verbs are always found at the ends of sentences, Korean has a distinct sound even if you don’t know the language - just listen for “yo” before each (inter-sentence) pause.

As noted earlier, markers are used to indicate the role of words in a sentence. The sentence “the book is on the desk” is:

책은 책상 위에 있어요

which grammatically is:

Book (책) subjectmarker (은) desk (책상) on-top (위) location-marker (에) verb-to-exist-at-in-polite-form (있어요)

Verbs as Nouns

It is common for a word to be both a verb and a noun. For example, in the sentence “I like pizza”, pizza is a noun and the object of the verb “to like”. However it is also possible to say “I like running”; the word “running” is also the object of the sentence - and can be derived from the verb “to run” in two ways:

  • verb-root + + (object-marker)
  • verb-root + +

And yes, in this first case marks the object not the default subject.


A particle is a piece of grammar that can be appended to a word to affect the meaning of the word or sentence. The topic/subject/object markers are particles, and there is quite a range of other useful ones including:

  • (“doh”) - too/also/even (often used with pronouns or proper names)
  • (“eh”) - appended to place-nouns indicating “at (place)”, “in (place)” or “to (place)”
  • 에사 (“ehsah”) - appended to time-nouns indicating “at (time)”, “on (date/day)” or “in (year)”

The topic/subject/object particles are used only when there is no other particle present, ie are replaced by them.


Verbs can generally be turned into their opposites by preceding them with the article (choose not to, ie won’t/don’t) or (am unable to, ie can’t). This is very much like English: “I don’t eat meat, I can’t eat nuts”.

However some verbs have quite different forms to express the opposite, eg 알다 (to know - “alda”) and 모르다 (to be ignorant of - “moreuda”).

And there are also modifiers that can be inserted into the middle of a verb to negate its meaning. The concept of “verb modifiers” was discussed in the section on verbs; they go between the root and the conjugated ending.

Statements that use the verb “to be” (ida) can be inverted just by using the verb “to not be” (anida): “he father is” -> “he father is-not”. This is really an example of using an “an” prefix for verbs, but is a particularly common case.

Asking Questions

In English, statements and questions usually use different word orders: “You like dogs.” vs “Do you like dogs?”. Korean sentences do not change the word order for a question; it is the same as a statement.

What does happen is that some conjugations (which depend on tense and politeness-levels) have specific verb suffixes for indicating that a sentence is a question. For example, in the present formal interrogative, suffix “imnikka” must be used.

However some conjugations, and in particular the present polite, do not have a special suffix; instead a statement becomes a question just by raising the voice at the end (spoken) or adding a question-mark (written): “You like dogs?”.

There is also, like English, a set of “question words”: what/who/when/where/how/why. These can be placed at the start of a sentence: “Who you are”? However they can also be placed within a sentence: “The exam when is?”. Because of the use of markers in Korean, the sentence structure is more flexible than English ie words can be arranged to place the most important words at the start of the sentence for emphasis without confusing the listener/reader about which role each word plays because the roles are explicitly annotated with markers.


As noted in the section on alphabets, numbers are written in the same was as in English.

However there are two quite separate ways of speaking numbers: the “native korean” way and the “sino-korean” way. And as in English, it is possible to write down numbers using the spoken form (equivalent to writing “twenty-four” instead of “24”).

The “sino” (chinese) form is easier to deal with, particularly for larger values. The native korean way is therefore commonly used for smaller amounts, but people switch to the chinese form for larger values. Exactly where the changeover point lies apparently depends on age and cultural background with different groups of people choosing different switch-over points. It is therefore important to be able to understand both. However in general sino-korean is used for values larger than 10.

The native korean form is always used to count specific kinds of things, eg ??.

The sino-korean way has words for zero, one, .. ten, hundred, thousand. Eleven is ten-one, twelve is ten-two, twenty is two-ten, thirty-five is three-ten-five, etc - all very logical. After nine-ten-nine comes hundred, then hundred-one, three-hundred-four-ten-five, etc.

The native Korean way is, like English, a little quirkier. There are words for 1..10, and then specific words for 20, 30, 40, 50, etc. Values such as 23 are (logically) the word for 20 and the word for 3.

Random Notes


The consonant or pair of consonants following the vowel in a syllable (if any) is called a “batchim” (받침). Or in other words, a syllable with 2 letters always ends in a vowel and has no batchim, while any syllable with 3 or 4 letters has a batchim and does not end in a vowel.

There are some special rules about pronouncing letters (consonants) when in batchim position. In particular:

  • in a “double” batchim (one with two consonants) the second consonant is often silent
  • strong letters (ㅋㅌㅍ ie K/D/P) are reduced to their standard form (ㄱㄷㅂ)
  • aspirants (ㅅㅈㅎie s/zh/h) are converted to ㄷ(d)

However if the syllable following a batchim starts with a silent consonant then the last (or maybe only) letter of the batchim effectively replaces that silent consonant on the following syllable. A silent batchim-second-consonant is then pronounced, and a “modified” batchim-single-consonant regains its usual pronunciation.

Many tutorials use the expression “ends in a vowel” and “has a batchim” interchangeably. For example, subject-marker “oen” is used when following a batchim, and “noen” when no batchim is present - ie when following a vowel.

First-Person-Subject-Marker Special Cases

The first-person pronoun has been discussed earlier, including the “humble” and “plain” forms. As with any noun, a subject marker can be appended to them - and this is in fact very common, as “I” is often the subject of a sentence.

When combined with the topic-marker, things work as expected:

  • + -> 저극 (“chaw” + “nurn” => “chawnurn”)
  • + -> 나는 (“nah” + “nurn” => “nahnurn”)

However when combined with the subject-marker, the results are irregular:

  • + -> 제가 (“chaw” + “ga” => “chehga”)
  • + -> 내가 - and (for unknown reasons) this is _not_ pronounced "nay-ga" as expected but like 니가` (“nee-ga”).

Because-of / Due-to

Sentences like “I am rich because I won the lottery” or “thank you for helping me” are effectively two sentences joined together. Korean does the same, but in the reverse order (cause then consequence) ie effectively what “so” does in English: “I won the lottery so I am rich” or “you helped me so thank you”. This “so” is written (“sa”).

Verb Conjugation Rules for Present Polite Declarative

This is advanced stuff, but for reference here is how to conjugate verbs in the “present polite declarative” mode.

While this is somewhat complicated, it is the most complex ending to learn. Once you have mastered this, learning the other modes is relatively easy - just a day or two’s practice and you can then apply all of your existing vocabulary in the new mode. And the present-informal-polite-declarative is generally the most useful; it’s for making statements about what is currently happening, or about what usually happens. Examples: “This coffee is too hot” or “I like spicy food”.

Other modes you will need eventually:

  • present polite interrogative (asking questions)
  • present polite imperative (giving suggestions, polite commands)
  • past informal polite declarative/interrogative/imperative
  • future informal polite declarative/interrogative/imperative
  • present/past/future formal (for strangers and persons of authority)

Note that “ends in a vowel” and “does not have a batchim” are equivalent statements..

Note also that the continuing tense (“I am eating” is different from “I eat”) is done by ??

Case 1: last syllable contains or (ah/o)

When the last syllable of the root of a verb contains vowel or : append 아요. Then:

  • if the root ended in then replace the 아아 with just one .
  • if the root ended in then replace the 오아 with


  • 알다 to know (“alda”) -> 알아요 (“arahyo”)
  • 좋다 (adjective) to be good (“zhohda”) -> 좋아요 (“zhoahyo”)
  • 가다 to go (“kahda”) -> 가요 (“kahyo”) – note the eliminated double ah
  • 보다 to watch (“poda”) -> 봐요 (“poahyo”) – note the combined oh+ah

Case 2: last syllable contains any other vowel

When the last syllable of the root of a verb contains any vowel other than or , and the syllable does not end in : append 어요. Then:

  • if the root ended in any of 애어여 then just drop the new - ie the conjugation is verb-stem +
  • if the root ended in then combine the and into
  • if the root ended in then combine and into


  • 먹다 to eat (“mawkda”) -> 먹어요 (“mawkawyo”)
  • 저다 to stand (“zhawda”) -> 저요 (“zhawyo”) - ie dropped second
  • 주다 to give (“zhooda”) -> 줘요 (“zhuawyo”)

Case 3: last syllable ends in (“ur”)

When the last syllable of the root of a verb directly ends in (ie there is no batchim) then remove that vowel and follow the other rules using the vowel from the preceding syllable. When there is no preceding syllable then just add 아요.


  • 고프다 to be hungry -> 고파요 (because the relevant vowel is )
  • 크다 to be large / to grow -> 카요

Case 4: 하다 (“hada”) verbs

The verb 하다 (“hada”) means to-do. There are also many other verbs which end in “hada”. They all follow the same rule:

  • 하다 to do (“hada”) -> 해요 (“hey-yo”)

That’s it, for all verbs ending in 하다 (“hada”).

Case 5: 이다 (“ida”)

As in many languages, the verb “to be” follows its own rules.

In all of the cases above, the “casual” form is simply the “polite” form without the “-yo” ending. However “ida” has different conjugations. In addition, it changes depending on whether the previous noun ends in a consonant (batchim) or vowel (no batchim).

  • casual after consonant: 이야 (“ee-ya”)
  • casual after vowel: (“ya”)
  • polite after consonant: 이에요 (“ee-eh-yo”)
  • polite after vowel: 예요 (pronounced “eh-yo” as expected and not “yey-yo” as written)
  • formal: 입니다 (“imnida”)

Case 6: irregular verbs

Verb with stems which end in often but not always follow a pattern of discarding the and then adding the syllable .

And there are a few verbs that just don’t follow the rules. Examples

  • 듣다 to listen (“durdda”) -> 들어요 (“durlawyo”) - the changes to an for no reason
  • 쓰다 to write (“ssurda”) -> 써요 (“sawyo”) - the gets dropped
  • 모르다 to not know (“molurda”) -> 몰라요 (“mollahyo”) - no clear reason why!

Formal Verb Conjugations

  • polite endings:
    • declarative: `` (“ehyo”)
    • interrogative: same as declarative
    • prepositive: `` (“??”)
    • imperative: `` (“??”)
  • formal endings:
    • declarative: 습니다 (“surmnida”)
    • interrogative: 십니까 (“shimnika”)
    • prepositive: 습시다 (“surmshida”)
    • imperative: 시요, 십시오 (“shiyo”/”simshio”)

It’s good to know these endings even if you don’t know the full conjugation.

Note in particular that although it was said earlier that a statement can be turned into a question just by changing the inflection, in the formal case it is also necessary to change the “surmnida” to “shimnika”.


As described earlier, the sounds of the Korean language are different from English, but not extremely so. While it’s a generalisation, letters are generally “softer” than their nearest English equivalents.

The “strong” variants of some Korean consonants (ㅋㅌㅍ) are like their base forms (K, T, B) but pronounced with a puff of breath (“aspirated consonants”). Think of the extra line as indicating breath.

The “double” variants of some Korean consonants (ㄲㄸㅃ) reintroduce the tension that English has by default, and the result is quite similar to English K, T, or B. It is important not to use a “puff of breath” when pronouncing these - they are tense, not “aspirated”. One good tip I read is to think of the strong consonant as being like the “D” in Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” - a sudden explosion of sound (though not necessarily loud). Maybe it is also helpful to consider like the “C” in “Crack!” and like either the “B” in “Bang!” or “P” in “Pow!”.

The sounds of letters are somewhat affected by the surrounding letters; the way the mouth moves from its earlier position and then as it prepares for the next sound affects the intermediate one - and maybe fools the ear too. We do tend to concentrate on, and practice, letters when they are at the start of a word but it’s important to concentrate on their sound when elsewhere too.

Terminal Consonants (Sound Change Rule)

For syllables with a Batchim, the last consonant is “cut off” very abruptly - it is pronounced, but without any “trail-off”.

However there are some consonants whose sound cannot easily be “cut off”. These are also the consonants whose sound can be “carried on” for as long as you like: (“ssss…”), (“zhhhhhh…”), (“hhh….”). Therefore these consonants are replaced by (“d”) which does have a clear cut-off.

The strong consonants (which are pronounced with a puff of breath) have a similar issue; they also cannot be “cut off”. Therefore they all become their non-strong version.

However the above rule does not apply if the consonant can “flow into” the next syllable, ie if:

  • the next syllable starts with the silent consonant (in which case the consonant “moves to” the next syllable), or
  • the next syllable starts with the same consonant (in which case it becomes a double).

Some Useful Verbs


  • 이다 - to be (“eeda”)
  • 아니다 - to not be (“aneeda”)
  • 듣다 - to listen (“durdda”)
  • 모르다 - to not know (“moreuda”)
  • 하다 - to do (“hada”)


  • 좋하다 - to like (“choahada”)
  • 말하다 - to speak (“malhada”)


  • 있다 - to exist (“itda”)
  • 없다 - to not exist (“awpda”)
  • 가다 - to go (“kada”)
  • 먹다 - to eat (“mawkda”)
  • 보다 - to see/watch (“poda”)
  • 알다 - to know (alda)
  • 쓰다 - to write (“ssurda”)

Helper verbs:

  • “shipda” - to want to do some other action
  • “chuda” - used to form requests

Some Useful Descriptive Verbs (adjectives)

  • 좋다 - good (“chohda”)
  • 나쁘다 - bad (“nahbburda”)
  • 괜찮다 - fine/ok (“kwaynCHahnhda”)
  • 덥다 / 더워요 - hot weather (“durwaryo”)
  • 춥다 / 추워요 - cold weather (“chuwaryo”)
  • hot (to touch)
  • cold (to touch)
  • warm
  • cool
  • 짜다 / 짜요 - cheap (“ssahyo”)
  • 비짜다 / 비짜요 - expensive (“bissahyo”)
  • 느리다 / - slow/low-velocity
  • 빠르다 / 빨라요 - fast/quick/high-velocity (“bballayo”)
  • busy (“bahppurda”)
  • unbusy (“hahnkahhada”)
  • red
  • green
  • blue
  • black
  • white
  • 고프다 / 고파요 - hungry (“kopahyo”)
  • satisfied (not hungry)
  • empty
  • full
  • 작다 / 작아요 - (physically) small (“zhahkahyo”)
  • 크다 / 카요 - (physically) big (“kkahyo”)
  • 적다 / 적어요 - a small amount/sparse (“zhawkawyo”)
  • `` - a large amount/plentiful (“mahnahyo”)
  • 좋다 / 좋와요 - good/nice (“zhoahyo”)
  • 맛있다 맛있어요 - tasty/delicious (“masissawyo”)
  • 멋없다 - not tasty (“mahsawbsawyo”)
  • 소금이 든 - salty
  • sweet
  • sour
  • spicy
  • loud (“chikkursawbda”)
  • quiet (“choyonghada”)
  • 쉽다 - simple (“sweebda”)
  • 어렵다 - complex (“awryawbda”)
  • easy-physically
  • difficult-physically (“himdurlda”)
  • young
  • old
  • new
  • used
  • clean/free-from-dirt (“kkAkkurshada”)
  • dirty (“dawrawbda”)
  • clean/tidy (“kkahlkkurmhada”)
  • far (“mawlda”)
  • near (“kakkabda”)
  • pretty (“yehbburda”)
  • beautiful (“ahrurmdahbda”)
  • cute (“gwiyawbda”)
  • long (“kilda”)
  • short (chchahrbda”)
  • high (“noppda”)
  • low (“nahchda”)
  • heavy (“mukawpda”)
  • light (“kahbyawpda”)
  • 재미있다 - fun/enjoyable (“chaemi-issawyo”)
  • 정완하다 / 정완해요 - accurate/correct (“chawngwahn-haeyo”)
  • 행복하다 - happy (“haengbok-haeyo”)
  • 술프다 - sad