Skip to main content

Korean Names, and Crazy Language Idiosyncrasies

Korean names are tough for non-Koreans. Before I came to Korea, I used to just be pretty bad at remembering Korean names, because they don't vary as much from one another as Western names tend to. I'm fine with remembering Korean names now, but Koreans have an annoying habit of making it exceedingly difficult to learn their names.

The first problem is that you never know what form of someone's name you're going to get. If I ask a Korean what their name is, sometimes they give me their English name, sometimes they give me their name in standard Korean family name/given name order, and sometimes they give me their Korean name in Western given name/family name order. It's most annoying when they give an English name that they don't actually use, because then you won't know when someone is calling them with their Korean name. If they give you both English and Korean names, you now have twice as many names to remember. And a lot of Korean names said backwards (i.e., given name/surname) are actually valid Korean names forwards, so you need to clarify with them which part is their given name, since it's inconsistent when Koreans speak with foreigners.

For the sake of people trying to learn Korean names, let's just make it easier. If a foreigner asks you your name, tell them your Korean name in standard family name/given name order, and optionally follow it up with, "But please call me " if you really do prefer to be called something different.

Of course, it's near impossible to learn people's names by listening to conversations, since everyone calls each other "older sister", "older brother", "teacher", etc.

Anyway, in a totally unrelated topic, for some reason the Korean word for "sweetheart" is the same as the word for "self". I found this quite confusing at first - I'd hear people at coffee shops talking about 자기 (chagi) this and 자기 that, and I wasn't sure if they were talking about other people or themselves, since one of the first homework assignments we had in class was a 자기 소개, or a self-introduction (or were we supposed to introduce our significant others? hmm). It turns out that when used to mean "self", it's almost always used in a third-person sense, such as, "She thinks so highly of herself. She has some serious 공주병 going on." But you can complicate it further by talking about your sweetheart and what they think of themselves, which would use the same word 자기 for two totally different meanings. Context is super important in Korean.

아이고. Need to study more.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why Korean Is Hard For Native English Speakers

A couple of days ago, as an experiment, I wrote my first blog post ever in a non-English language. It was an attempt to explain some of the reasons that Korean is hard to learn for native English speakers, so I figured I might as well try to write it in Korean. Those of you who actually read Korean can see how awkward the attempt was =).

In any case, the post came from an email conversation I had with The Korean from Ask a Korean, a fantastically well-written blog about all things Korea from the perspective of a Korean who moved to the United States during high school. Since I tend to geek out on language things, I figured I might as well post part of that conversation. An edited version follows.

---------

Out of the languages that I've attempted to learn so far, Korean has been the hardest. I've done a lot of meta thinking about learning Korean, and I think there are a number of reasons it's difficult for non-Koreans (and especially Westerners) to learn:

1) Obviously, the…

Don't Take Korean Language Advice From Kyopos

I'm not sure why it took me so long to figure this out, but the last people you should take Korean language advice from are kyopos (foreign-born or raised Koreans). That being said, if you do follow their advice, you will get many laughs from Koreans. Some of my personal favorites, all of which actually happened to me:

- When I first got to Korea, I was at some open-air event, and during a break I started talking to one of the hosts. He said he was only a part-time host, so I asked him what his full-time job was, and he said "백수" (which is slang for "unemployed guy"). I asked him what that was, and he replied, "Comedian". So then the next few people I met, I proudly told I was a baeksu. (Edit: Actually, this guy was Korean Korean, not kyopo.)

- Next, a kyopo who lived in the apartment I moved into back in 2010 asked me what I was doing in Korea, and I told him I was starting a company, and asked how to say that in Korean in case people ask. He told me…

Is It Worth It To Learn Korean?

Learning Korean as a non-Asian foreigner is an exercise in masochism. Note that I specify "non-Asian". Why does that make a difference? Simply because Koreans possess a deeply-ingrained belief that non-Asians are incapable of speaking Korean. The self-fulfilling prophecy of it is that since Koreans expect you to be incapable of speaking Korean, due to this mental block, they are likely to not understand you regardless of your proficiency level. Additionally, they won't respond to you with normal Korean like they would respond to an Asian person, because they assume you couldn't possibly understand. You will rarely ever have an opportunity to hear natural Korean, because Koreans simply won't speak it with you unless 1) they are open-minded and awesome (meaning they have probably lived abroad - thank you to all of you), or 2) they have known you long enough that they've gotten past the odd sight of a foreigner speaking Korean.

In short, nearly every time you op…