Despite its resemblance to Chinese at first glance, the Korean language is actually not pictographic at all. It is comprised of an incredibly easy to read phonetic alphabet of 21 vowels and 19 consonants with rules which can be thought of as easy start, but very difficult to master. While reading Korean and saying basic phrases may seem simple, using your trusty translator is not always the wisest move. As with every language, culture and context comes into play and ignoring these could get you into a lot of trouble. Here are ten words where you should probably dig a little deeper before blurting out their direct translations:
Direct Translation: Hyeong / 형
While ‘hyeong’ could be a possible translation for the word ‘brother,’ this is one of those cases where culture matters. For starters, there are a number of ways to say this word depending on who is talking. A male speaking to his older brother would say “hyeong” while a female would say “oppa / 오빠.” The terms for brother only apply if speaking to someone older than you, as someone younger would be addressed by their first name, or “dongseng” (literally: younger sibling) by either sex.
While this is easy enough to remember, it gets more confusing. Korea is a communal culture where the lines of family are extended to broader terms than they would in the English speaking world. Consequently, any slightly older male figure that you respect or is family would (and should) be referred to as Oppa or Hyeong. This leads to very confusing conversations where people refer to countless males as their brothers, leading you to believe they have an extremely large family.
Direct Translation: Chingu / 친구
How many friends do you have? If you are speaking in Korean, you likely have a lot more than you would expect, and not necessarily people you like. You see, while the Korean word chingu includes that 1st grade buddy you have known for 20 years, it also includes everyone else in that classroom, whether you like it or not.
This word ties back to this list that explained how age works in Korea. In brief, you are born at 1 and add an additional year to yourself every New Year’s Day, with your birthday having no effect on your age. Everyone who is the same age, consequently born on the same calendar year, is chingu. This leads to very strange phrases such as “I never liked that friend” or people yelling out “friend” upon meeting someone new and learning their age.
So, if you were born on January 1st and you meet someone who is born on December 31st of the previous year, they are referred to with this honorific word for brother, despite them being only a day older than you.
8) You Are Welcome
Direct Translation: CheonManeyo / 천만에요
Whenever someone thanks us, we feel that the most polite thing to do would be to say “you are welcome.” If you think about it though, this is kind of odd and redundant. Someone does something good, so we show appreciation, and it is only polite to show appreciation for the appreciation?
For this reason, although the word exists, it is almost never used in Korean. Throw around CheonManeyo’s around and you are likely to get blank stares or the polar opposite, appreciation for your appreciation of the appreciation! A more common response is a simple ‘Ne’ which means yes, but many more things… which leads to…
Direct Translation: Ne or Ye / 네 or 예
As your ears are first getting accustomed to listening to Korean, you might think that Koreans are extremely agreeable people. They seem to say ‘ne’ for EVERYTHING. In fact, there could be entire conversations with ‘ne’ as the only word spoken in response. While ‘ne’ literally means yes, it is far more diverse than that in Korean.
Ne can mean: “Yes, I agree, really?, awww, okay, let’s do it,” and so on. To add to the confusion, the length of the ‘ne’ also has meaning, with a longer ‘nnneeeeeeee’ generally being more polite.
Direct translation: Annyeonghi Kaseyo / 안녕히가세요
‘Goodbye,’ much like real estate, is all about location, location, location. While in English, we have made it so that any two people talking to each other can end their meeting with ‘goodbye,’ the situation of the ‘goodbye’ is important in Korean.
If you are the one staying somewhere, and the other person is leaving, ‘Annyeonghi Kaseyo’ is correct, as it literally means “go in peace.” However, if you are the one who is leaving, you would say ‘annyeonghi kyeseyo’ which literally means “stay in peace.” The logic of just copying what the other person says doesn’t work here as the verb “ka” means to go, and if you are in a convenience store for example, the clerk isn’t going anywhere. If this is too much to remember though, a long ‘nnnneeeeeee’ is also acceptable!
5) I Hate
Direct translation: Shiro / 싫어
Would you like some pizza? “I hate it!” How about some pasta? “shiro!” These responses seem a bit extreme in English and are mostly associated with the rant of a 5 year old spoiled only child, but they can be completely normal responses in Korean.
You see, in Korean, there are different words for ‘hate’ to be used when talking about a person or a suggestion. In this case, the direct translation of “I hate that idea” is more appropriately translated as “I really don’t feel like it” or “I am not in the mood for that.” While this, combined with item #7 might lead you to believe that Koreans are very bipolar people, rest assured, it is all a misunderstanding.
4) Hard (having a hard time)
Direct translation: Himdeureo / 힘들어
“I am having a hard time with…” is easy enough to translate into “Blah blah blah himdeureo.” However, if you attempt the reverse, you start running into some problems. As mentioned in the introduction paragraph, the Korean language is simple and complex at the same time. There are no articles (a, the, an) and phrases can often be trimmed down for fluency of speech.
Translating “I am having a difficult time at home” from Korean into English turns into “I am hard at home” or if you take out the ‘at home,’ simply “I am hard.” This would not be as ‘big’ of a problem if there weren’t countless innuendos associated with this phrase, and a plethora of follow up inappropriate comments.
3) My / Our
Direct translations: Nae or Uri / 내 or 우리
Whether we realize it or not, we are a very possessive society. ‘MY wedding,’ ‘MY father,’ and even ‘MY meal’ are phrases which aren’t said in Korean as often as they are in English because of the cultural difference of communal thinking mentioned earlier. Instead, often times the word ‘uri’ meaning ‘our’ is used to express that something is shared and not personally owned.
While weddings and fathers are not things that really come up every day (in terms of possession), claiming something to be YOUR meal is not only strange, but can lead to unintended faux pas. If you are in a Korean restaurant and desire a soda for example, you should probably ask anyone else if they want the same flavor because whether you like it or not, you might be forced to share. Use ‘my’ tactfully to avoid cultural insensitivity.
Direct translation: Michin / 미친
“Girl, you are so crazy” is something English speakers would say without thinking twice. It is almost said in appreciation for someone who is bold enough to do something spontaneous and unusual. However, saying this to a Korean person, especially a girl (and heaven forbid, someone you are dating) is asking to get your head cut off. Michin is the literal translation of crazy, which is to be insane. To call someone crazy is questioning their sanity and can be extremely offensive. Unfortunately, in this case, sticking to the English word will do you no good as most Koreans will recognize the word and associate it with “michin.” Better think of something else, but don’t call someone crazy, or they will actually turn crazy on you.
1) Eighteen (18)
Direct translation: Ship-pal / 십팔
This one is a little tricky as the actual translation is not the problem, but the pronunciation. The number eighteen is pronounced Ship-pal. While a Korean could probably pronounce it correctly, our poor Anglo vocal cords are wired a little differently. Unfortunately, if you say this number with even the slightest error in pronunciation, it sounds an awful lot like the F word in Korean (shi-bal / 씨발). It is actually so similar even amongst Koreans, that ’18’ is often used as slang on chat rooms and video games to replace the F word. Do yourself a favor and avoid the need to say 18 in Korean, it just isn’t worth the risk.
Now is probably a good time to mention that I am just a beginner in Korean. While I did cross reference this with a Korean speaker, let me know if you find any mistakes. Also, share if you know any other words which you probably should not google-translate!