March 14, 2015

Happy Pi Day: The Many Faces of Pi in Korean

Yes, it’s true, 3.1415 (etc.) has its very own day. What does a person with an interest in the Korean language do to celebrate the day of pi? Glad you asked!

symbol for pi



Pronounced the same as:
slice of a pie

But in Korean pronounced:





And meaning:
A red-colored drop



피 (blood)


A blue-colored drop



비 (rain, sometimes Romanized as bi, but sounding a whole lot like 피).

March 8, 2015

Mobile Upgrade

I added some new colors and layout to the mobile version of Mobile users, please let me know if it isn’t user-friendly in any way!

February 18, 2015

Korean Lunar New Year

A bowl full of 3 inch oblong dried rice cakesThe bowl to the right is filled with 떡 (tteok) – dried rice cakes. They are made from rice flour dough that is pounded a lot, then rolled out into long dough snakes which are cut crosswise, or diagonally, like the ones in the picture.

Rice cakes are used to make tteokguk 떡국 (국 = soup ), the New Year’s soup that you eat to grow a year older. I have never made them into actual soup because you have to soak them for 12 hours first, and I am not that patient. Perhaps Koreans use fresh rice cakes that are still moist. I have seen the long white tubes on sale with other fresh Asian pastas in many stores in Chinatown.

Today (yesterday in Korea) begins a 5-day holiday to celebrate the lunar new year (설날). Much like Thanksgiving in the U.S., this is one of those holidays that everyone gets off from work, and most people travel to spend with 가족 (family). The Korean news this morning was all about heavy traffic and extended drive times all over Korea. Along with lots of food, there is an ancestor-honoring ceremony called charye (차례) – you have doubtless seen young people in 한복 bowing to grandparents in dramas many times.

Here’s a fun fact I just learned. Most of the time, Korean lunar new year is the same as lunar new year in other Asian countries, but not always. If the moment of the new moon falls close to midnight, this can cause Korean lunar new year to be a day later than in countries west of Korea in different time zones, such as China and Viet Nam.

Which reminds me, is three years old on Friday.’s birthday is so close to the lunar new year (which changes each year) that I have not even attempted to calculate its age in Korean years. We’ll just stick to the calendar for this one!

February 10, 2015

Korean Newsurreal

There were three major news stories in Korea today. North Korea fired some test missiles, the former head of the Korean Intelligence Service was sentenced to three years in prison for meddling with the 2012 presidential election, and a woman taking a nap had her hair eaten by her roomba-equivalent, and had to be extracted by four emergency workers.

Guess which story made the 11 p.m. news in the U.S. tonight?

(The makers of roomba want you to know it was not one of theirs.)

November 25, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Kajok (Family)

Kajok (가족) is our KDrama word for today, and a very central word to Korean drama (and life) it is. The first syllable, kah, is pronounced like the “co” in “cot.” The second syllable is closer to “joke” than to “jock,” bearing in mind also that the final vowel is barely touched upon (which is why you may see it Romanized as kajog or gajog).
A Korean kajok consisting of a man, woman and baby sit in a park with a river and city buildings in the background

In spite of the importance of kajok to just about every Korean drama ever made, the word itself is not heard all that often. Maybe this is because dramatic conflicts often revolve around a particular person or persons in the 가족.

I am debating whether to include words for different family members in our KDrama words series. There are many helpful webpages for these terms already. They can be a lot more complicated than their English equivalents. For example, you can’t just speak of your “brother” in Korean, as there are different words for older and younger siblings. In addition, the word for a woman’s brother is different from the word for a man’s brother!

Words for other kajok members are similarly specific. Terms vary depending on whether they refer to father’s or mother’s relatives. Birth order can also be a factor. Here’s a pretty inclusive page on some of the distinctions. Notice how long it is!

Korean screenwriters depend heavily on these terms to identify relationships between characters. Korean-speaking audiences learn immediately who characters are when they call each other “big brother,” “father’s sister,” “mother’s mother,” etc.

However, these crucial identifying titles are often dropped from subtitles and replaced with personal names. This leaves non-Korean-speaking viewers totally in the dark about how characters are related to one other. We figure it out eventually, but may have missed many key nuances in dialogue by that time.

To complicate matters even further, unrelated people may address each other using family terms. We see co-workers calling older colleagues with whom they are friendly hyeong/oppa and noona/eonni all the time. It is even trickier when friends call each other by sibling terms, since the informality of their relationships makes it easy to mistake them for actual siblings.

I was extremely confused by this when I first started watching Korean dramas. I assumed (not unreasonably, right?) that a child who called an adult man 아저씨 (uncle) was in fact his niece. Hah, if only it were so simple! In fact, characters frequently call total strangers mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather or grandmother. And don’t even get me started on a woman’s use of the word for big brother to address her boyfriend!

So, drama viewers, arm yourself with a comprehensive list of relationship terms like the one linked above. Keep it handy when characters are making their first appearance. Careful listening at the beginning of a drama can save you a lot of confusion later on!

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November 24, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Yeoreum (Summer)

Yeoreum (여름) brings our Koreans seasons series full circle. You’ll remember the ㅕfrom 겨울. The pronunciation is yuh-room (or yaw-room), with a slightly rolled R (여름 is sometimes Romanized as yeoleum).
Bright green rice grass leaves


Korea has monsoon summers, with heavy rain and high humidity. There is nothing comparable in the U.S. For specifics, check out this page on Korean seasons. They claim the 장마 (jangma – rainy season) only lasts a month, but the rainfall charts on this page tell a different story.

I hope you have enjoyed our season miniseries. Korean seasons appear frequently in Korean drama titles, and in all genres of Korean music, from Kpop to folk to trot, and beyond.

This is Thanksgiving week in the U.S., so I’ll try to keep our word selections for the rest of the week seasonal. About 1/2 of mihansa’s readers are in east and southeast Asia. For their benefit, here is what Thanksgiving week in the U.S. is like: Although Thanksgiving Day isn’t until Thursday, travel has already begun, as people pack airports and highways to spend the holiday with families. Most businesses will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, but many people will have the following day day off work, too, so “Black Friday” becomes a day of major sales and intense Christmas shopping. Bad weather, which is common in late November, can complicate matters as everyone returns home.

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November 23, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Bom (Spring)

Bom (봄) is our next Korean season. It is also Romanized as pom, a closer, but less common, English equivalent to the Korean pronunciation. The Korean word for spring rhymes with “dome.”
A twig of cherry blossoms
KDrama likes to associate bom with cherry blossoms and 애인 (ae-een – lovers). However, the trees are controversial in Korea, due to their association with Japan and the Japanese occupation. Cutting down cherry trees planted during that period was at one time symbolic of taking back Korea. Planting cherry species that are native to Korea has become something of a compromise. You will notice that words for other spring flowers appear on this list of Korean words associated with spring, but no cherry blossoms.

Even less welcome in spring are storms of yellow sand (황사 – hwangsa). These storms blow in from deserts of northern China and Mongolia, picking up a heavy load of toxic pollutants along the way. When inhaled, the dust can be seriously injurious to health. If you see a street scene with pedestrians wearing particle masks during bom, that is probably the reason.

Note ㅁ, the M-ish letter in Korean. In small type or handwriting, this letter can be difficult to distinguish from ㅇ, which we discussed yesterday. Watch for squared corners.

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November 22, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Winter (Kyeoul)

Kyeoul (겨울), winter is our KDrama word for today. Does that string of vowels look familiar? You have seen it before in the name of South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul (서울).
Stacked kimchi jars in a snowy valley next to a sign in Korean
You’ll see that the second letter is similar but different in these two words. The ㅓ in Seoul has only one left-facing flag on the vertical, while the ㅕin kyeoul has two. A second flag on a vowel, whether on a horizontal or vertical bar, gives it a Y sound at the beginning. So ㅓ (in Seoul) is pronounced uh or aw, while ㅕ(in kyeoul) is pronounced yuh or yaw. Many Korean vowels have these two forms, which are considered to be two separate letters.

Moving on to the second syllable, in both words, it begins with ㅜ, the “oo” U-letter we talked about in the last post. Kyeoul is pronounced kyuh-ool or kyaw-ool, while Seoul is pronounced suh-ool or saw-ool (NOT “sole,” as most Americans pronounce it). Even though both words have two syllables, the syllables are blended together rather than enunciated separately, so it sounds more like a syllable-and-a-half. You can hear the pronunciation for kyeoul and many other winter-related words on this page.

But wait, you may be thinking. The second syllable doesn’t begin with ㅜ, it begins with ㅇ. Well, yes and no. ㅇ has a dual nature. In theory, Korean syllables must begin with a consonant. When they don’t, ㅇ stands in for the consonant, as a placeholder with no sound. At the end of a syllable, however, ㅇ has an “ng” sound.

Have you learned Hangeul yet? You may have some free time next week, so check out these games:

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November 20, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Fall (Kaeul)

Fall (가을) is 우리 Kdrama Word for today. Korea is definitely a 4-season country, with chilly winters, monsoon summers, fall color, and spring blossoms. You may also see 가을 Romanized as gaeul, but kaeul is a better phonetic spelling. The vowel syllable is partly absorbed into the first syllable, so kah-eul sounds like one syllable with a dragged-out first vowel, rather than two distinct syllables.
Close up photo of oak leaves turned red in fall
Note that the Hangeul letters ㅡ and ㅜ have different U-sounds.
ㅡ is usually Romanized as “eu,” but it is not, strictly speaking, an English-language sound, so it is difficult to Romanize accurately. The English words “eu” appears in are typically loan words from French. The “eu” is often pronounced “oo” in the English version (which is the sound of Hangeul letter ㅜ). Example: entrepreneur. The “eu” sound is formed just inside the lips, while “oo” comes from further back.

What’s a loan word, you may ask? A loan word is a word borrowed from another language (and usually changed a bit along the way). English is full of French loan words and phrases. Some are obviously French, such as deja vu, faux pas, cachet, nouveau riche, hors d’oeuvre, fait accompli, coup d’etat, dossier, memoir, rapport and restaurant. Others are everday words we may not think of as French – mayonnaise, unique, ambulance, denim, pioneer, detour, corduroy, menu, dentist, portrait, route, soup, zest, bicycle, publicity, and salvage, to name just a few. Watch out for words in Korean that seem like loan words of English words that are themselves loan words from another language. Sometimes the Korean word is a loan word of the original word, not the English version.

Somewhere between 50-70% of Korean words are loan words from Chinese, due to a long history of military and economic domination from the west. For this reason, Chinese speakers may be able to understand a great deal of Korean without studying the language. Korean also has many English loan words, especially for technology (like 핸드폰), and other aspects of modern urban life (like 뉴스).

And then there are cognates. Cognates are similar-sounding words in related languages that come from the same root. For example, I am able to understand quite a lot of words in Spanish that I have never studied, because they sound similar to the English words. You have to watch out though, because cognates have sometimes evolved different meanings in different languages, even though they sound similar and came from the same parent word.

And finally, there is Konglish. These days, the term is generally used to describe Korean loan words from English. However, I have read that it originally referred to the clever use of Korean words that sounded like English words to convey a double meaning in English and Korean.

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November 19, 2014

KDrama Words of the Day: Hanok | Hanbok | Haengbok

Hanok (한옥) begins our trio of somewhat similar-sounding KDrama words for today. A 한옥 is a traditional Korean house, as we have all seen in sageuk. The pronunciation of the first syllable is hah, and the o sounds like oak, so “hah-noke” rhymes with awoke.
A well-kept hanok house in the country with a rocky mountain wall behind itThis might be a good time to talk about final consonants in Korean words. English speakers enunciate last consonants completely, often finishing up with a little puff of air (while paying attention to the inside of your mouth, say: cat. Feel it?). For Koreans, on the other hand, the final consonant is barely hinted at, and sometimes not audible at all, unless the next word begins with a vowel.

A hanok house has sliding doors, heated floors, compact bedrooms and is usually all on one story. You can read more about regional differences in hanok design here.

A man and woman wearing Joseon hanbok stand under a tree talkingOur next word, hanbok (한복) is also related to Korean traditions, of dress. We have all seen hanbok in drama, whether historical or set in the present. They turn up on men, women and children, at weddings, at bowing ceremonies (because managing that in a full length skirt shows you really mean it!), and on children at birthday parties. We also see hanbok on pansori singers and traditional Korean dancers. Korean modern styles have been influenced by hanbok in obvious ways (short sweaters with long sleeves, for example), and the influence is beginning to circulate outside of Korea.

Last but not least is haengbok (행복), which is Korean for happy. Haengbok is pronounced pretty much the way it is Romanized, for once! As with 사랑, 결혼, and 이혼, add 하다 to 행복 for the verb form 행복하다 (haengbokhada), “to be happy.”

To top off our post today, we have a charming video of 해피 young Koreans dancing to the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy.”

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