The Beginner’s Toolbox

Here’s a collection of miscellaneous notes about the Korean language that are either fun to know, helpful to understand from the get-go, or both.

Plurals

There is a way to indicate that something is plural in Korean. The particle to use for that is “-들”, but it is not always used. Just because you see a noun without -들 at the end of it, that does not necessarily mean it’s a singular noun. If the context makes it clear that we’re talking about more than 1 item, 들 isn’t necessary.

Example:

Filter: “너의 을 나의 으로 포개” ~ “with my hands folded over your eyes

Neither 눈 (eye) or 손 (hand) have 들 attached to indicate that they are plural, but you really wouldn’t be saying “with my hand folded over your eye”. Context makes it clear.


Definite vs. Indefinite

The words “a” and “the” do not exist in Korean. When I first started learning Korean, this, coupled with the lack of plurals, made my head spin. If someone says to me, “남자 잘생기다.” How do I know if they’re telling me the guy standing three feet away is handsome or if they’re telling me they think men in general are handsome? The answer to this, and almost everything in Korean, is context. Context makes it clear.

Subject and object marking particles also help, and the words 이, 그, and 저, which mean “this”, “that (thing we were talking about before)”, and “that (thing that we can see across the room)”. But mostly, context.

Example:

Singularity: “나 문득 호수로 달려가.” ~ “I suddenly run to the lake

Why isn’t it “I suddenly run to a lake”? or “I suddenly run to lakes in general?” Well, it’s not the second one because that’s nonsensical, and it’s not the first one, because this line comes in the second verse of the song, after we’ve already been talking about a lake, so obviously we’re still talking about the same lake. Context.


Adjectives

Adjectives in Korean are really “descriptive verbs”. What does that mean? Well, let’s take an example word: “happy”. How do we use this in a sentence? We add a subject and a verb.

Subject: “I”

Verb: “to be”

Adjective: “happy”

Complete sentence: “I am happy.”

So how do we say “I am happy” in Korean? The dictionary form of the word for happy is “행복하다”. But in Korean, this word encapsulates not just the adjective but also the verb “to be”. So the meaning of “행복하다” is “to be happy”. All we need to add is a subject: “나” (I) and a subject marker “는”: “나는 행복하다”.

If you’re a keen follower of all things Bangtan, you may have seen an American interview BTS did in early 2020 where they were asked to say something to themselves 7 years in the future. Jungkook said in English, “Please happy,” and then corrected himself to “Please be happy.” Understanding that adjectives include the verb “to be” in Korean explains why he made that little slip in English.


Finding the root

When conjugating, or adding any grammatical principles to verbs and adjectives in Korean, it all gets added to the root of the word, rather than to its dictionary form. How do you find the root? Simple. Every verb and adjective, without exception, ends in 다 in its dictionary form. Just drop the 다 and you have the root.

Examples:

“to be curious”: Dictionary form: 궁금하다. Root: 궁금하

“to run”: Dictionary form: 달리다. Root: 달리


Dropped pronouns

Koreans love to make their sentences as short as possible, so you’ll see lots of sentences with no pronoun to indicate who the subject of the sentence is. The rule is this: when no subject pronoun is included in a sentence, the assumption is that the person speaking is the subject unless context makes it abundantly clear that someone else is the subject.

Example:

Pied Piper: “넌 나 없인 못 사니까. 다 아니까.” – “Because you can’t live without me. I know it all.”

In the first sentence “넌” (you) is the subject. But in the second sentence, there is no pronoun used. Because of the rule we just learned, we know that in the second sentence, the speaker is talking about themself, even though the subject of the previous sentence was someone else.

It took me WAY too long to learn this and that caused a lot of headache. I hope I’ve saved you from that.


Compound verbs

You will see these all the time in Korean. Two or more verbs get smashed together to create a word that has a more specific meaning than either of the verbs individually. If you look up a multi-syllable verb in the dictionary and can’t find it, take a closer look and see if it might be two or more verbs put together. Some of the more common compound verbs are found in the dictionary, but others are not.

Two really common examples are: “가져오다” and “가져가다”.

가지다 = to have, to carry

오다 = to come

가다 = to go

When you add “to come” to “to have/to carry”, you get 가져오다, or “to bring”. Using the same logic, 가져가다 means “to take”.

So why does the root of the first verb look a little different when you add the second verb? That’s due to the rules of grammar when adding something to a word root. It’s a bit complicated. I’ll explain it in a separate lesson.

But where have you seen these two words?

ON: “가져와! Bring the pain on!” It looks a smidge different, because it’s conjugated, but it means, “Bring it!”

Blood Sweat & Tears: “내 피 땀 눈물, 내 마지막 춤을, 다, 가져가.” ~ “My blood, sweat, tears, my last dance, everything, take it.


Respect

When speaking Korean, it’s extremely important to use the correct level of respect when addressing others. As a default, anyone who is older than you or who is in a position of authority should be spoken to with a higher level of formality than the casual speak you would use with people your age and younger.

There are certain grammatical rules when speaking with higher respect. I won’t teach them here, because as a general rule BTS songs (and Korean pop music in general) are sung in 반말, or casual language.


A spot of English grammar

I know grammar is the worst to many people, but here’s just a super quick refresher of something important that you need to understand to construct a sentence.

The “subject” of a sentence is the one doing the action.

The “object” of a sentence is the one having an action done to them.

Every sentence requires a subject, but not every sentence requires an object.


Bangtan Korean beginner's toolbox