Reading 객주

One of the major focuses in my Korean studies this year has been reading novels.  So far I’ve finished four, and I’m trying to read two more before the year ends.  Right now I’m working on 객주 1권.

객주 1

I’ve gradually been working my way up in difficulty.  I started off with 호빗 (The Hobbit), which being a translation from English, was far from difficult.  I read a couple more books aimed towards  younger audiences, then read 용의 나라.  Each book was somewhat harder than the previous, but it was a good learning curve, and by the end of each book I felt I had no more trouble than the previous.  So, ambitiously, I decided to try the first volume of 객주.

객주 is a 10-volume 장편소설 by 김주영.  It was originally serialized, and it definitely fits in the “literature” category.  It is so much more difficult than the previous novels I’ve read that I’m quite overwhelmed.  It seems ever paragraph is filled with unknown words.  The story takes place in the late 19th century, and this is reflected in a lot of the vocabulary.  The book actually has footnotes to explain some of the words, because even native Koreans aren’t expected to know them all; but most words are not footnoted.  I look up some of the words, but I don’t like to rely on my dictionary too heavily, as it breaks the flow of reading; unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to maintain that flow when there are so many difficult words.

Especially difficult is the dialog.  I can usually make out the meaning of narrative paragraphs (eventually), but when there’s a dialog, I’m lost half the time.  It’s hard enough keeping track of who’s saying what.  But in general, dialog tends to use more difficult expressions and uses a lot of ellipsis, so it’s pretty difficult to understand the intent of a long conversation.

Anyways, I’ll try to persevere for now, but I think I’ll be looking for something a bit easier after I finish volume 1.


Goals for autumn 2013

Time to set some Korean learning goals again, for the rest of the year:

  1. Finish reading the novel I’m working on (용의 나라), and read 1 or 2 more (start 객주 volume 1).
  2. Study vocabulary: Add 10 word cards / week.
  3. Write 1-2 entries / week on lang-8.
  4. Keep language journal regularly, including making 예문 of important vocab and grammar.

In Korean:

  1. 읽고 있는 소설책 “용의 나라” 다 읽고, 1-2 권 더 읽기 (객주 1권부터).
  2. 어휘 공부: 어휘카드 10장/주
  3. lang-8에서 1주일에 1-2개 올리기.
  4. 학습일기 규칙적으로 쓰기 (예: 중요한 어휘/문법 예문을 만들기).


Interesting uses of the plural marker ~들

In Korean, the plural can be marked with the suffix 들, although there are many cases where English would take plural, but Korean does not.  But lately I’ve noticed some really interesting uses of the plural suffix  들 in Korean, being applied to things other than nouns / pronouns.  One example is here:

어서들 와!

Here,  들 is added to the adverb 어서 (quickly).  Literally, this is “Quickly(s), come!” and is often shouted at children.  Not one child, but many; in other words, the plural really seems to apply to the subject, which is missing.

The other day I encountered a really weird use of the plural in a novel I’m reading:

뱀이 천 년간 덕을 쌓으면 용이 된다고들 하는데 …

Rougly translated “They say if a snake does good deeds for 1000 years he’ll become a dragon”, but of course there is no “They” in the sentence; in Korean, it’s easy to use the quotative without a subject, thus not letting us know exactly who is saying it.

What’s interesting is that plural 들 is added to the quotative verb: 용이 된다고들, which is reported speech “it becomes a dragon”, but with 들 on the end.  Which suggests that it’s not one person who says this, but many people, or people in general.  It’s by no means necessary, but it does emphasize that it is people (not one person) who say that a snake might become a dragon.

Well, now that I’ve seen these two, I’m on the lookout for other interesting uses of 들.


Book Review: Dictionary of Korean Idioms (한국어 관용어 사전)

I recently picked up a new book, Dictionary of Korean Idioms by 박규봉 and Michael Elliott (price: ₩28000).

Dictionary of Korean Idioms(한국어 관용어 사전)

The book contains 2013 Korean idioms, including both native Korean phrases like 우물 안 개구리 and 사자성어 (4 character proverbs) like 우이독경/牛耳讀經.  For each one, it includes a literal translation into English, a definition in both Korean and English, and an example in Korean, translated into English.  Some idioms have background notes which explain the origins or cultural aspect of the idiom.

Strengths: The layout is fairly nice, two-coloured (blue and black words).  For some idioms, it’s much easier to find them in this dictionary than in a regular dictionary (although not faster than online dictionaries like or  The definitions are clear, and it’s nice to have the literal translation as well as a more meaningful translation.  The notes about origins are especially helpful.


Idioms are important, but it’s also important to know there usage.  That includes the frequency, register, connotations, etc.  These things are for the most part ignored in this dictionary.  It’d be really useful to know relative frequency.  Some English learner dictionaries now include some frequency information; for example, * for very uncommon words, ***** for very common words.  This is especially important for idioms, because the fact is, some idioms are extremely infrequent.  I did some informal research on idioms in English using a corpus (British National Corpus) and found that even more common idioms are pretty rare; the less common ones are extremely rare.  So if you use this dictionary to learn new idioms, it’d be really nice to have a good idea of which ones are more frequent.

Also, register is really important too.  Some idioms are mostly heard in spoken language, while others would seem extremely out of place if spoken; they’re normally found in written language.  Some idioms are very formal, while others are very informal.  Sometimes you can get a good idea of this; 사자성어 are far more common in written language, for example.  But not always.  So it’d be really helpful if they wrote register information explicitly.

Furthermore, all examples are in the form of a two line dialog.  That is, spoken language.  Since some of the idioms might be really out of place in spoken language, it means some examples can be quite stunted and unnatural.  In the case of more formal idioms, more formal examples would be much more suitable.

All in all a really helpful book.  I wrote a lot more about weaknesses, but that’s really just because I had to justify what I said a bit more; it’s certainly a book worth having, for any serious learner (low intermediate – advanced).

Difficult translations in Korean: Freak

When watching an English movie or drama in Korea, sometimes I like to pay attention to the subtitles.  Sometimes I do so to understand (because it’s almost impossible to hear the dialog in some movies without turning the volume way up; I’ve got young daughters sleeping nearby, so I try to keep the volume down), but sometimes it’s interesting to see how they translate certain things.

So I’ll usually notice certain words that get repeated a lot.  Especially the unusual words, and the hard-to-translate ones.  The English word “freak” seems to be one such word.  It really has some quite strong connotations, and I don’t think most languages have a word that is really the same thing.

I’ve run into this word twice in Korean subtitles (자막).  First, watching “The Dark Knight” a few years ago, in which freak is quite a prominent word, being used to describe The Joker, mostly by himself.  It’s quite an important word in the movie, with The Joker almost relishing the self-description.  Anyways, if I remember correctly, it was translated 변종, which translates back into English as variant, mutant.  It’s often used to describe variants of plant species, etc., and also can be used in a very generic way: one example (예문) in is 야구의 변종, “a variant of baseball”.  Doesn’t really seem as powerful as freak really…

Then this summer I ran into the word again while watching 추리극장: 머덕 미스터리 (Murdoch Mysteries), an excellent Canadian drama that is playing on EBS these days Tuesdays at midnight.  One episode featured a murder in a circus, and as the circus manager describes it, the performers are divided into “freaks” and “normals”.  I think normals was translated as 보통 사람; and freaks was translated as  돌연변이, which translates back as mutant, mutation.  Seems a bit better than  변종, but still not great.

But that’s how it is with certain words.  They have quite specific meaning and connotations, that aren’t there in other languages.  And of course, I’m going partly on what the dictionary says, partly through examples, and partly by instinct, but I’m not a native speaker of Korean, so I’m not authoritative on the issue; perhaps these do create the right connotations for Koreans after all.

Some 사자성어

I’ve been reading a novel about 주몽, the founder of the 고구려 dynasty.  Not great writing really, but pretty light stuff, and good for learning.  One benefit is I run into a lot of 4 character proverbs (사자성어).  Here are a few that seem worthwhile to learn:

日擧兩得     일거양득    Kill 2 birds with one stone (same as 一石二鳥 / 일석이조)

五穀百果    오곡백과     All kinds of grains and fruits; bountiful harvest (lit. 5 grain 100 fruit)

異口同聲     이구동성    Unanimity (lit. different mouth same voice)

靑天霹靂    청천벽력     “Thunderbolt out of a clear blue sky”, a bombshell / surprise from nowhere

驚天動地    경천동지     Earth-shaking, earth-shattering (lit. surprise heaven move earth)

難攻不落     난공불락     impregnable (lit. hard attack no fall)

I wish I could get some frequency data for the 사자성어 in Korean though.  It’d be great to know which ones are most useful to learn.

Lecturing in Korean

For the first time ever, I lectured in Korean this week.  Of course I’ve used a bit of Korean here and there while teaching English, but this time I actually gave a prepared lecture in Korean, lasting about 30 or 40 minutes until the class ended.

The occasion for this was a class I’ve been teaching this semester, 외국어학습법.   Basically, the class is about how to learn a second language, and become an autonomous learner in doing so.  It’s a lot of fun, but there are 50 students in the class, and I don’t really have enough time to make sure everyone is included in class discussion, and make sure everyone is comprehending the lectures.  Since the students greatly range in proficiency, some of them seem to be struggling with the topics.  This week was the last week before the midterm test, so I decided to do an overview lecture in Korean for the students who are having trouble.  The class is 2 hours long, so I spent the last part giving the Korean lecture.

It went well overall, though there were times when it was a bit hard to express my meaning.  I wish I’d recorded myself, so that I could review how I did.  I prepared for it well, but I have quite a fluid style of lecturing, adapting to the audience, asking questions a lot and reacting to their answers.  That makes it impossible for me to plan everything out in advance.  I’ll try to learn from the experience and improve the next time I have such an opportunity.

Polysemy in Korean Verbs

It’s been a while since I’ve written here.  I’ve been pretty busy with the Spring semester.  Anyways, I was looking over my Korean journal recently, and focused a bit on some “polysemous” words.  I’ll take a look at a few of them here.

Polysemy is the phenomenon of words having diverse meaning – broad and branched.  That is, rather than having a single, unitary meaning, words have differing meanings depending on the broad context and on the words around it.  Most words are polysemous to some degree, some much more than others.  Note that polysemy is different from homonymy; two words are homonyms if they look / sound the same, but have completely unrelated meanings.  On the other hand, polysemy refers to the different meanings that a single word has, due to collocation, metaphor and semantic drift.  An English example of bank (of a river) vs. bank (financial institution).  Note the completely different etymologies.  An example of polysemy would be paper, which can refer to a sheet of paper, or a newspaper.  A very polysemous example is “light”.

I try to focus on the different meanings of a word sometimes in my studies.  Here are a few from my journal:

I. 더듬다 (타동사):

This is an interesting one, because it has (at least) 3 meanings, all of which are basically the same thing, but applied to a different part of the human: hand, mouth, and mind.

  1. fumble for, grope for, feel for:  e.g. 지팡이로 길을 더듬다, 주머니를 더듬다.
  2. stammer, stutter:  e.g. 말을 더듬다.
  3. try to think of something, try to recall it: e.g. 기억을 더듬다, 생각을 더듬다.

So these 3 both basically mean fumble for, first with one’s hand, then with one’s mouth / speech, then with one’s mind

II. 지르다 (타동사) (지르니 / 질러)

Many diverse meanings (possibly homophony in some cases, but I think there is a relationship; hard to tell), but the first is most common.

  1. yell, shriek, cry; used with an object: e.g. 소리를 지르다, 고함을 지르다, 비명을 지르다, &c.
  2. beat, strike, hit: e.g. 못을 지르다
  3. set fire: 불을 지르다
  4. take a shortcut: 길을 지르다
  5. stick into: e.g. 비녀를 지르다, 빗장을 지르다

This example shows the importance of collocation.  In some cases, the verb has one specific meaning with just one word, such as set fire, when 불(fire) is the object.

III. 떠나다 (자/타동사)

This one’s from an old journal, but worth revisiting.  It contrasts well with II, in that the meanings are much more similar.  Note the importance of the 조사s on the preceding noun: 서울을 떠나다 means the opposite of 서울로 떠나다.  3 is a bit strange, because I’d think it would be 여행으로 떠나다, but that’s not the case.  Meaning 4 is a good example of how metaphor contributes to polysemy.

  1. Leave a place (with 을/를): e.g. 집을 떠나다, 한국을 떠나다
  2. Leave for a place (with ~로): e.g. 서울로 떠나다
  3. Leave for vacation: 여행을 떠나다
  4. Die: 세상을 떠나다
  5. Quit a company, job, etc.:  e.g. 회사를 떠나다

That’s all for now.  I’ll try to post some more some time.

Shapes of Walking: Learning 의태어 in Korean

Korean is a language very rich in so-called mimetic words, including phenomimes (의태어) which mimic shapes or movement, and phonomimes (의성어), also called onomatopoeia, which mimic sounds.  Although English has both, it doesn’t have nearly as many as Korean, which makes learning them quite difficult for the learner.

When learning words that are similar, you need to be careful.  The first time I was given a list of Korean 의태어/의성어, there were a couple dozen, and since my Korean level was quite low at the time, most of them were new to me.  It would be quite a mistake to try to learn them all together then; you can run into a problem called interference, where similar words learned at the same time lead to mixing up and confusion.  This happens especially with near synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, troponyms (see below) and lexical sets; it doesn’t happen with topical sets, however.  See Nation (2000). Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines.

Learning words in sets is best done as a review or compilation activity, or when you know many of the words implicitly or explicitly.  For example, most of the words in the list below are ones I am familiar with already; either I know them well, or I’ve seen or heard them quite a bit and have a feel for the word, without knowing an exact definition.  Thus the danger of confusion is absent, and compiling them can have value.

Here I’m looking at kinds of walk, or 걷는 모양 (walking shapes).  Whereas English often uses many “troponyms”, that is specific kinds of a more general verb (e.g. stride, skitter, trudge, trod are all troponyms of walk), Korean tends to use a phenomime with a general word, e.g. stride might be expressed as 성큼성큼 걷다.  Below I’ve recorded a bunch of 의태어 which go with 걷다 (to walk). 

걷는 모양

성큼성큼 ~ with large strides

종종 ~ scurrying

어슬렁어슬렁 ~ like a tiger

슬슬 ~ slowly, leisurely

살금살금 ~ stealthily, sneakily

터덜터덜 ~ trudgingly, sluggishly

터벅터벅 ~ trudgingly, ploddingly

구불구불 ~ meanderingly, windingly

비틀비틀 ~ staggerlingly, totteringly

* Note that many of these have similar variants altering yin/yang vowels or regular/emphatic consonants; e.g. 꾸물꾸불 is a “stronger” form of 구불구불.

Tastes in Korean

The Korean language has a lot of words for different tastes, some of them without exact equivalents in English.  It took quite some time to understand some of them, in fact (especially 고소하다).  Here’s a brief look at some Korean words used to describe taste.

First, there are the 4 basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  To that we can add spicy (I believe it’s included with the first four to make up the 5 basic tastes in Eastern cultures (hence 오미자 – 五味子, 5 taste berry), but I might be wrong.

Sweet – 달다, or 달콤하다

Sour – 시다, or 새콤하다

Spicy – 맵다, or 매콤하다

Bitter – 쓰다

Salty – 짜다

The ones ending in ~콤하다 mean “somewhat sweet”, etc.  They’re often combined: 새콤달콤하다 for sweet and sour, for example.  A bit more should be said about salty.  짜다 is often used to mean “too salty”; a more positive word for salty is 간간하다, “pleasantly salty” according to the dictionary.  They also have words for bland / not salty, again positive and negative: 싱겁다 is bland (as in English, negative), and 심심하다 is pleasantly unsalty (though 심심하다 usually is a negative word, boring, here it’s actually postitive).

But beyond the five basic words, I’ve run into quite a few other taste words, none more often than 고소하다.  Actually, there’s a Japanese word that means the same thing, and recently Western scientists have recognized it as one of the basic tastes along with the usual four.  It took me quite some time to understand this word; I was told that it was the taste of 참기름, or 깨…. that didn’t help too much, especially when I heard that 빵, 우유, 땅콩, and 두부 are all 고소하다 as well.  I just couldn’t understand what all these things had in common; finally I figured it was something similar to “nutty”, but the bread and milk threw me a bit, as I’d never considered them as nutty.  Anyways, I have a strong feel for the word now, and use it myself often even with new foods.

Another word is 구수하다.  This is of course the vowel-harmony complement of 고소하다, with yin vowels instead of yang vowels, so it has a similar meaning but perhaps with “darker” connotations.  All I know of 구수하다 is that it’s the taste of 된장.

Then there’s 떫다, which is astringent, like the taste of cranberries; Koreans consider 감 to have a 떫은 맛.  And then 시원한 맛, which is the taste of seafood broth, especially broth made from 조개, etc.  Am I forgetting anything else?

The Sejong Corpus

One of my academic interests is corpus linguistics, and so naturally I’d love to find a great Korean corpus.  I still haven’t found one I can download and access properly, but there are some web-based ones.  One of these is the Sejong Corpus.

A corpus is just a very large collection of texts that has been annotated (generally for part of speech and lemma) so that powerful and specific searches can be performed.  The Sejong Corpus is a collection of Korean texts, and there are several ways you can search it, but it’s only available through the web site, and the search tools are not nearly as powerful as what I can do with the British National Corpus (which I have on my own computer, and can also access on-line here).

The main search form on the Sejong corpus allows you to search for any lemma, and gives examples of that lemma, including any declined forms.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow you to search for specific forms of a word.  So I can search for 연구, and it gives sentences with the word 연구 in many forms, like 연구를, 연구와, and 연구이다, but I can’t search for 연구를, and I can’t search for ~를.  This is quite a shame, as that tool would be really useful, especially for looking up examples of certain grammatical forms.   There may be some way to do this, but I haven’t found it yet.  It also seems to be lacking a way of searching for collocations.

One useful tool is the 전자사전검색 (see the top menu), which allows you to search for words found in the corpus.  It differs from regular dictionaries in that it includes only but all words found in the corpus, thus including many words not found even in the 국어사전, including ones formed by productive word formation rules.  The really neat thing about it is that, after choosing the part of speech you want on the left (choose 용언 if you want verbs or adjectives), you can also search for either X 시작하는, 끝나는  or 포함하는 words; that is, words beginning with, ending with, or including your search term.  So if I want to look for examples of words ending in 꾼, I search 체언, 끝나는, “꾼”, and it gives 13 words, including 밀수꾼, 사기꾼, and 소몰이꾼.

I still haven’t checked out the entire site, but they’ve also got ways of searching for dialectal forms and for field-specific searches (전문 용어), e.g. comparing the frequency of words in different academic fields.  Overall it’s a good start, but I could think of so many other search tools they could add to make it more useful.


Word formation: ~다랗다, ~막하다, ~스름하다

While reading the Hobbit, I kept on coming across the word 나지막하다.  I couldn’t figure out what it meant, but eventually asked my wife, and felt dumb for not figuring it out earlier.  It means “somewhat low”, and I could’ve figured out the meaning by looking at the beginning: 나ㅈ, which syllabified differently is 낮 as in 낮다, low.

I’ve read mostly non-fiction until now, so I’m meeting a lot of descriptive words I haven’t seen before.  It really helps to look at just a part of the word, because so many are based on common words.  I’m pretty good at figuring out words from their parts, but I’m having to get used to a lot of new ones that are applied to adjectives:

base+막하다: somewhat ~, ~ish

eg. 나지막하다 (from 낮다), 야트막하다 (from 얕다), 느지막하다 (from 늦다 / 느직하다)

base+다랗다: in some cases very, other cases rather

e.g. 가느다랗다 (가늘다), 커다랗다 (from 크다), 굵다랗다, 깊다랗다

base+스름하다: somewhat~

e.g. 가느스름하다, 누르스름하다, 동그스름하다, 똥그스름하다

The last two illustrate another principle in word formation that you need to be aware of to figure out adjectives: 쌍 letters and aspirated letters are often  used to strengthen the meaning (센말).   This is especially so with 의성어/의태어/colours, but also with any adjective.  So 동그스름하다 means somewhat round, and 똥그스릅하다 is basically the same thing, but stronger.  A “larger” meaning can also be obtained by changing yang to yin vowels, e.g. ㅏ->ㅓ, ㅗ->ㅜ, so 뚱그스름하다 has a larger and stronger meaning.  Neither of the last two are in my 한영 dictionary though, so I’m going of the 국어사전, which doesn’t give much explanation…