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.

2 thoughts on “Shapes of Walking: Learning 의태어 in Korean

  1. Dan

    Japanese has a very similar set of words called ‘giongo’ and ‘gitaigo’ that perform the same function. I couldn’t see any similarities between your examples and the Japanese equivalent but I do know that Japan has in fact borrowed some of these from Korea and now uses them as their own. Whether it is Korean or Japanese, I think they will cause a headache for any English speaker (or any European language for that matter), but they certainly do make the language interesting!

    1. admin Post author

      Yeah, it’s hard to know if there has been borrowing or if they happen to sound the same, but phenomimes / phonomimes tend not to be borrowed from one language to another. As for learning, I’ve found it’s much easier to learn these types of words when met in context (true for all vocabulary of course, but especially mimetics). Hearing people using them, you get a natural feel for them and want to use them yourself.

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