In part 1, I attempted to clarify the confusion as to the difference between using “yah” and “ah” at the end of a name. Now part 2 will explore the exact nature of “yah” and “ah”, and what function the addition of this at the end of a name serves.
This question has perplexed many non-Korean speaking viewers, and many folks actually hold a rather romanticized idea about the use. I’ve read explanations ranging from how people use it at the end of a person’s name when they’re close to each other, as a way to show affection, or as an indicator that the speaker recognizes the other as his peer.
Confusion #2: So, which is it?
Answer: I know this may potentially disappoint many people, but it’s better to be upfront, right? So here it goes. The answer is… none of the above!
I can practically hear the uproar I’ve caused with the above declaration. I suspect some readers will forever boycott this blog, never to return. For those blessed souls who are still reading, allow me to explain in further detail. To fully understand the use of “yah” or “ah” at the end of a name, I need to first start with a quick Korean grammar lesson. And actually, it is rather complicated, so prepare yourself.
There are nine different parts of speech in the Korean language. They are nouns, pronouns, numbers, verbs, adjectives, prenouns, adverbs, interjections, and particles. Of these, particles give English speakers a great deal of trouble because there is no corresponding equivalent of particles in English. And of course, “ya” and “ah” are examples of such particles.
The blogger from Ask a Korean gives a detailed explanation on the different functions of various examples of particles, but the general gist is this. Particles are words attached to a noun to either indicate the function/the syntactic role of that noun in the sentence, or that show the quality of the noun.
And in particular, “ya” and “ah” belong to a specific group of particles called exclamatory particles (호격조사=hogyuk josa). Exclamatory particles are attached to a noun to indicate that the noun is being used in an address form (as opposed to a reference form). In other words, when an exclamatory particle is attached to a noun, it indicates that the speaker is directly addressing that noun.
1. 여우 운전해.
Yeowoo woon jeon hae.
English translation: Fox driving. (Grammatically incorrect and doesn’t make any sense.)
2. 여우가 운전해.
Yeowoo-gah woonjeon hae.
English translation: The fox is driving. (가/gah is a subject particle and when attached to a noun, it indicates that the noun (yeowoo/fox) is the subject of the sentence.)
3. 여우를 운전해.
Yeowoo-leul woonjeon hae.
English translation: (Implied pronoun) drive(s) the fox. (Omission of a pronoun is grammatically correct in Korean. 를/leul is an object particle and when attached to a noun, it indicates that the noun (yeowoo/fox) is the object of the sentence. Thus, the fox is the object of what’s being driven, or in other words, someone is driving a fox. The idea doesn’t make sense, but grammatically it does. Just replace fox/여우 with car/자동차 then.)
4. 여우야 운전해.
Yeowoo-yah woonjeon hae.
English translation: Fox, drive. (야/yah is an exclamatory particle and indicates that the speaker is addressing the fox directly. Here, the speaker is telling the fox to drive.)
Since a person’s name is a noun, adding particles at the end of a name would serve the exact same purpose as the above examples.
1a. EunJo-gah KiHoon-yi-leul jo ah hae. (EunJo is the subject and KiHoon is the object; like (jo ah hae) is the verb.)
1b. KiHoon-yi-leul EunJo-gah jo ah hae. (KiHoon is the object and EunJo is the subject; like (jo ah hae) is the verb.)
1c. Both 1a and 1b translate to “Eun Jo likes Ki Hoon.” Word order doesn’t matter, as long as the correct particle gets attached to the intended noun.
2a. EunJo-leul KiHoon-yi-gah jo ah hae. (EunJo is the object and KiHoon is the subject.)
2b. KiHoon-yi-gah EunJo-leul jo ah hae. (KiHoon is the subject and EunJo is the object.)
2c. Both 2a and 2b translate to “Ki Hoon likes Eun Jo.”
3a. EunJo-yah, KiHoon-yi-leul jo ah hae?
3b. EunJo-yah, jo ah hae Ki Hoon-yi-leul?
3c. KiHoon-yi-leul jo ah hae, EunJo-yah?
3d. Jo ah hae KiHoon-yi-leul, EunJo-yah?
3e. I repeat. The word order is irrelevant. In all four examples (3a to 3d) above, Eun Jo is being addressed and Ji Hoon is the object. Thus, they all translate to: “Eun Jo, do you like Ki Hoon?”
Then, we arrive back at the original question. Why did Ki Hoon add “yah” to Eun Jo’s name when he called her?
Answer: Exactly because of that reason. Because he was calling out to her!
Caveat: But note that “yah” and “ah” are used as exclamatory particles only when speaking in banmal (speaking informally).
If you don’t know Korean, you can use “yah” and “ah” as signals to figure out whether the characters are speaking in banmal (informally) or in jondaemal (formally). And which level of honorific (banmal or jondaemal) people use can indicate their relationship or familiarity level. Further, the situations in which people “switch” back and forth from banmal to jondaemal can be pretty telling. But the addition of “yah” or “ah” to a name has no special meaning other than to indicate that the sentence is a direct address.
I can hear a lone protest. “Blue-yah, you don’t make any sense. Everyone, don’t listen to Blue. She’s wrong. Then why did Eun Jo react the way she did to Ki Hoon’s words if ‘Eun Jo-yah’ has no significance?”
Answer: I never said it didn’t have significance to Eun Jo at that instance. It very much did! But the significance was not because he added a “yah” at the end of her name. (He had been speaking in banmal to her all this time, so adding “yah” when calling her would have been the normal, grammatically correct thing for him to do.) The significance is that someone (someone who she probably very much liked even though she would have never admitted it) tenderly called her by her name.
And I bet that was a first for Eun Jo. She didn’t have any friends at school. Jung Woo (played by Taecyeon) called her noona. It would have been a good day if her mother didn’t address her as “b*tch.”
But even if she had people calling her by her name all the time, it’s different when someone you like call you by your name. This is getting a little personal, but when I was a freshman in high school, I had a crush on this sophomore guy. We were in the same club, but we didn’t have much occasion to talk and I didn’t think he would even know my name. One day, while I was waiting around after school with my friend as we were getting ready to go home, my crush called out, “Hey, Blue!”
I freaked out all the rest of the way home, and my poor friend had to suffer as I squealed in delight, “He called my name! He knew my name!”
The fact that he called my name probably doesn’t have much significance per se, but for me at that moment, it did. I’m going to bet that a similar thought was going through Eun Jo’s head as she repeated to herself, “He called me Eun Jo-yah. He called me Eun Jo-yah.”