Korean language and culture series: The “Eun Jo-yah” syndrome, part 2

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. 여우 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. 여우 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. 여우 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.

For example:

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.”

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16 Responses to Korean language and culture series: The “Eun Jo-yah” syndrome, part 2

  1. KB says:

    I’ve been a silent reading of your blog and let me just say: I love your blogs on the Korean language and culture!
    I’ve been learning Korean and I have always be confused of when to use 가/이 and 를/을 after a noun. This post has definitely help me understand the concept now.

    As for your fear of people boycotting this blog, at least you won’t have to fear me doing that. 😉 Though I admit I am a little disappointed to find out that yah/ah didn’t mean a little more than an exclamatory particle. But I’ll definitely continue reading your posts in the future. 🙂

  2. hannah says:

    interesting! thanks Blue for your explanation. I thought it was just added to show closeness. I never would have thought there’s a grammatical rule to it. Doesnt matter because the way he said it and with those puppy eyes of his *swoon*. 🙂

  3. snow says:

    very interesting read! didn’t realise yah/ah was more of a particle than added significance. would be awesome if you could continue this korean language & culture series, i’m sure it’ll benefit a lot of non-korean-speaking k-drama watchers!

  4. theblackpatita says:

    gomawo for this. now am more informed ^^

  5. sarangf says:

    thank you blue

  6. supah says:

    Helpful as ever, thank you!
    I kind of got the gist of it, but always appreciate the clarification.
    The ‘yah’ — it be complicated, yo.

  7. missjb says:

    thank you, blue. But I think informal speech to someone, it means you are close enough to that person? No? In my country, they use formal speech not only to olders person, but also to someone who are not close enough or someone we don’t know. Sorry, just to share my thought.

    • blue says:

      Whether a person speaks in informal speech or formal speech is pretty complicated, and depends on many different factors. But yes, you are correct that people generally use formal speech to someone older, someone in a more respective position, to strangers, and to people they don’t know very well.

      In the example from the drama, it’d have been very customary for someone in Ki Hoon’s situation to speak informally to Eun Jo because 1) they know each other well (they live together), regardless of how “close” they feel about each other, 2) he’s older than her, 3) she’s a minor (in high school), and 4) he’s in a more respective position as her tutor.

      Whether someone in Eun Jo’s situation would speak formally or informally to Ki Hoon would have been more telling about their relationship because there’s more discretion as to whether she can choose to speak informally or formally to him based on their relationship.

  8. sandy says:

    thoses posts are really cool and useful
    btw can you tell me what does ( jumalgeuk) means I lookes everywhere but couldnt find the meaning

  9. gailT says:

    Thanks for this post. The grammar nut in me loves the Korean grammar lesson. The kdrama nut in me remembers this scene fondly. This post definitely makes both happy. Thank you!

  10. I was on Koala’s Playground and noticed your blog on her blogroll, so I came by and came across this post. I also have a question, now that the “ah” and “yah” conundrum has been cleared up. Thank you for that, by the way.

    In “Lie to Me” Ki-joon calls Ah-jung “Gong Ah-jung ssi” and then “Gong Ah-jung” for much of the show. Then, when he takes her cell phone and calls her “Ah-jung-ah” she gets all giddy and listens to her phone over and over again. If it’s not because he’s adding the “-ah” at the end, is it because he switched from calling her by her full name to calling her just by her first name? Is there a difference between calling someone by their full name + “ssi” vs. just full name vs. just first name? I can’t remember whether he’d stopped speaking formally then… that might have been why she was excited also.


    • blue says:

      I stopped watching LTM in the middle of the series, so I can’t answer for the characters in this drama specifically. But to answer your question, let me give you an example. Let’s say your name is Mary Smith and you have a lover. What would be the difference in your reaction to your boyfriend calling your name in the following three ways?
      1. Ms. Mary Smith!
      2. Mary Smith!
      3. Mary!

      Now let’s imagine that he’s called you Ms. Mary Smith all the time, and one day, he called you and said, “Hey, Mary” in a loving, tender voice.

      Yup, it’s pretty much the same logic.

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