Korean language and culture series: Loanwords

Many years ago, I first introduced Korean dramas to my Taiwanese-American friend, “C.” Of course, not knowing any Korean, she had to rely on English subtitles to watch and understand the shows. After completing two or three drama series, she told me one day that she recognized some Korean words to sound very similar to corresponding Chinese words that shared the same meaning. (Note: “C” speaks Mandarin.)

Linguists are split on how to classify the Korean language. Most linguists classify Korean as an example of language isolate, a “natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages.” (Contrast this with French, Spanish, Italian, and many others that all belong to the same language family.) There are still others who categorize Korean as belonging to the hypothetical Altaic language family, along with Turkic, Mongolian, and Japanese languages.

I’m no linguist. I’ll let them fight on their own to decide and come to an agreement. But the point of the matter is that Korean does not even belong to the same language family as Chinese, which belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Then why are there so many Korean words with their root in Chinese?

As you may suspect, the answer lies in the phenomenon of loanwords, those words borrowed from one language and incorporated into another. Loanwords exist in many languages, including English. I still remember how my sixth grade teacher was an ethnic Greek, and she never failed to point out to us every time we came across English words with their root in Greek. “Oh, here’s yet another example,” she’d exclaim. “Photography! Derived from the Greek words phōs and graphía. If you understand Greek roots, you’ll expand your vocabulary exponentially!” In fact, the English vocabulary is comprised of words of many different origins, including Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and the list goes on.

According to one study, the Korean vocabulary is composed of three components: native Korean words and affixes (approximately 35%), Sino-Korean words (approximately 60%), and other loanwords, including Japanese and English (approximately 5%). (Source: Sohn, Ho-Min. The Korean Language, Cambridge University Press, 2001.)


Native Korean words are just that – words native to Korea and not originating or “borrowed” from any other languages. Some examples that you may be familiar with include “oppa” (오빠/older brother), “unni” (언니/older sister), “sarang” (사랑/love), and “gomabda” (고맙다/thankful).


Since Korea spent its entire history next to China, a giant of world culture, much of Korean culture – including language – has elements of Chinese influence. This was much more true in the old days (up to 18th century or so), when the educated class of Korea wrote in Chinese although they spoke in Korean. This influence survives in Korean language today as Sino-Korean vocabularies, which is just a fancy term that means “Korean words that originated from Chinese.”  (from Korean Language Series – Sino-Korean, Numbers, Counters, Telling Time in Korea Ask a Korean. March 12, 2010.)

What exactly does it mean for a word to be Sino-Korean? I really like the example given in Ask a Korean, as he explains, “The relationship is much like Latin-based English vocabularies – while Latin and English have significantly different grammar structures, English borrowed a lot of words from Latin. The same with Korean and Chinese.”

So despite being of Chinese origin, Sino-Korean words are Korean words. It’s akin to how English words like “edible,” “molar,” and “narrative” all originated from Latin, but are still very much “English.”

Some examples of Sino-Korean words include “ae-jung” (애정/愛情/affection), “hak-gyo” (학교/學校/school), “sa-hwae” (사회/社會/society), “ju-jeom” (주점/酒店/bar), and of course, the Sino-Korean numbering system. In quotations is the word as pronounced in Korean and romanized into English, and in parenthetical is the word written in hangeul (Korean script), then expressed in hanja (Chinese characters), and finally as defined in English by Koreans.

Those familiar with Chinese may notice that the Korean pronunciation of the words is often different from your understanding of how those Chinese characters are pronounced. That’s because as is common with loanwords, the pronunciation, and sometimes even the meaning itself, changes slightly after a word gets borrowed from one language to another.


Although comprising a much smaller percentage, Korean vocabulary also includes loanwords of native Japanese origin and Sino-Japanese origin (Japanese words that originated from Chinese). Not surprisingly, many of the Japanese words entered the Korean language during the years of the Japanese occupation of Korea between the years of 1910 to 1945, and the years leading up to it and following it.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were taught Japanese at school and were strongly encouraged to assimilate to the Japanese culture. Consequently, many men and women who were born, educated, and spent the formative years of their lives in Korea at this time, grew up exposed to the Japanese language. For example, Bella’s grandmother reads Japanese and my own grandmother still often counts in Japanese (generally, people count and do arithmetic in their native language).

Naturally, certain Japanese words became adopted into Korean. Some examples of these words include “sa-ra” (사라/皿/plate), “dama” (다마/玉/lightbulb or bead), and “ippai” (이빠이/いっぱい/full). In quotations is the word as pronounced in Korean and romanized into English, and in parenthetical is the word written in hangeul (Korean script), then expressed by Japanese script, and finally as defined in English by Koreans.

Interestingly, due to the circumstances in which the Japanese words entered into the Korean language, there usually are pre-existing Korean equivalent of such words and nowadays, Koreans are strongly encouraged to use those Korean words instead. For example, the Korean equivalent for “sa-ra” is “jeobsi” (접시/plate); the Korean equivalent for “dama” is “jeon-gu” (전구/light bulb); and the Korean equivalent for “ippai” is “ga-deuk” (가득/full).

Although many Koreans would recognize and know the meaning of these Japanese words, they are often treated as slang words in Korean. For example, I once told my Korean friend (a study abroad student from Korea), “Hey, we need to change the dama in the apartment.” She knew exactly what I meant by “dama,” but she proceeded to laugh for a good one minute, exclaiming that I sometimes said the weirdest things and used vocabulary words that only those from our grandparents’ generation would use. Then she corrected me and said I should say “jeon-gu” instead.

When older Koreans use these Japanese words, people just accept it as is. When younger Koreans use them, be prepared to be corrected and be told to speak in “proper Korean.”


The German culture had a strong influence in Japan after the Meiji Restoration. Due to the influence of the German culture in Japan, there is a handful of words that originated from German that trickled down to the Korean language, en route via Japanese. One of the most commonly used such words is the Korean word “areubite” (아르바이트/part-time job), often shortened to just “al-ba.” It is derived from the German word for employment, “arbeit,” and the Japanese equivalent, “arubaito.” You’ll often notice high school or college age characters in K-dramas take on an “areubite.”

In You’ve Fallen for Me, Shin (JUNG YONG HWA) and his band, The Stupid, has an areubite singing at a bar on campus.


And last but not least, English! Many English-speakers observe the butchered English words used by Koreans. But in fact, like Sino-Korean words, or loanwords of Japanese/Sino-Japanese and German origin, many of them are Korean words originating from English that appear in Korean dictionaries. Examples include “romance” (로맨스/romance), “telebijeon” (텔레비전/television), “keompyuteo” (컴퓨터/computer), “keopi” (커피/coffee), “diary” (다이어리/planner), “handphone” (핸드폰/cellphone), and “skin” (스킨/toner). In quotations is the word as pronounced in Korean and romanized into English, and in parenthetical is the word written in hangeul (Korean script) and then as defined in English by Koreans. In fact, many of the Korean loanwords from English do not have Korean equivalents and are the only words of that meaning available in the Korean language.

Like the examples given for Sino-Korean words, English-speakers may notice that not only is the Korean pronunciation of the words different from your understanding of how they “should” be pronounced, but in some cases, like “diary” and “skin,” they actually took on a different meaning as well. In Korean, “diary” refers to planners where you write down the schedule of day, and not the pretty little locked journals where people write their daily thoughts. In Korean, “skin” refers to toners, that liquid product applied to your skin as a step before applying the lotion, and not the soft external layer covering your body.

It would be silly to correct these “butchered” English words, just as it would be silly to correct Koreans for “butchering” Chinese words, Japanese words, or German words. They are not wrong when spoken in Korean as such. The truth is that loanwords just simply change pronunciations, and sometimes definitions, when they migrate over to another culture, whether it be to Korea or to America.

That said, Koreans often do use English words that are NOT loanwords in the Korean language, and just… umm, misuse them.

In Hooray for Love, Dong-woo’s mother (played by KIM SUMI) has a habit of busting out in random English. None of the words she used in the above clip (“stop,” “oh my god,” “I’m so sorry,” “shut the mouth”) were loanwords.


You may wonder why I seemingly went off tangent in the Korean language and culture series with a topic on loanwords. As I was working on Part 4 of the Korean names sub-series, I realized that it was almost impossible to do a thorough job explaining Korean names without having the readers assume basic knowledge of the existence of loanwords in the Korean language. Now that this is done, we can finally move on to finish up that Korean names sub-series, once and for all! (All your questions on Korean names that you’ve posed on this blog will be covered and answered in Part 4. It’s still not too late if you have any other questions you want to ask!)

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19 Responses to Korean language and culture series: Loanwords

  1. estel says:

    In my personal opinion, the funniest use of English loanwords in Korean is “팬티” (panty) to mean underwear in general. When I was in Korea last summer, a lot of my American guy friends who were there also strongly objected to their Korean male friends referring to their boxers as “팬티”. The whole conversation just made me crack up. ^_^

    • blue says:

      Haha, that’s really cute. Although I’ll never think of “panty” the same way again ever since Dokgo Jin’s “give me my panty” in Best Love. 😀

      • Kristal says:

        As an American I can totally agree with that and say how awkward it felt to have Dokgo Jin continually exclaiming about his panties as I am so used to that word being only used for ladies and particularly garments of the skimpy and lacey variety. 😉

  2. Thanks for the highly informative posts!! I’ve been studying Japanese for the past eight years, and only started learning Korean in the last few months. My ears are slowly becoming attuned to the nuances, so now I understand why I hear a bit of “bleedover” between the two languages. Keep the fun stuff coming, and kamsahaminda!

  3. InLove says:

    Thank you so much! I love learning about the Korean language through your blog posts. Dong woo’s mother in Hooray for Love reminds me of the older brother from Thorn Birds who always randomly used these English phrases his father use to say. Very funny.

    I think the loanwords from English stand out the most when you first start hearing Korean because that’s all you can understand. For me it was “koepi.” That really stood out the first time I heard it.

  4. snow says:

    thanks again for a great informative post! it’s always fun to learn about the similarities shared by seemingly different languages. i’m learning japanese and sometimes crack up like crazy when i come across kanji that have a completely different meaning in chinese. my favourite example so far is “benkyo” (study), which has the same kanji (勉強) as the chinese characters for “force/do something with difficulty”.

  5. Kay says:

    I love reading these posts on Korean culture. Thanks for this.
    However, I found this bit weird: “In Korean, “diary” refers to planners where you write down the schedule of day.” Um…but that’s what diary means in English as well, although, I’m guessing that’s not true for American English? I love that I’m learning more about the variations in English as well as Korean when I read your posts, it’s like a two-for-one special.
    Anyway, I’ve just started teaching myself hangul and I was browsing an english-korean dictionary to practice reading the characters and I looked up the word ice-cream. So, I started sounding out the korean equivalent one syllable at a time, and a million years later after I finished that, I spoke the whole word at once. Then there was a pause when I realised that I was just saying ‘ice cream’ in a korean accent and not a totally different word. Bah humbug.
    Are you going to do a post on false friends?

    • blue says:

      re: diary
      Oh really? I’ve always known only one definition of “diary,” and that is as a synonym for “journal.” This is also the definition in Webster’s dictionary. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diary) But like you mentioned, this may very much be the difference between British English (which I’m assuming you’re using) and American English.

      re: false friends
      That’s really cute about your ice cream example! As for false friends, I wasn’t intending to do a separate post on them, aside from mentioning that they do exist as has been implied in this post. Was there anything in particular that you wanted me to discuss on that topic?

      • Kay says:

        I think I just wanted to know more examples. Probably doesn’t require a whole post. I could probably just google it. In fact I will, right now. Cheers!

    • Sam says:

      I don’t know if this is what you meant, but I’ve always found it interesting that there are Korean words that sound similar to English words and carry the same or similar meanings. Like ‘mahni’ for ‘many/much’, and ‘won하다’ for ‘to want’, ‘ddong’ for ‘dung’, ‘peureu-‘ for ‘blue/green’, and so on. I read somewhere that back when Korea was being ‘opened up’, a well-meaning missionary tried to show that Korean and Anglophone cultures were related by compiling a list of such words.

      • blue says:

        Isn’t that like how the word for “mom” sounds so similar across different languages and cultures? ‘Umma’ in Korean, ‘mom’ in English, ‘mama’/’madre’ in Spanish, ‘mere’/’maman’ in French, ‘mama’ in Mandarin, etc. I wonder what the exact explanation for that phenomenon is called.

  6. gailT says:

    Thanks so much for this series. This is one of the stuff I love about you guys’ blog: we get a bit of language and grammar and history along with recaps. LOVE!

  7. thundie says:

    You’re my idol, you know that? 😀 Write a book one day!

  8. frac says:

    Thanks again for feeding us squirrels with these fancy nuts !

    May I add a few french ones?

    뷔페 (buffet) : buffet
    카페 (café) : coffee house, café
    데뷔 (début) : beginning in a career, first show?
    쿠데타 (coup d’état) : takeover
    노블리스 오블리제 (noblesse oblige) : noblesse oblige

    Seems to be trendy in advertising.
    See this recent Lotte ad for a cake called 갸또 (gâteau = cake) http://blog.naver.com/paranzui/50112955233

    Him – Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (what is this?)
    Her (sultry voice) – Gâteau, gâteau… (cake, cake…)

    Haha ^_^

    • blue says:

      Thanks for your suggestions! You know, I thought of the French loanwords as well, but the American in me argued that many of these words became borrowed into the English language, and then was borrowed by Koreans from English.

      But I was watching a quiz show program one day, and they mentioned this Korean word that originated from French that I would have never suspected it to be one. I remember it being a very common household word in Korean, but doesn’t exist in the English language at all. Watching the quiz show, I remember wondering how it arrived into the Korean language because it really was so random.

      The problem is that I can’t recall for the life of me what the word was. As I was working on this post, I walked around my house looking at all the objects around me to try to refresh my memory, but to no avail.

      But you’re right. Koreans love using French words/names for store and brand names.

      • Kay says:

        I love this. Whether you’re from the East or West – everything sounds better in French.

      • frac says:

        Indeed, the pronunciation may sound more English than French.

        Thanks for sharing your story about this clandestine word. But it piqued my curiosity and now I’m dying to know…

        Could it be :
        빵 from ‘pain’ (bread)
        살롱 from ‘salon’ (living room)
        루즈 from ‘rouge à lèvres’ (lipstick) ?

  9. joonni says:

    Blue, you are awesome. Thank you so much once again for this nugget of knowledge.

    Isn’t Korean “terebi” (for television) the use of the Japanese use of the English word “television”? I think they now encourage people to say tee-bee instead of terebi because of the Japanese association.

    • blue says:

      I think you’re right about the “telebi” example. Many of the English words used in Korea are “Japanese-English.” For example, like skinship.

      The words for TV that are appearing in the Korean dictionary are “텔레비전,” which is just “tele(b)ijeon” (you know how there are no “v” and “z” sounds in Korean”), and “티브이” (t.beui). The “beui” is how Koreans typically pronounce “v.” So it is evolving closer to “American-English.” So fascinating!

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