Korean: An Agglutinative Language (한국어: 교착어)

I took a Korean linguistics course last year and I learned a most interesting word that I shall never forget. That word is “agglutinative”. Korean is an agglutinative language (교착어). This means that we add affixes to words and sentences in order to change the meaning of a sentence or alter the grammatical position of the word.

The Korean language is rich in suffixes and endings, which, personally, I find very attractive and intriguing. I get frustrated when translating sentences from Korean to English because there is just no way to properly convey certain sentence endings in Korean when you translate into English. Some of the sentence endings I find most useful in Korean, and which frustrate me to no end when translating into English, are the following:

1)    ~네(요)

2)    ~군요/구나

3)    ~잖아(요)

4)    ~나(요)?

5)    ~ㄹ게(요)

These sentence endings provide feeling, which is what makes them so useful. When using English, only when speaking can we tell how someone feels. However, when speaking Korean, even through texting and writing, one can see how the writer is feeling or what feeling he/she is trying to portray.

I will briefly explain each one.

1)    ~()
This sentence ending is used to portray an element of surprise. It’s usually used when something happens that the speaker did not expect, or when the speaker is pleasantly surprised at something.
For example: 영어 너무 잘 하시네요!  (You speak English very well!) –> this sentence structure is commonly used upon first meeting someone who is speaking a language that is not their mother-tongue and you find yourself surprised at how well they speak the language.
보고 싶네 (I want to see you) –> commonly used among friends. This sentence means you want to see the person, but you didn’t really realize it before. It’s like talking to him/her now has made you realize just how much you miss him/her and want to see him/her.

2)    ~군요/구나
This sentence ending is quite different. ~군요/구나 is kind of like saying “oh, I see” or “that’s how it is”. It’s basically stating something and acknowledging it as being fact.
For example: Your friend seems to never have any time to talk to you, but you finally get a hold of her. She basically talks about how she has no life because she has so many assignments and tests coming up in the next two weeks, and she really needs to keep up her A average, since it’s her final year of school. She sounds really stressed out, and you know she hasn’t been to any parties or out with any of your mutual friends recently, so you assume she must be studying a lot. In this case you would likely say, “와~ 열심히 하는구나”. (Wow, you’re working really hard!). You would be acknowledging your friend’s hard work.
If you want to say something along the lines of “oh, I see”, like English, Korean also has a fixed expression: “그렇군(요)” and “그렇구나”, which would literally translate to something like “oh, it’s like that”, but these phrases are essentially used in the same way as “I see” is in English.


3)    ~잖아()
~잖아(요) is used when the speaker assumes that the listener is an accordance/agreement with whatever it is the speaker is saying. So, ~잖아(요) is often used for something that is common sense or if you believe the listener agrees with what you’re saying, but is perhaps too humble/shy/modest to say it on their own.
For example: “영어 잘 하잖아” (you speak English well) –> in this case you’re trying to get your friend to admit to the fact that he/she can speak English, even though he/she may feel slightly discouraged at the time.


Your friend is freaking out over a final exam she has tomorrow, but she’s studied for it for a week now and has been doing well on all of the assignments up until this point. You might say something like: “벌써 공부를 많이 했잖아. 걱정마.” (You’ve already studied a lot. Don’t worry). In this case, ~잖아 is almost like adding “haven’t you?” as a rhetorical question, after saying “you’ve already studied a lot”.

I suppose this sentence ending can be used a lot when trying to cheer someone up. It’s like you are trying to force the listener to agree with you.
For example, saying “할 수 있잖아!” (you can do it!) à implies “you and I both know that you can do it!”.


4)    ~()?
This is a question ending, which implies “I wonder…” It’s basically a way of beating around the bush instead of directly asking the question. Directly asking the question would be something like, “is it going to rain tomorrow?” But beating around the bush would be asking something like, “I wonder if it’s going to rain tomorrow”. However, in Korean, you are not simply stating “I wonder ~~”, you are actually asking a question, but the “나(요)?” gives that implication and feeling of “I wonder”. It is a more polite way to ask a question, as it is indirect. Thus, it is used a lot when first meeting someone or talking to someone in a higher position than you/older than you.
For example: 캐나다에서 태어나셨나요?  –> (I wonder…) were you born in Canada?

It’s also used when you’re unsure of something and it may be a little weird to bring it up, since it’s not the current topic of conversation, but perhaps you need something and so you ask a friend for it. Instead of interrupting a conversation and asking directly and abruptly, you can ask using “나(요)?”
For example: 언니 혹시 가방안에 가위가 있나? –> Sis, (I wonder…) by chance do you have scissors in your bag?


5)    ~ㄹ게()
~ㄹ게(요) is used to express a voluntary action. It’s putting emphasis on the fact that the speaker is fully willing and is voluntarily choosing to do something. It is commonly used when speaking to people in a higher position than you at work or school (선배); even if you don’t intend to do the action, you may say it just to sound polite and like you are willing to do everything. It is also commonly used among friends, however, to show that you enjoy or are willing to always keep in touch or do something together, or even just to help out.
For example: 오빠 너무 걱정하지말아요. 내가 도와 줄 수 있으면 도와줄게요. (Don’t worry too much, brother. If I can help you, I will help you!)

지금 좀 바빠서 문자할 수 없을듯. 미안. 나중에 또 연락할게! (I’m a little busy now so it looks like I won’t be able to text you. Sorry. I’ll contact you again later!)

피곤하다. 누난 먼저 잘게. 잘자! (I’m tired. I’m going to go to sleep first! Good night!)

Suffixes like these in Korean provide a lot of feeling and emotion when speaking and writing. This is useful because one does not really have to guess at what kind of tone the person may be using to convey his/her emotions when speaking and writing. Of course, when speaking, it is still a good idea to pay attention to the speaker’s tone of voice, as it provides further insight as to what type of emotion the speaker is conveying; however, when texting or instant messaging, it is a lot easier to understand the speaker, and so there are, in my opinion, fewer misunderstandings than there would be in English. These suffixes cannot be directly and perfectly translated into English, which can be frustrating when translating (or trying to explain something to someone who does not speak Korean), but I believe that they make the Korean language that much richer and that much more unique. 

3 replies »

  1. Inspired by the Korean writing script called “Josônggûl” or “Hangûl”, i decided i’d create a language i call “Peramelian” which is radically different in that there’s no clear-cut word order to go by, while Korean obviously has an SOV-default order,, Peramelian is also analytic compared to the agglutinative Korean,, Peramelian is written right-to-left or in colums from left to right much UN-like Korean, and its writing system is more like an intricately-featural alphasyllabary, with its featurality most prevalent in the vowel signs. There are even orientations of the different Peramelian letters/vowel signs that are forbidden in Korean, as well as different forms of germinated letters for flat (vertical) and round (horizontal) vowels.

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