If every Korean word were a sweet, this post would be an entire candy store.
In other words, this post is the motherload of Korean vocabulary.
Here, you’ll get a summarized view of the language and get the most useful Korean words and phrases in one sweet, juicy post.
You’ll learn an assortment of basic terms related to family, numbers, greetings, honorifics, questions, Korean holidays, days of the week, months of the year, common adjectives, verbs and even Korean slang.
And along the way, you’ll pick up loads of cultural insights, as well.
There’s a lot to digest here so let’s not dilly-dally and get right into it!
100+ Deliciously Easy Korean Words All Beginners Should Know
Basic Korean Greetings and Courtesies
While Koreans aren’t generally your outgoing personalities who’ll casually strike up a conversation with strangers, they’re actually very warm and welcoming—especially when formally introduced by a common friend.
As a guest to the culture, you have to observe common courtesies. Learning a language becomes a lot easier when you have plenty of opportunities to practice with native speakers. And if you want Koreans to open up and interact with you, open them up by being nice and courteous, yourself. Pepper your communications with the following phrases:
안녕하세요 — “An-nyeong-ha-se-yo” (Hello/Goodbye )
Remember that there’s more to hello in Korean than just saying 안녕하세요: Learn the greeting and how to use it with this adorable song that teaches Korean greeting manners to children.
You can find more videos like this on FluentU.
The immersive, entertaining content makes grammar and vocabulary much more memorable—and you can find a lot of the words in this list on FluentU, in use by native Korean speakers.
감사합니다 — “Kam-sa-ham-ni-da” (Thank you)
천만에요 — “Chun-mahn-eh-yo” (You’re welcome)
잠시만요 — “Jam-shi-man-yo” (Excuse me)
주세요 — “Ju-se-yo” (Give me)
죄송합니다 — “Chway-seong-ham-ni-da” (I’m sorry)
예 — “Ye” (Yes)
아니요 — “Aniyo” (No)
Koreans can sometimes be mistaken as nonchalant, or even arrogant. Well, they’re rarely that. They’re just really keeping to themselves, and also leaving you alone, or letting you be.
And don’t get your nose bent out of shape when you get shoved or pushed in a sea of people in a public setting. The concept of “personal space” is a lot smaller in Korea. You may not get the usual “personal bubble” (the comfortable physical distance between two people) that you’re used to in the West. Public spaces are considered “shared spaces.” But make no mistake, Koreans aren’t the touchy-feely types and are not too big on patting the back or shoulders. Also, avoid giving friendly hugs, especially when first meeting someone.
Basic Korean Questions
Korean is a melodic language that glides up and down in tone. To ask a question, it’s not even necessary to use question words like “what,” “where” or “who.” You just end the statement on a high note and it gets perceived as a question. Just as intonation goes up in English questions, it goes up in Korean, as well—perhaps even more so.
By elevating the pitch, a single word can be turned into a question. For example, 진짜 (“jinjja”) the Korean for “really,” can be turned into a question with a simple rise in intonation. It is, in fact, one of the most common expressions and is used to validate something that’s just been said. As in, “I just got promoted/won the lottery/got a new girlfriend.” “Really!?” “Jinjja!?”
That said, here are some of the question words you need to know:
누구? — “Noo-goo” (Who?)
뭐? — “Mwo” (What?)
언제? — “Uhn-jae” (When?)
어디? — “Uh-dee” (Where?)
어떻게? — “Uh-dduh-kah” (How?)
왜? — “Weh” (Why?)
어떻게 지내세요? — “Eotteoke jinaeseyo?” (How are you?)
이름이 뭐예요? — “Ireumi mwoyeyo?” (What’s your name?)
어디 출신이세요? — “Eodi chulsiniseyo?” (Where are you from?)
이거 뭐예요? — “Igeo mwoyeyo?” (What’s this?)
뭐라고 했어요? — “Mworago haesseoyo?” (What did you say?)
Korean Family Words
Korean culture is steeped in Confucian philosophy, and filial piety is one of its basic tenets. Family is big in the culture and absolute respect and consideration are given to elders. Grandpa and grandma can voice their strong opinions on matters such as your love life, the sorry state of your education or your “out-of-the-box” sense of fashion. Aunts and uncles, by virtue of them being older than you, can also easily put their two cents in.
You can say that the Korean family is both traditional and conservative. Unlike American families, you don’t really get to be on a first-name basis with your mom or dad, even when you get old enough to send them to a nursing home. (Also, adult children feel a strong responsibility to take care of aging parents.)
It used to be that wives did a disproportionate amount of household chores. But over time, just as women are proving themselves in the workforce, men are also increasingly becoming more involved in domestic affairs.
In general, Korea is adopting more Western virtues. Just as Korean culture is being appreciated all over the world, Korea is also looking to other cultures to add richness to its own. (Meanwhile, teenagers are headaches in any era or culture.)
Here’s some vocabulary related to the family:
가족 — “Gajok” (Family)
친척 — “Chincheok” (Relatives)
부모님 — “Boo-mo-nim” (Parents)
아버지 — “A-buh-ji” (Father)
어머니 — “Uh-muh-ni” (Mother)
남편 — “Nampyeon” (Husband)
아내 — “Anae” (Wife)
할아버지 — “Hal-ah-buh-ji” (Grandfather)
할머니 — “Hal-muh-ni” (Grandmother)
삼촌 — “Sam-chon” (Uncle)
고모 — “Sung-mo” (Aunt on father’s side)
이모 — “I-mo” (Aunt on mother’s side)
Koreans have specific terms for the different folks that occupy the different branches and levels of the family tree. For example, there are terms for people in your wife’s father’s side and different terms for people on her mother’s side.
Live in Korean has a chart to help you with this.
Essential Korean Honorifics
If you’re into watching Korean dramas, you may have already noticed how important hierarchy is in Korean society. Without understanding a single Korean word, you’d know who’s who in the scene simply by their non-verbal communication. (Who bows a little lower, who averts their eyes, who’s showing deference, etc.)
If age is just a number in other cultures, it’s a very important concept in Korean society. Age allows people to organize themselves and others in the social hierarchy. Two people’s relative places in the totem pole guide the type and nature of their interactions. In fact, don’t be slighted when you get asked about things like your age or salary. They’re just trying to learn more about you and determine how to properly address you.
There’s a premium placed on seniority in Korean culture and, in addition to age, one’s social status also has a very strong bearing in social interactions. Deference and respect are shown to (and expected by) elders, bosses, government officials, corporate bigwigs, etc.
It’s very difficult, for example, to voice opinions counter to those of your boss. This is probably true for most other cultures, but it’s more vivid in Korean culture.
Knowing all that, here are some honorifics that you can use to refer people above, beside and below you in the social ladder:
님 — “Nim”
“Nim”’ is used to speak formally to persons older than you. It’s usually used after professions, like teachers (선생님 — “Seon-saeng-nim”) or presidents/CEO’s (회장님 — “Hui-jang-nim”).
씨 — “Shi”
If “nim” is used for professions or titles, “shi” is used for specific names. It’s Korea’s version of the English “Mr.” or “Ms.” or the Japanese “san,” as in “Daniel-san.”
So if a person’s first name is 태원 (Tae-won), it becomes 태원씨 (Tae-won-shi). Always remember to attach the honorific after the first name, not the last name.
아저씨 — “Ajusshi”
This is given to middle-aged (40s to late 50s) men and is similar to the English “mister.”
아주머니 — “Ajumoni”
This one’s given to middle-aged women, a little bit more formal than 아줌마 (“Ajumma”), as a sign of respect for somebody older than you. Because this is the equivalent of the English “ma’am,” some might protest its application on them, saying, “Excuse me, I’m not as old as you think.”
오빠 — “Oppa”
Girls use this to refer to an “older brother.” But the meaning of “oppa” has evolved over time, now including older guys who are just friends. It can also now mean boyfriend. Watch any Korean drama and you’ll most probably hear “oppa” used this way.
형 — “Hyung”
This is what boys call guys who are older than them. It means “older brother” but its use has since been expanded to include guys who are your friends, but older. The emphasis is on the word “older” rather than on “brother.” School seniors are considered as “hyung” by the freshmen class.
언니 — “Unnie”
Girls call other girls who are older than them “unnie.” It means “older sister,” but can be used in a friendship setting.
누나 — “Noona”
This is the male counterpart to “unnie” and is how boys show deference and endearment for their older friends who are females.
동생 — “Dongsaeng”
If you’re an “oppa”/”hyung” or “unnie”/”noona,” the person calling you that is your “dongsaeng.” The term can be used for male and female friends younger than you.
Koreans take the idea of seniority, of being younger or older, very seriously. Many of them will not get into a romantic relationship with somebody because he or she thinks of the other as a “dongsaeng.”
선배 — “Sunbae”
In the context of work or school, “sunbae” are people who have seniority. Maybe they have more experience in the profession, have a higher rank or came to the company earlier than you. These people wield plenty of respect and influence in the organization.
후배 — “Hubae”
A “hubae” is a junior person in an organization. They’re younger, less experienced and are relatively new to the group. They’re expected to speak politely to their “sunbae.”
Depending on where a person is on the totem pole, he can be a “sunbae” for one and a “hubae” for another.
Common Korean Adjectives
“Knowing” Korean doesn’t mean that you know all the words, phrases and idioms. The fact is, even native speakers of any language don’t know many of the words in their own tongue. To know a language means knowing the most common, most practical words that could help you navigate interactions with native speakers.t
We work here with the “Pareto Principle,” or the “80/20 Rule” where just 20% of the language can get you through 80% of your interactions with native speakers. These aren’ exact figures, but the point is, you don’t have to cover every last Korean word or dive into esoteric vocabulary in order to learn Korean. Just practice the most common adjectives, verbs, adverbs, nouns, etc. and you’ll do reasonably well.
Here’s a list of the most common adjective pairs that could pop up in your conversations:
큰 — “Keun” (Big)
작은 — “Jageun” (Small)
늙은 — “Neulgeun” (Old)
새로운 — “Saeloun” (New)
이른 — “Ileun” (Early)
늦은 — “Neujeun” (Late)
긴 — “Gin” (Long)
짧은 — “Jjalbeun” (Short)
좁은 — “Jobeun” (Narrow)
넓은 — “Neolbeun” (Wide)
같은 — “Gateun” (Same)
다른 — “Daleun” (Different)
Common Korean Verbs
Here are a few common verbs that could come up in daily conversations:
먹다 — “Meokda” (Eat)
마시다 — “Masida” (Drink)
자다 — “Jada” (Sleep)
주다 — “Juda” (Give)
가다 — “Gada” (Go)
놀다 — “Nolda” (Play)
누르다 — “Nureuda” (Press)
달리다 — “Dallida” (Run)
쓰다 — “Sseuda” (Write)
읽다 — “Ilgda” (Read)
“500 Basic Korean Verbs” has more action words to add to your Korean.
Korea has two number systems, and they’re used for different purposes. The native Korean number system below is used when you want to count something, like “one apple,” “two bananas” and “10 fingers.” Age, which is very important in Korean society, uses this counting system. The number system only goes as high as “99.”
Here are the first 10 Korean counting numbers:
하나 — “Hana” (1)
둘 — “Dool” (2)
셋 — “Set” (3)
넷 — “Net” (4)
다섯 — “Dasut” (5)
여섯 — “Yusut” (6)
일곱 — “Eelgop” (7)
여덟 — “Yudulb” (8)
아홉 — “Ahop” (9)
열 — “Yul” (10)
The next number system, a Chinese (Sino) influenced one, is used when you want to use figures for things like telephone numbers, addresses, dates and money. Unlike the previous system that only goes as high as “99,” these numbers go to trillions and beyond. So let’s say you have trillions of apples—you’d switch to this system to count them.
Here are the first 10 Sino-Korean numbers:
일 — “Eel” (1)
이 — “Ee” (2)
삼 — “Sam” (3)
사 — “Sa” (4)
오 — “O” (5)
육 — “Yook” (6)
칠 — “Chil” (7)
팔 — “Pal” (8)
구 — “Goo” (9)
십 — “Ship” (10)
Korean Days of the Week
There’s just seven of them, so memorizing them shouldn’t take a week. (Plus, they all end in “-yo-il”). The names of the days have Chinese origins and taken from the names of the five elements in nature and two heavenly bodies—the sun and the moon.
월요일 — “Wur-yoil” (Monday)
화요일 — “Hwa-yoil” (Tuesday)
수요일 — “Soo-yoil” (Wednesday)
목요일 — “Mog-yoil” (Thursday)
금요일 — “Geum-yoil” (Friday)
토요일 — “To-yoil” (Saturday)
일요일 — “Ee-ryoil” (Sunday)
Korean Months of the Year
The Korean months of the year also have some Chinese origins. “Wol” is the Sino-Korean word for “month,” and it’s prefixed by the Sino-Korean numbers you learned previously:
1월 — “Irwol” (January)
2월 — “Iwol” (February)
3월 — “Samwol” (March)
4월 — “Sawol” (April)
5월 — “Owol” (May)
6월 — “Yuwol” (June)
7월 — “Chirwol” (July)
8월 — “Palwol” (August)
9월 — “Guwol” (September)
10월 — “Siwol” (October)
11월 — “Shipilwol” (November)
12월 — “Shipiwol” (December)
Korean Holidays and Celebrations
Koreans hold annual celebrations that reflect their history, values and beliefs as a nation. Here are some of them:
새해 — “Saehae” (New Year’s Day)
This takes place on January first and is typically celebrated like other countries around the globe: with lots of food, drinks, music and fireworks.
설날 — “Seolnal” (Lunar New Year)
“Seolnal” is more culturally significant for Korea—a celebration based on the lunar calendar which has only 354 days to the year. Celebrations follow a few weeks after “Sinjeong.” The Lunar New Year is usually a three-day affair—covering the day before “Seolnal,” the day itself, and the day after.
Koreans often go back to their hometowns bringing gifts for parents and paying respects to their ancestors. “Hanbok,” the traditional garb is worn on the day itself. Tables get loaded with food which almost always includes rice cake soup and fried pancakes.
In addition to the family catching up with the goings-on of each other’s lives, traditional games are played to while away the day.
삼일절 — “Samiljeol” (Independence Movement Day)
In the afternoon of March 1, 1919, Korean activists declared “everlasting liberty” from Japanese occupiers who controlled the Korean peninsula at that time. The independence document touted Korea’s 5,000-year-long history and their right to freely co-exist with all humankind.
어린이날 — “Eorininal” (Children’s Day)
Every Korean child is excited for the fifth of May celebrations. It’s like Christmas in May. They get their gifts they’ve been hinting for the longest time. There could also be money involved. Mom and dad also take them to amusement parks, zoos, malls and museums to give them the time of their lives.
부처님 오신 날 — “Bucheonnim Osinnal” (Buddha’s Birthday)
Buddhism is one of the major religions in Korea. It’s celebrated on the eighth day of the fourth month of the Lunar calendar.
현충일 — “Hyeonchung-il” (Memorial Day)
June 6 honors the ultimate sacrifice made by the men and women who fought in the Korean wars. The president leads the rites at the National Cemetery in Seoul. The flag is flown at half-mast and at 10 AM, sirens ring all across the country and followed by a minute of prayerful silence.
제헌절 — “Jeheonjeol” (Constitution Day)
A country cannot be strong without a codified system of laws. July 17, 1948 is hailed as the day when Korea’s fundamental law of the land was promulgated. Bad news though: the day is a working holiday. Awwww.
광복절 — “Gwangbokjeol” (Liberation Day)
Koreans raise the flag with a little bit more pride on this day. August 15 commemorates Korea’s liberation from Japan, after decades-long of struggle and turmoil. This is the day the empire of Japan unconditionally surrendered to the Allied forces in World War II.
추석 — “Chuseok” (Autumn Eve)
There’s American Thanksgiving, then there’s “Chuseok” or Korean Thanksgiving—a three-day celebration which happens around September or October. Koreans flock back to their hometowns and spend time with the family. Special food, like “songpyeon,” rice dough filled with chestnuts, red beans and sesame seeds, is prepared.
“Chuseok” literally means “Autumn eve.” It’s a harvest festival, an homage to Korea’s roots as an agricultural nation.
개천절 — “Gaecheonjeol” (National Foundation Day)
October 3 each year commemorates the mythical founding of the first Korean Kingdom by Dangun, known as the “Grandson of Heaven.” Legend has it that Dangun is the son of “Hwanung” who descended from heaven and landed on Baekdu Mountain.
The holiday is celebrated with big fireworks displays that are always a crowd-pleaser. If you want a prime viewing spot, make your way to Yeouido Han River Park ahead of the crowd.
한글날 — “Hangeulnal” (Hangul Day)
This is the only celebration of its kind, commemorating a writing system. “Hangul” came to replace the Chinese characters prevalent in the 1400’s. King Sejong the Great appointed a committee to create a writing system that can easily be used by his subjects. From that committee came forth “Hangul,” a fully-fledged alphabet and one of the most scientific writing systems known today.
October 9, “Hangul Day,” celebrates this unparalleled accomplishment that shone a bright light on Korea’s distinctiveness as a nation.
크리스마스 — “Keuliseumaseu” (Christmas)
Christianity is one of the big religions in Korea. Christmas is celebrated in Korea just as it’s celebrated around the world, with Christmas songs, presents and fine food.
Just like in other cultures, colors are highly symbolic and have traditional meanings in Korean culture. White, black, red, blue and yellow are the five traditional colors of Korea. These colors are seen in the Korean flag, and are rich with history, religion and meaning:
흰색 — “Heuinsaek” (White)
Only the noble class and royalty used to be able to wear colored clothing. The masses, who couldn’t afford those expensive color dyes, wore white hanboks. And so the Koreans came to be known as “white-clad people.”
The color, which occupies the biggest real estate in the Korean flag, is also associated with purity, peace and patriotism.
검정색 — “Geomjeongsaek” (Black)
Black symbolizes death and winter. It also symbolizes the end of a cycle.
파란색 — “Paransaek” (Blue)
In the Korean flag, blue represents the “yin” component of the “Yin-yang.” It symbolizes feminine energy—cool and refreshing.
빨간색 — “Bbalgansaek” (Red)
Red represents fire. It signifies the masculine “yang” component of “Yin-yang”—creative, passionate and alive. Today, red is worn during sporting events to show team support.
노란색 — “Noransaek” (Yellow)
Yellow represents a complete balance of the Yin-yang forces. Yellow symbolizes the sun, the center of everything. And being the “center,” it also symbolizes the beginning or starting point of knowledge and wisdom.
초록색 — “Choroksaek” (Green)
Green symbolizes fertility, new beginnings and abundance. Traditionally, green used to be considered a variation of the color blue.
갈색 — “Galsaek” (Brown)
주황색 — “Juhwangsaek” (Orange)
분홍색 — “Bunhongsaek” (Pink)
보라색 — “Borasaek” (Purple)
대박 — “Dae-bak” (Awesome!)
When something positive or good has just happened, you yell this in celebration. Say, you just passed a test or successfully flirted with your crush, you say, “Dae-bak!”
콜 — “Kol” (Sure!)
Poker players say “Call!” to signify that they’re still in the game. Koreans use it to affirm that they’re doing something. “Eat a whole pizza in a single episode of the ‘Big Bang Theory’?” “Kol!”
아싸 — “Ah-ssa!” (Yay!)
Like “dae-bak,” this one’s another celebratory expression. So be ready with “Ah-ssa” when something nice happens—like when you just got tickets to see your favorite K-pop group.
파이팅 — “Paiting!” (C’mon!)
“Fighting!” You’re egging somebody to do something (hopefully not something illegal). You’re bucking him up, assuring him, “You can do it!” “Go, go, go!”
And so we wrap up this one here. There’s a lot to absorb in this post, so keep on coming back to this blog to review.
‘Til the next one.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Korean with real-world videos.