Korean Pronouns 101: Personal, Demonstrative, Interrogative and Possessive
What are “pronouns?”
Well, they’re not talented nouns who went “pro” and are now raking in the big bucks, living the good life, driving fancy cars and traveling the world.
(Those are your Instagram influencers!)
Instead, pronouns are words used to substitute nouns so we don’t repeat the same words over and over.
They add a certain finesse and flourish to the language.
Today, our goal is to meet a bunch of Korean pronouns.
And once mastered, I know your grasp of the Korean language will improve significantly!
Sound good? Let’s begin.
3 Things You Need to Know About Korean Pronouns
You don’t see them in every sentence.
Like in many other languages, Korean speakers usually just drop pronouns whenever they can.
As long as the context is clear and the subject of the conversation has been established, the pronouns aren’t needed to express a clear thought.
And it’s not just the Koreans who do this. When an English-speaking mom tells her muddy five-year-old, “Bath…now!” the little fella understands that she wants him to take a bath and clean up. She didn’t have to say “I want you to go take a bath right now!”
Sometimes, putting pronouns where they’re supposed to be instead of leaving them out makes your speech sound awkward.
In any language, don’t underestimate the power of context and gestures to fill in any gaps.
But where you’ll find Korean pronouns most powerful is in songs, poems and dramas.
However, we still study them because, as you’ll soon find out, whenever they do appear in conversations, they imply a lot and affect the tone.
There are “casual” and “formal” pronouns.
You already know this. Korean has a separate linguistic system for casual engagements and another one for polite and formal occasions.
One language is used for friends, people you’re close with and people of the same age or rank.
The other is big on respect and is employed when interacting with elders, strangers, bosses or people who occupy higher social ranks.
Korea observes a hierarchical system of rules. While in the West, it can be considered rude to ask someone their age as a stranger, Koreans almost always have to ask for your age.
This allows them to properly address you.
They’re not trying to be cheeky or rude, they simply want to use the proper language with you.
That said, there are casual pronouns used for casual conversations and formal pronouns used for formal situations.
There’s no “you” in Korean.
This may come as a surprise, but there’s no legit translation of the English word “you” in Korean. In English, “you” is neutral but comes off as rude and too forward in Korean culture.
So, how are you supposed to say “you” in Korean then?
Instead of having one word for “you,” Korean has multiple.
Native speakers make use of the actual names, positions, honorifics and roles when referring to people, instead of using the word “you.”
So for example, instead of “you,” native speakers might highlight their relationship with the person they’re addressing.
They might use terms like 누나 (noo-na) if a male speaker addresses an older female, or 언니 (un-nie) if a female speaker addresses an older female.
Another alternative is simply using the person’s name and appending the character 씨 (sshi), which is like Mr., Ms. and Mrs.
Here’s something interesting.
While pronouns are supposedly used so that we don’t repeat ourselves too much, in the case of those Korean “you” substitutes, you can repeat names as often as you want without them being considered a drag in the conversation.
In other words, native speakers aren’t too bothered when you say something like “Right this way, Mr. Johnson. Please sit down, Mr. Johnson. Would like some tea, Mr. Johnson?”
Korean Pronouns 101: Personal, Demonstrative, Interrogative and Possessive
Something to note about Korean pronouns is that there are a lot of them.
Too many to cover in one post, actually.
So today, we’ll learn some of the most common ones and get a familiar feel for how they work. With these Korean pronouns under your belt, you’ll already have everything you need to start having better conversations.
Like I mentioned before, the most common places to find Korean pronouns are songs, poems and dramas. So mastering the most common ones will set you well on your way to understanding more of your favorite Korean content.
But why stop there?
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Personal Pronouns in Korean
Personal pronouns are used to refer to people, and they can be singular or plural.
And, because we’re talking about Korean here, personal pronouns can also be casual or formal.
Personal pronouns come in three forms—the first-person, the second-person and the third-person.
First-person is when you’re talking about yourself.
The second-person is when you’re talking about the person you’re talking to (such as “you”).
And finally, the third-person is when you’re talking about somebody else who’s not in the conversation.
Before diving deep into each pronoun, let’s take a look at the casual and formal forms of them all.
Casual Personal Pronouns:
|First Person||나 (na)||우리 (uri)|
|Second Person||너 (neo)||너희 (neohui)|
|Third Person||걔 (gyae)||그들은 (geudeul-eun)|
Formal Personal Pronouns:
|First Person||저 (jeo)||우리 (uri) and 저희 (jeohui)|
|Second Person||여러분 (yeoreobun)|
|Third Person||그 (geu) and |
First-person Singular Personal Pronouns
나 (na) — I (casual)
나는 너를 좋아해 (Na-neun nuh-reul jo-a-hae) — I like you.
저 (jeo) — I (formal)
저는 호주에서 왔습니다 (Jeo-neun ho-ju-e-seo wa-sseum-ni-da.) — I am from Australia.
First-person Plural Personal Pronouns
우리 (u-ri) — we/us/our (casual and formal)
우리나라 (u-ri-na-ra) — my country (literally: our country)
우리 엄마 (u-ri um-ma) — my mother (literally: our mother)
저희 (jeo-hui) — we/us/our (formal)
Korean is a collective and inclusive culture. This means they may use “our” but actually mean “my.”
In formal language, you can use both 우리 and 저희. These two have a bit of nuance in their formal function, though.
When you use 우리, it means the listener or the person you’re talking to is included in the “we” described. In other words, by saying “we,” you mean “you and me.”
When you use 저희, the listener or the person you’re addressing is excluded in the “we.”
For example, if you tell your mom “we’re going to the movies”—as in, “my friends and I are going to the movies”—you’d use 저희.
Second-person Singular Personal Pronouns
We’ve already mentioned earlier that there’s no direct “you” in Korean. So the kind of “you” we’ll be using depends on the person we’re talking to or about.
One of the most common substitutes for the word “you” is 씨 (sshi).
It follows a simple formula:
Given name + 씨
Instead of using the pronoun “you,” one can simply name the person straight out and append it with 씨. This is comparable to the English Mr., Ms. or Mrs.
So for example, 서준 (Seo-jun) becomes 서준 씨 (Seo-jun sshi).
Each time the person is addressed, his name will be called out. In Korean, this is better than getting addressed as “you.”
In addition to names, professions can be used as a substitute for “you.”
님 (nim) is an honorific especially employed for people belonging to a respected professional class like Ph.D.’s 박사님 (bag-sa-nim), teachers 선생님 (seon-saeng-nim) or pastors 목사님 (mok-sa-nim).
Your boss would be called 사장님 (sa-jang-nim).
For middle-aged men and women, 아저씨 (ah-ju-ssi) and 아줌마 (a-jum-ma) can be used respectively. They’re the equivalent of the English “mister” and “madam.”
If somebody looks young enough to be a student, you can address him as 학생 (hag-saeng) — student.
당신 (dang-sin) — You
Dictionaries often use this as a translation for “you,” and it’s frequently used in lyrics, poems and other written works.
But it’s rarely used in spoken Korean or informal engagements.
당신 carries both positive and negative connotations.
The word is sometimes used as a term of endearment for spouses (usually middle-aged) similar to the English “sweetheart” or “honey.”
At the opposite extreme, if you feel like getting punched one morning—or you want to do some swinging of your own—당신 can be effectively used for these ends.
A well-placed 당신 in the middle of a conversation with a stranger can start a dentist-sanctioned fight.
For the unnecessary nuances, it’s best for the Korean beginner to avoid using 당신.
너 (neo) — You
너 뭐해? (Neo mwo-hae?) — What are you doing?
This is a highly casual form of address and can only be used for people your age, who you’re also close with.
Second Person Plural Personal Pronouns
너희 (neo-hui) — you all (casual)
나는 내가 너희 모두를 믿을 수 있다는 것을 안다. (Na-neun nae-ga neo-hui mo-du-leul mid-eul su iss-da-neun geos-eul an-da.) — I know I can count on all of you.
여러분 (yeo-reo-bun) — you all (formal)
여러분 만나서 반가워요. (Yeo-reo-bun man-na-seo ban-ga-wo-yo.) — Nice to meet you, guys.
너희 is the plural form of “you” and is similar to a phrase like “you guys” or “y’all.” It can be used to address your circle of friends.
여러분, on the other hand, is more polite and is used to address an audience. For example, a YouTuber can use this to greet his viewers.
Third-person Singular Personal Pronouns
그 (geu) — he
그는 키가 크다. (Geu-neun ki-ga keu-da.) — He is tall.
그녀 (geu-nyeo) — she
그녀는 예쁘다. (Geu-nyeo-neun ye-ppeu-da.) — She is pretty.
걔 (gyae) — that boy/girl
걔는 말랐다. (Gyae-neun mal-lass-da) — He/she/that person is skinny.
Technically, “he” and “she” in Korean is translated as 그 and 그녀 respectively.
However, you’ll rarely hear these words coming out of a native speaker’s mouth. You’ll mostly find it in Korean textbooks, songs or poems.
걔 (gyae)—which means “that boy or girl”—is used instead.
In English, we’re so used to saying “he” or “she” and establishing the gender of the person being discussed. By using 걔, which doesn’t specify gender, the context in the Korean conversation plays a vital role in determining who’s actually being referred.
Instead of using 그 (he), 그녀 (she) and their accompanying particles, another option is to fall back on the practice of actually naming the person or mentioning his or her title, role or position.
그 (he) and 그녀 (she) is seen in songs and poems because in these cases, context is not clearly specified.
Unlike conversations—which allows you to specifically name a person, for example—a lyric or a poem is often read on the vacuum of a printed piece of paper, with no vivid context accompanying it.
Using 그 (he) and 그녀 (she) leaves room allowing the reader to appropriate the line into his or her specific situation.
Third Person Plural Personal Pronouns
그들은 (geu-deul-eun) — they (casual)
그들은 내일 돌아올 거야. (Geu-deul-eun nae-il dol-a-ol geo-ya.) — They’ll be back tomorrow.
그분들 (“geu-bun-deul”) = they [formal]
그분들은 매주 일요일에 공원에 가세요. (Geu-bun-deul-eun mae-ju il-yo-il-e gong-won-e ga-se-yo.) — They go to the park every Sunday.
그들은 is used to talk about a group of people who are absent or away from the conversation. This would be appropriate to use for friends and people who are similar in age and rank to the speaker.
The word 그분들 is exactly the same as 그들은 but more formal. Thus, it’s more appropriate for referring to a group of people who are your seniors.
Demonstrative Pronouns in Korean
No, demonstrative pronouns are not evil pronouns (although they can be devilishly useful). Instead, they’re often used to point out objects and their locations.
|이 (ee)||이거 (igeo) - This||여기 (yeogi) - Here|
|그 (geu)||그거 (geugeo) - That||거기 (geogi) - There|
|저 (jeo)||저거 (jeogeo) - That||저기 (jeogi) - There|
There are three demonstrative stems that you need to remember, and they all have something to do with the physical distance of an object relative to the speaker and listener.
이 (ee) — This
이거 주세요 (I-geo ju-se-yo) —This, please.
이거 얼마예요? (I-geo eol-ma-ye-yo?) — How much is this?
이거 살게요 (I-geo sal-ge-yo) — I’ll buy this.
이, which means “this,” is used to refer to something near the speaker. So if you’re holding a pencil, you’d say, 이 연필 (ee yeon-pil) —“This pencil.”
그 (geu) — That
그거 주세요 (Geu-geo ju-se-yo) — That, please.
그 is used to refer to something far from the speaker…but near the listener. So if the person you’re talking to is holding a paper, you say 그 종이 (geu jong-i) — “That paper.”
저 (jeo) — That…Over There
저기요! (Jeo-gi-yo!) — Over there!
저거 얼마예요? (Jeo-geo eol-ma-ye-yo?) — How much is that over there?
저 is used when referring to something that’s far from both the speaker and listener. So if you and your friend are walking and talking about your dream ride and you happen to spot it, you can say 저 차 (jeo cha) — “That car.”
Interrogative Pronouns in Korean
Interrogative pronouns are the words used to ask a question. They are the What, When, Where and Who sort of questions.
|어떤 (eotteon)||What kind of|
Here are the basic Korean interrogative pronouns:
누구 (nu-gu) — Who
누구예요? (Nu-gu-ye-yo?) — Who is that person?
뭐 (mwo) — What
이거 뭐예요? (I-geo mwo-ye-yo?) — What is this?
언제 (eon-je) — When
생일이 언제예요? (Saeng-il-i eon-je-ye-yo?) — When is your birthday?
어디 (eo-di) — Where
어디에 가요? (Eo-di-e ga-yo?) — Where are you going?
어느 (eo neu) — Which
어느 나라 출신이세요? (Eo-neu na-ra chool-shin i-se-yo?) — Which country are you from?
어떤 (eo-tteon) — What Kind Of
어떤 음식을 좋아하세요? (Eo-tteon eum-sig-eul joh-a-ha-se-yo?) — What kind of food do you like?
Possessive Pronouns in Korean
Possessive pronouns are like clingy girlfriends at the mall. They indicate ownership, bond or some sort of relationship.
|My||나의 (na ui)||저의 (jeo ui)|
|Your||너의 (neo ui)|
In Korean, 의 (ui) is the possessive particle.
You can think of 의 as the equivalent of the “apostrophe S” placed at the tail of the noun to signify ownership or possession (for example: Kathy’s bag).
의, in spoken form, sounds like 에 (e).
And like personal pronouns, possessive pronouns also have casual and formal forms.
“My” in Korean
나의 (na-ui) — my (casual)
내 친구 (nae chin-gu) — my friend
저의 (jeo-ui) — my (formal)
제 가족 (je ga-jok) — my family
You might’ve noticed a difference between the Korean words for “my” and the way they were used in the example sentences (내 and 제).
This is because 나의 can be shortened to 내 (nae) and 저의 to 제 (je).
“Your” in Korean
너의 (neo-ui) — your (casual)
In writing, 너의 can be shortened to 네.
But in spoken form, native speakers say it as 니 (nee).
The reason is that 네 (your) and 내 (my) sounds very much the same. And in situations when the distinction between “my” and “your” is crucial, like in answering the question, “Who’s girlfriend is she?”, you better be crystal clear with the answer. Otherwise, 네 인생 (ne in-saeng) — “your life” might be in danger.
So for safety purposes, 네 is spoken as 니.
Also, keep in mind that 네 is informal and can only be used with people younger than you and those you’re close to.
So that’s it!
You now have a working knowledge of Korean pronouns. Hopefully, you’re feeling confident about when to use each and how you should address (and talk about) people of different ages and roles.