Featured article photo: Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, Korea by 이룬 봉 (CC0 Licensed)
As you might already know, Korean is a language that places importance on formality levels. Speaking to someone older than you are requires difference speech patterns compared to if you are speaking to someone your age. The same thing occurs when you are speaking with a colleague vs. speaking to the president of a company.
The main way Koreans do this with with suffixes. Suffixes are basically word endings that you attach to the end of a word, typically to verbs and question words (What, Who, When, Where, Why, How). In English, we typically refer to these questions words as the 5W1H question words.
Let us get started on learning the question words first, then we will explore how to use these question words at various formality levels.
The Question Words
Mwo (뭐) → What (typically used in spoken context)
Mueot (무엇) → What (typically used in written context)
- Nugu (누구) → Who
- Eonje (언제) → When
- Eodi (어디) → Where
- Wae (왜) → Why
- Eotteohke (어떻게) → How
The Plain Form
You may use these question words in their plain forms, meaning you can use the six question words above as is without any changes.
For example, in English when you are simply trying to ask "Why?", you can simply say "왜? (Wae?)".
Questions in the plain form is the most common way to ask questions towards someone your age or someone you are already familiar with.
You might also have encountered questions in plain form a lot when watching Korean dramas. Cue: The dramatic "뭐????? (Mwo?????)", or the desperate 어떻게??? (Eotteohke???)"
However, you should be more mindful about using the question words in this form when talking to someone older.
But don't worry! That's why this lesson does not stop here just yet. Now we will explore how to use the 5W1H question words inflected with suffixes that indicate various formality levels. There are a few levels of speech formality in Korean, but for beginner and intermediate learners, I strongly believe learning three will definitely suffice for a start: Formal, Polite, and Intimate.
To put it very briefly:
- Use formal speech when talking to someone older or in a more superior position than you are in an organization.
- Use polite form under the same circumstances as you would use a formal speech, but would like to come off as somewhat more casual. You can also use the polite form when meeting someone new who appears to be of the same age of you.
- You use intimate form when talking to a friend of around the same age or someone younger, such as a child.
When using question words, I would recommend using the polite or plain form instead of the intimate form, even if you are talking to someone around your age. This is because you are asking someone for an information, and being polite when asking something is always the best way to go.
Using intimate form carelessly when asking questions gives off a rather crass attitude, so again, stick to using the polite or plain form to be safe. Note that the plain forms of the question words are still considered more polite than the intimate ones.
1. Mueot (무엇) / Mwo (뭐) → What
Formal: 무업니까 (Mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: 뭐예요 (Mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: 뭐야? (Mwo-ya?)
Formal: 그것 무업니까? (Geu-geot mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: 그것 뭐예요? (Geu-geot mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: 그것 뭐야? (Geu-geot mwo-ya?)
Meaning: "What is that thing?"
2. Nugu (누구) → Who
Formal: 누굽니까? (Nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: 누구예요? (Nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: 누구야? (Nugu-ya?)
Formal: 그 사람이 누굽니까? (Geu saram-i nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: 그 사람이 누구예요? (Geu saram-i nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: 그 사람이 누구야? (Geu saram-i nugu-ya?)
Meaning: "Who is that person?"
3. Eonje (언제) → When
Formal: 언제입니까? (Eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: 언제예요? (Eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: 언제야? (Eonje-ya?)
Formal: 수업이 언제입니까? (Sueob-i eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: 수업이 언제예요? (Sueob-i eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: 수업이 언제야? (Sueob-i eonje-ya?)
Meaning: "When is the class?"
4. Eodi (어디) → Where
Formal: 어디입니까? (Eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: 어디예요? (Eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: 어디야? (Eodi-ya?)
Formal: 화장실이 어디입니까? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: 화장실이 어디예요? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: 화장실이 어디야? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-ya?)
Meaning: "Where is the washroom?"
5. Wae (왜) → Why
왜 (Wae) and 어떻게 (Eotteohke) are not typically inflected to indicate formality levels, but the verbs that follow them do. So to learn the various formality levels in asking questions with these two question words, you have to learn how to conjugate verbs first, and that is beyond the intended scope of this lesson. Just familiarize yourself with all the other question words for now; take it one step at a time.
Formal: 왜 책을 삽니까? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-mnikka?)
Polite: 왜 책을 사요? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-yo?)
Intimate: 왜 책을 사? (Wae chaeg-eul sa?)
Meaning: "Why are you buying the book?"
6. Eotteohke (어떻게) → How
Formal: 어떻게 만듭니까? (Eotteohke mandeu-mnikka?)
Polite: 어떻게 만들어요? (Eotteohke mandeur-eoyo?)
Intimate: 어떻게 만들어? (Eotteohke mandeur-eo?)
Meaning: "How do you make this?"
By now, you should be able to conclude the suffixes that are attached to question words that indicate formality levels:
- Formal → ... + -(i)mnikka? (... + 입니까?)
- Polite → ... + -yeyo? (... + 이예요? or ... + 예요?)
- Intimate → ... + -ya? (... + 야?)
Hope you are now more comfortable in asking questions in Korean. If you have any questions, simply post them in the comment section below!
Create questions using any of these 5W1H question words that you have just learned and leave them in the comment section below. Till next time :)
This article was last updated on Sunday, 28 June 2020, UTC–8.
Want More Practice in Korean?
- Basic Korean (Grammar Workbook) by Professor Andrew Sangpil Byon (변상필) is a useful workbook that you can use to practice your skills in basic Korean grammar points such as forming present and past tense sentences.
- Check out KoreanClass101.com, a website where you can learn Korean guided by native speakers through audio lessons. You can start learning anywhere from Beginner, Upper Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels to practice on listening, vocabulary lists, and grammar pointers to fast track your goal in becoming a pro in Korean!
- Talk To Me In Korean Level 1 is a useful self-study book designed for absolute beginners to embark on their self-study journey in learning Korean.
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