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Asking What, Who, When, Where, Why, How in Korean

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Unlike English, you can't just go around asking "What, Who, When, Where, Why, How" in the same way to everyone in Korean. You need to know how to ask questions in various formality and politeness levels, depending on who you are speaking to.

Asking What, Who, When, Where, Why, How in Korean
Featured article photo: Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, Korea by ์ด๋ฃฌ ๋ด‰

Formality and Politeness in the Korean Language

Korean is a language that places importance on formality. Speaking to someone older than you requires a different speech pattern compared to the situation when 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. This is also why it is very common for Koreans to ask about your age even when you have just met, so that they would know how to communicate to you accordingly.

The main way Koreans adjust their formality level in their speech is through suffixes, which are endings that you attach to the end of a word. In Korean, formality and politeness suffixes are typically attached 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.

Letโ€™s get started on learning these 6 Korean question words first, and then we will explore how to use them at various formality levels.

The 6 Question Words in Korean

  1. Mwo (๋ญ) โ†’ What (typically used in spoken contexts)
    Mueot (๋ฌด์—‡) โ†’ What (typically used in written contexts)
  2. Nugu (๋ˆ„๊ตฌ) โ†’ Who
  3. Eonje (์–ธ์ œ) โ†’ When
  4. Eodi (์–ด๋””) โ†’ Where
  5. Wae (์™œ) โ†’ Why
  6. Eotteohke (์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ) โ†’ How

You can use the above question words as they are when you are asking a one-word question. For example, in English, when you are trying to ask someone "Why?", you can say Wae? (์™œ?) in Korean.

But note that you should only do this when you are talking to someone your age or someone you are closely familiar with.

If you watch Korean dramas, you might also have noticed how these question words are used on their own.

Cue: The dramatic Mwo??? (๋ญ???), or the desperate Eotteohke??? (์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ???)

However, you should be more mindful about using these question words on their own when talking to someone older.

More on Formality Levels

There are several levels of speech formality in Korean, but for beginner and intermediate learners, I believe learning three will suffice for a start: Formal, Polite, and Intimate.

To put it very briefly:

  1. Use formal speech when talking to someone older or in a more superior position than you are in an organization.

  2. If you want to come off as polite but a tiny bit casual, you can use the polite form. It's appropriate when talking to someone a little older or when meeting someone new who appears to be of the same age of you.

  3. You can use the intimate form when talking to a friend who is around the same age as you or someone younger than you (e.g. a child).

Using the intimate form carelessly when asking questions gives off a rather crass attitude, so stick to using the polite form to be safe unless you know the person well.

Here are the 6 Korean question words in their formal, polite, and intimate forms.

1. Mueot (๋ฌด์—‡) / Mwo (๋ญ) โ†’ What

Formal: ๋ฌด์—…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: ๋ญ์˜ˆ์š”? (Mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: ๋ญ์•ผ? (Mwo-ya?)
Meaning: What?

Formal: ๊ทธ๊ฒƒ ๋ฌด์—…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Geu-geot mueo-mnikka?)
Polite: ๊ทธ๊ฒƒ ๋ญ์˜ˆ์š”? (Geu-geot mwo-yeyo?)
Intimate: ๊ทธ๊ฒƒ ๋ญ์•ผ? (Geu-geot mwo-ya?)
Meaning: What is that thing?

2. Nugu (๋ˆ„๊ตฌ) โ†’ Who

Formal: ๋ˆ„๊ตฝ๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: ๋ˆ„๊ตฌ์˜ˆ์š”? (Nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: ๋ˆ„๊ตฌ์•ผ? (Nugu-ya?)
Meaning: Who?

Formal: ๊ทธ ์‚ฌ๋žŒ์ด ๋ˆ„๊ตฝ๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Geu saram-i nugu-mnikka?)
Polite: ๊ทธ ์‚ฌ๋žŒ์ด ๋ˆ„๊ตฌ์˜ˆ์š”? (Geu saram-i nugu-yeyo?)
Intimate: ๊ทธ ์‚ฌ๋žŒ์ด ๋ˆ„๊ตฌ์•ผ? (Geu saram-i nugu-ya?)
Meaning: Who is that person?

3. Eonje (์–ธ์ œ) โ†’ When

Formal: ์–ธ์ œ์ž…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: ์–ธ์ œ์˜ˆ์š”? (Eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: ์–ธ์ œ์•ผ? (Eonje-ya?)
Meaning: When?

Formal: ์ˆ˜์—…์ด ์–ธ์ œ์ž…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Sueob-i eonje-imnikka?)
Polite: ์ˆ˜์—…์ด ์–ธ์ œ์˜ˆ์š”? (Sueob-i eonje-yeyo?)
Intimate: ์ˆ˜์—…์ด ์–ธ์ œ์•ผ? (Sueob-i eonje-ya?)
Meaning: When is the class?

4. Eodi (์–ด๋””) โ†’ Where

Formal: ์–ด๋””์ž…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: ์–ด๋””์˜ˆ์š”? (Eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: ์–ด๋””์•ผ? (Eodi-ya?)
Meaning: Where?

Formal: ํ™”์žฅ์‹ค์ด ์–ด๋””์ž…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-mnikka?)
Polite: ํ™”์žฅ์‹ค์ด ์–ด๋””์˜ˆ์š”? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-yeyo?)
Intimate: ํ™”์žฅ์‹ค์ด ์–ด๋””์•ผ? (Hwajangshir-i eodi-ya?)
Meaning: Where is the washroom?

By now, you should be able to observe the word endings in Korean question words that indicate formality levels:

  1. Formal โ†’ ... + -(i)mnikka? (... + ์ž…๋‹ˆ๊นŒ?)
  2. Polite โ†’ ... + -yeyo? (... + ์ด์˜ˆ์š”? or ... + ์˜ˆ์š”?)
  3. Intimate โ†’ ... + -ya? (... + ์•ผ?)

5. Wae (์™œ) โ†’ Why

์™œ (Wae) and ์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ (Eotteohke) are not typically inflected to indicate formality levels, but the verbs that follow them do, except maybe for ์™œ์š”? (Wae-yo?), which is the polite form of ์™œ (Wae).

To learn the various formality levels in asking questions with ์™œ (Wae) and ์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ (Eotteohke), you have to learn how to conjugate verbs first, though that is beyond the intended scope of this post. Just familiarize yourself with all the other question words for now, and take it one step at a time...

Formal: ์™œ ์ฑ…์„ ์‚ฝ๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-mnikka?)
Polite: ์™œ ์ฑ…์„ ์‚ฌ์š”? (Wae chaeg-eul sa-yo?)
Intimate: ์™œ ์ฑ…์„ ์‚ฌ? (Wae chaeg-eul sa?)
Meaning: Why are you buying the book?

6. Eotteohke (์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ) โ†’ How

Formal: ์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ ๋งŒ๋“ญ๋‹ˆ๊นŒ? (Eotteohke mandeu-mnikka?)
Polite: ์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ ๋งŒ๋“ค์–ด์š”? (Eotteohke mandeur-eoyo?)
Intimate: ์–ด๋–ป๊ฒŒ ๋งŒ๋“ค์–ด? (Eotteohke mandeur-eo?)
Meaning: "How do you make [this]?"

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