From 시 to 리: Deciphering Locations in Korean

During a recent translation project for a client, I repeatedly deciphered locations in Korean for an American English-speaking audience (and got pretty good at it). This article is for other non-natives trying to understand where things are in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Korea is divided into administrative regions. They have official names and official suffixes that designate the type of region. However, some places also have older or simplified names used colloquially that are similar to the official name. This can make it confusing when you’re trying to find Chungbuk (충북) on Naver Maps, but it keeps showing you North Chungcheong Province (충청북도)…

Tip: They’re the same place.

Let’s look at the most common suffixes that identify the type of region.

Korean Administrative Region Suffixes

~도province (do)
~시city (si)
~군county (gun)
~구district (gu)
~읍town (eup)
~면township (myeon)
~동neighborhood (dong)
~리village (ri)

You may also see the following special terms.

마을village, town (maeul)*
특별시special city (teukbyeolsi)
광역시metropolitan city (gwangyeoksi)
특별자치시special autonomous city (teukbyeoljachisi)

*Did you notice that there are two different terms for village? 마을 is natural Korean, whereas almost all other words are Sino-Korean, which means they’re hanja-based. The official administrative divisions all seem to use hanja-based terms, but you’ll frequently see places called [이름] 마을.

Add in the cardinal directions and you’ll notice these are common in the names of provinces.

Cardinal Directions in Korean

east
west
south
north

Remember I mentioned North Chungcheong Province (충청도)?

북 (buk) means north, and 도 (do) means province, which is why the official English name is North Chungcheong Province. Direction markers (동서남북/east-west-south-north) in a province name usually come right before the province marker.

Korean addresses and American English addresses function in opposite directions. In American English, it’s like we start with a selfie on Google Maps Street View and then zoom out to the stratosphere. We move from the most specific place to the most general or biggest region: Person’s First Name > Last Name > Street Number > Street Name > Town/City > State > Country.

Taeri Kim
123 Place Street
Somewhere City, Michigan
United States of America

But in Korean, we move from the most general or biggest area to the most specific: Country > Province > Town/City > Street Name > Street Number > Person’s Last Name > First Name. Imagine viewing Korea on Google Maps and then zooming in with each extra tidbit of information until suddenly you see yourself walking along Haeundae Beach in Busan, living your best life.

Q&A

Q: Can we try a longer example? What if you’re reading about 충청남도 논산시 부창동? What’s that in English?

The first area given in this case is a province (도/do). Some people translate this as Chungcheongnamdo Province, others as Chungcheongnam Province, and others as North Chungcheong Province.

The next is 논산시. It ends in 시, meaning city: Nonsan City.

The third and final clue is 부창. The suffix 동 means neighborhood, so this is Buchang Neighborhood.

We can write the address by flipping the order: Buchang Neighborhood in Nonsan City, North Chungcheong Province.

We can also write the address and include the suffixes as well as the English descriptors (neighborhood, city, province): Buchang-dong Neighborhood, Nonsan-si City, Chungcheongnam-do Province.

When writing a South Korean postal address in English, I recommend writing it without the English descriptors. For example: Buchang-dong, Nonsan-si, Chuncheongnam-do.

Q: Why do I sometimes see places with multiple and completely different names? And why do other places have multiple ways of being expressed in English, like Han River, Hangang River, or the Han river?

While the South Korean government has a standardized romanization system, not everyone follows it. There are many romanization systems in use, and people often create their own based on how they think a word sounds (Note: Romanization is the term for expressing words from another language in the Roman alphabet). Some people want to include the full original Korean name, like 한강, along with the English word “river” to make sure their (possibly non-Korean-speaking) audience understands that it’s a river.

There’s also a lot of historical turmoil. Korea has gone through different iterations of place standardizations and also spent decades during the 1900s under forced Japanese imperial rule, during which there was a period of forced Japanese names. In that era, not just Korean places but also Korean people were forced to use Japanese names. South Korea also recently updated its official postal address system, which is good for long-term efficiency but nonetheless has confused non-Koreans trying to send postcards and packages.

It’s me. I’m the confused non-Korean trying to send postcards and packages.

Did you get my letter?

지금 재생 중

MAMAMOO, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for you, but I have the biggest girl crush on Taeyeon these days.

야민정음: 롬곡 and the Korean Trend of Rearranged Slang

If you spend your time scrounging around comment sections for Korean webtoons, YouTube videos, and other parts of the online ecosystem, you’ve probably seen your fair share of words that you absolutely couldn’t figure out. They weren’t in dictionaries. They weren’t in Google Translate. 

But they were absolutely everywhere else. Don’t worry, you’re not crazy. You probably just encountered a word that’s been flipped around per a text-speak trend that’s been around since the 2000s.

Continue reading

What is Kimbap Fashion?

Dozens of North and South Korean athletes walk together at the 2018 Olympics' opening ceremony, wearing the same long white padded jackets as they wave under a white flag signifying a unified Korea.
Joint Korean Olympic Team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Image from VOA News

If you watched the 2018 Olympics in South Korea,* you might not have noticed what everyone was wearing, let alone known that there’s a popular slang term for it. Because puffy winter jackets don’t tend to stand out when everyone is wearing them. Especially when it’s really, really cold. But if you go back and watch old clips of the 2018 Olympics on YouTube, suddenly you’ll see them. You’ll see them everywhere. 

The padded jacket invasion.

Continue reading

How To Find Korean Reading Resources For Any Level

Increasing your reading comprehension in Korean is one of the biggest challenges that any Korean language learner faces. Why? For one, reading in a new language is undeniably difficult. And if you don’t love reading to begin with, you might be even less interested in studying in a way that you don’t enjoy.

But for students who are teaching themselves or trying to augment their in-class studies, the biggest issue actually lies in figuring out what to read — and where you can get it. Finding resources like beginner level stories to practice your Korean can be really, really hard.

It’s even harder when your Korean level isn’t high enough to search through Korean-language sites. You might not even know what you’re looking at because your vocabulary is limited. I’ve been there; I’ve done that. I’ve battled through those language learning trenches, which is why I’m here to tell you the good news: There are many different ways to find resources to increase your Korean skills through reading!

And here they are. Happy reading! Continue reading

How to Buy Korean Ebooks Part II: Adding Money to Your Kyobo Bookstore Account

Do you already have a Kyobo Bookstore account? If no, please read this post first. Then, all you need is PayPal (a debit or credit card works too) and an email address.


Part II: Add money to your Kyobo Bookstore account

You should do this via a laptop or computer.  Continue reading

How to Buy Korean Ebooks Part I: Creating a Kyobo Bookstore Account

There are some great sites in English that facilitate foreigners purchasing Korean-language books. TTMIK is one; GMarket’s global site is another. But the shipping costs for these books can be prohibitively high. Fortunately, there is a legal way to purchase Korean ebooks to read on any device that can download the 교보eBook app.

Thus far I’ve been able to easily download this and read on my iPhone, iPad, and laptop (Windows 10). Kyobo has its own e-reader device just like Amazon has Kindle, but you don’t need to purchase the device to use the services or read your ebooks.

All you really need is Paypal (a debit or credit card works, too) and an email address.

And now? Now I’m going to take you through how to get that Korean book that you’ve been longing to read, even if you barely know how to read Korean. Step by step. Continue reading

고백: How to confess your love in Korean

Just about every webtoon and K-drama I enjoy has at least two of the following features:

  • A plethora of misunderstandings and ill-timed arrivals
  • Quirky characters and mysterious pasts
  • Beautifully dramatic confessions of angst and love

Usually, they have all three. But the last feature, confessions (고백 / go-baek) of angst and love, is particularly fun because it can happen in so many different ways.

All right, so let’s talk about how to confess your love in Korean. There are three main categories of confessing: liking, loving, and “seeing” someone in a romantic or sexual light. And to make matters more interesting, there are also direct and indirect ways of confessing.

For those of you who can’t read hangeul, I’ve written the phonetic pronunciation of the Korean words where necessary. Shall we begin? Continue reading

Key Korean Prefixes: 재, 재, and 재

my daneo jjang

Like my previous post addressing the useful Korean prefix 되, this post identifies another Korean prefix that functions like the Latin-based English prefix “re”. For example, English has words like replay, reorganize, and recycle; Korean, too, has prefixes that can help you figure out what a word means. Unlike 되, this one comes from a Chinese character or 한자.

(as a prefix) = again

What’s the difference between 되 and 재 as prefixes? 되 is natural Korean, which means it does not originate from a 한자 or Chinese character. 재 does: 再.

재 = 再

Additionally, 되 seems to have broader usage than 재, which almost exclusively means “again”.

Let’s take a look at some Korean words that reflect this specific usage and 再 character, and then we’ll examine other possible 한자 and associated meanings for 재.  Continue reading

Key Korean Prefixes: 되

my daneo jjang

If you’re an English speaker who pays close attention to language traits, you’ve probably learned or realized that a vast majority of English verbs beginning with “re” are words that talk about doing something over again. Shall I reword, rephrase, or reorganize that thought?

re = originally a Latin prefix meaning “again” or “back”

remove = to move something back or away

reverse = to go backward

Similarly, Korean has its own prefix that functions like the Latin-based English prefix “re”. Korean uses 되~; English uses re~.

(as a prefix) = back, again; on the contrary

Let’s take a look at some Korean words that reflect this usage.  Continue reading

Advanced Korean Grammar: ~만도 못하다

Hidden in the interesting Korean phrase 짐승만도 못한 놈 is a Korean grammar construction that’s useful in a variety of situations – but I guess the original sentence is useful, too, if you want to insult someone…  Continue reading