Featured article photo: Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, Korea by 이룬 봉
As you might already know, 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 talk to you.
The main way Koreans do this is through 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’s get started on learning these question words in Korean, then we will explore how to use them at various formality levels.
The Question Words
Mwo (뭐) → What (typically used in spoken contexts)
Mueot (무엇) → What (typically used in written contexts)
- 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 all of the six question words above as they are without any changes.
For example, in English when you are simply trying to ask ‘Why?’, you can simply say Wae? (왜?).
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 these question words in plain form often when watching Korean dramas.
Cue: The dramatic Mwo????? (뭐?????), or the desperate Eotteohke??? (어떻게???)
However, you should be more mindful about using these question words in the plain form when talking to someone older.
But don't worry! That's why this article 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, learning three will 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.
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 unless you know the person well. 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?)