Korean Names

Koreans, no doubt, have many customs and traditions that govern the naming of people, places and things. I don’t pretend to understand all, or even many of them, but let me relate a few that I have observed.

As for people, most Korean names consist of a monosyllabic family name and a two-syllable given name. The “John Doe” of Korean names is, for some reason, 홍길동 (Hong Gil-dong), a legendary bandit leader and advocate of the people (often likened to Robin Hood) about whom at least two dramas have been made. 홍 is his family name, and 길동 is his given name.

Like most Korean names, 홍길동 is a Hanja-based name. Hanja (한자, pronounced 한짜) are Chinese characters, as used in the Korean language. 한자 is analogous to kanji in Japanese, except that as a rule, 한자 are used as rarely as possible, whereas kanji are used as frequently as possible. 한자 are used mainly to abbreviate (e.g. 韓美 = Korea–U.S. relations) and to disambiguate (도 can be island, province, street/way, and many other things; 島 = island, 道 = province, 途 = street/way). In the case of names, 한자 serves to disambiguate, and thus, add meaning to the name. In 홍길동’s case, his name is written in 한자 as 洪吉童:

洪: broad, wide, vast
吉: lucky
童: child

So his family name means “wide,” which can be interpreted as “widely known,” or famous. And his given name means “lucky child.”

There are definitely exceptions to this custom. You may encounter people with two-syllable family names and/or monosyllabic given names. But this is rare, and in any case, most Korean names will have 2-4 syllables in total. Most, but not all names have 한자 roots.

Similar customs apply to place names. Most place names have two syllables, excluding suffixes like 산 (mountain), 도 (province… or island… or street/way…), with each syllable derived from a 한자 character. Here are some examples:

인천: 仁 (“benevolent”) + 川 (“stream”)
강남: 江 (“river”) + 南 (“south”)
종로: 鐘 (“bell”) + 路 (“street”)

Notably, 서울 (Seoul) is not a 한자-based name. Words and names without 한자 are referred to as pure Korean.

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Public Transportation – Taxis

Okay, so taxis are not exactly public transportation. But stick with me for a second.

Taxis often:

  • Are used by people who don’t own cars
  • Accept transportation cards, like T-Money
  • Wait next to train/subway stations and bus stops, making for easy transfers
  • Are regulated by the government, often by the same authority that regulates buses and subways

Thus, as far as I am concerned, taxis also count as part of the public transportation system. In any case, whether you agree with me or not, I’m sure you will appreciate having this information all in once place, along with the subway and bus info.

Taxis in Korea are very cheap if you are coming from the U.S. The meter drop is just 2400 won in Seoul (2300 in Gyeonggi-do), and fares increase just 100 won per tick from there (based on time and distance). Outside of rush hour, taxis are easily the quickest way to get from one place to another, especially if you don’t like walking. With a group, a short trip can even be cheaper than taking the bus or subway!

Taxis come in several flavors, but the main thing to look out for is 모범 (deluxe) taxis. They are black with a gold stripe, and cost quite a bit more, about twice as much. They are comfortable, easy-going and more accommodating of special situations, but for most, deluxe taxis are just unnecessarily expensive.

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Public Transportation – Buses

Buses go everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. You can find a bus (or series of buses) to take you anywhere in the country.

There are several classes of service, depending on how far you need to go, and how popular your starting point and destination are. On the local/less popular end of the spectrum, “village buses” (마을버스) make a lot of stops in a small area. On the wide area end, there are long haul buses to connect the cities and provinces.

Fares are based on class of service, ranging from 600 for 마을버스 to 1900 on the high end (airport buses can be much higher, in the range of 9000-15000). Generally, when transferring between buses, you pay the difference in cost (if any), so that by the end of your journey, the total fare paid is equal to the cost of the highest class of service you used.

In some cases, buses can be your best option. The most obvious case is when a bus takes a more direct route than the nearest subway line, or when there is no nearby subway line. Another case is rush hour, when the limits of all transportation options are tested. During rush hour, taxi fares escalate quickly to impractical, then astronomical levels, and subway trains can be packed so full you can hardly breathe. Buses get full, but not quite the way subway cars can. Many buses run in dedicated bus lanes, easily bypassing the stopped traffic.

With hundreds of routes to choose from, sometimes dozens of routes serving a particular stop, and often even multiple stops on the same block, the bus system can be intimidating, even to veterans (especially when the routes change, as they do quarterly). Unless you have someone to help you, it may be easiest just to call 1330 (02-1330 in Seoul, 031-1330 in Gyeonggi-do, etc.) to get help figuring out which bus to take.

Words to know:

버스 – bus
버스정류장 – bus stop
버스터미널 – bus terminal
요금 – fee; fare; charge
교통카드 – transportation card (a prepaid card used to pay fares)
환승 – transfer

The transportation card we talked about in the previous article on Subways is the same, so go back and read that one if you missed it.

Public Transportation – The Subway

The subway is by far the easiest way to get around Korea. Assuming, of course, that your starting point and destination are fairly close to a subway station, which is becoming true for more and more people every day. Just within Seoul, there are 14 lines in operation today, with several new line extensions and completely new lines coming online this year and next.

All the signs have English on them, stop announcements are made in English (and sometimes Japanese and Chinese as well), and while you may not always get a seat, subway travel is generally the most comfortable option. Timing is extremely predictable, trains usually depart within a minute of their scheduled times.

The only downside is that since you will be traveling underground for the most part, there isn’t much to see. On the other hand, the two major wireless carriers, having long ago deployed 3G and 4G data throughout all the subway stations and lines, are currently working to roll out wifi. At the time of this writing, I’d estimate they are about 1/3 done.

Seoul subway fares are very reasonable, starting at 900 won, going up to 1300-1500 won for a cross-city trip, and around 4000 won to go from Seoul to Incheon International Airport.

Words you should know:

지하철 – subway
지하철역 – subway station
갈아타는 곳 – transfer point
요금 – fee; fare; charge
교통 카드 – transportation card (a prepaid card used to pay fares)

More on this “transportation card.” In Seoul and the surrounding areas, you can buy a T-Money card at vending machines at every subway station, and they can also be found at many convenience stores. Once you have a card, you can load money onto it (10,000 won is a good start), and you can use it to pay subway and bus fares, as well as taxi fares in a limited, but growing number of taxis. There are also a growing number of vending machines and convenience stores accepting T-Money payments. (The other major cities have their own variants of this system.)

While it is possible to buy single-use tickets (which, these days, are reusable plastic cards that are collected at your destination), I recommend using T-Money if you plan to take more than, say 3 subway trips. Why? Not only is it much, much easier than purchasing a single ticket for each ride, you can also get discounts. You get a small discount just for using a T-Money card, plus you can get whopping discounts on transfers. Subway and bus fares are actually based on distance, so if you transfer from a subway train to a bus, your bus fare will be discounted or free (depending on the class of bus service). The reverse is also true, when transferring from a bus to the subway.

Public Transportation – Introduction

This post begins a series on public transportation. The next few posts will cover the basics of using the subway, bus and taxi. But first, let’s introduce some useful words:

대중교통 – public transportation (교통 means traffic or transportation)
지하철 – subway (지하 means underground, 철 means steel)
버스 – bus
택시 – taxi
요금 – fee; fare; charge
교통카드 – transportation card (a prepaid card used to pay fares)

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Thank you for helping me

While I’m sure you know how to say “Thank you” by now, it is not obvious how to thank someone for one particular favor. The most common case is “Thank you for helping me,” so let’s try that now:

도와줘서 고마워요! – Thank you for helping me! (literally: “You gave me help, so I am thankful!”)

Note the reversed phrase order. In this extremely common Korean grammatical construction, the sequence of events is presented in chronological order: the help is given, and afterward, as a result, you are thankful. If it helps, you can think of 서 as being like the English word “so” in the above example.

Here are some more common things you might want to thank people for:

말해줘서 고마워요. – Thank you for telling me. (or: “Thank you for mentioning [it].”)
가져 와줘서 감사합니다. – Thank you for bringing [it]. (e.g. a book, a note, something you forgot)
사줘서 고마워요! – Thank you for buying [it] for me! (e.g. chocolates, a pen, clothes)
만들어줘서 고마워요! – Thank you for making [it] for me! (e.g. coffee, tea, food, a picture)
빌려줘서 감사합니다! – Thank you for lending [it] to me! (e.g. a book, money, a pencil)

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Let’s do that!

Next time you are trying to decide on something to do (or figure out how to do something) and one person comes up with a good idea, try this:

그렇게 합시다! – Let’s do that! (literally, “let’s do it that way”)

Or, if you have a good idea, and want to share it, try this:

이렇게 합시다. – How about this

… then proceed to to explain your idea.

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Yes, that’s right

Sometimes, “Yes” and “No” aren’t quite enough. If you want to confirm something, try this:

네, 맞아요. – Yes, that’s right.

Sometimes people aren’t sure whether you understood if you just say 네. And rightly so! If you are like me, when in doubt, you nod and say 네.

So when you do truly understand the question and want to give a solid confirmation, add on 맞아요 (“That’s correct”).

You can use this to confirm your name (“Are you Aaron?” “Your name is Aaron, right?”), your age, and other flat facts (“Is this Gangnam Station?”).

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Dining out

This post is a little extra-long, but I wanted to keep all of this material together in one place, so that you can refer back to it easily.

When eating at a restaurant, you don’t necessarily need to know all the names of the foods you want to order, but there are definitely a few phrases that will make the dining experience go more smoothly.

뭘 드릴까요? – What shall I bring you? (servers may ask you this to take your order)

주문 할게요 – I’d like to order (if no one comes to take your order)

이거 하나 주세요 – Please give me one of this (point to what you want). Substitute larger numbers as needed: 두개 = 2, 세개 = 3, 네개 = 4. If you can say the name of what you want, you can just say it instead of 이거. Example: 맥주 두개 주세요 (Two beers, please.).

여기요! – Over here! (say this to get the attention of a server)

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