One of the most frequently asked question I noticed on sites such as Quora, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter on Korean is: What are the Korean pronouns? Today I am going to answer this question. I answer this question not, because pronouns are important, but to warn people learning Korean. Korean pronouns are probably not at all what they are in your native language.

The Korean Pronouns

Like all language, Korean has pronouns and they do use them. However, the relationship the Korean language has with this type of words is a lot different from in most Western languages. The distinct absence of these little words in textbooks, conversations and texts hints at this relationship. However, let’s first introduce the two major groups: personal and demonstrative pronouns.

Meet the Demonstrative Pronouns

Demonstrative pronouns, or demonstratives for short, are rather simple to understand. They are those handy little words you use to indicate what thing you are talking about. In English some of these words are ‘this’ and ‘that’. Demonstratives also exist in Korean and they are very similar to their English counterparts.

The basic Korean demonstratives are: 이, 그 and 저. The demonstrative 이 is used to refer to an object that is close the the speaker and is the Korean equivalent of ‘this’. 그 on the other hand refers to the object that is close to the listener and means ‘that’. However, 저 refers to a thing that is visible, but both away from the listener and the speaker. That word you can translate as ‘that over there’. When an object is not visible, you also use 그. These words are used along nouns so you clarify which of the things you are talking about. ‘이 가방’ means ‘this bag’ for example.

Demonstratives are used frequently in Korean.

Object, Place and Location

In English, it is also possible to use those demonstratives on their own. In Korean you cannot use 이, 그 and 저 independently. Instead you’ll have to use it with a non-specific noun depending what you mean with the demonstrative. You can refer to three general concepts: objects, persons and place.

  • Object: 이것, 그것 and 저것.
  • Person: 이 사람/분, 그 사람/분  and 저 사람/분.
  • Place 이곳/여기, 그곳/거기 and 저곳/저기.

The words 이것, 그것 and 저것 are often contracted in conversations when used with the particles -은/는, -이/가 and -을/를:

  • With -은/는: 이건, 그건 and 저건.
  • With -이/가: 이게, 그게  and 저게.
  • With -을/를: 이걸, 그걸 and 저걸.

Meet the Personal Pronouns

However, when we talk about the personal pronouns the Korean story is very different from what the story is in English. However, before we go too deep, let’s just go over the Korean personal pronouns as they exist in English. The Korean equivalents for the pronouns are:

  • I, me: 저/나
  • You (singular): 당신/너
  • He: 그
  • She: 그녀
  • We, us: 저희/우리
  • You (plural): 당신들/너희
  • They: 그들
  • They (female): 그녀들

As you can see they are all present and accounted for in Korean. However, you will have noticed that, save for 저/나 and 저희/우리, these pronouns are hardly ever used. That is due to how the Korean language works, but also due to Korean culture.

Lack of Personal Pronouns: Grammar

You see in English and many other languages a sentence must always have subject. So we need to repeat that subject in every sentence even if it is always the same. To avoid repeating long words and names, we’ll replace them with personal pronouns. However, in Korean you don’t have to use subjects in sentences. In fact, if the subject is obvious you simply omit the subject completely. This makes the use of Korean personal pronouns, other than those for yourself (저/나) or your group (저희/우리), have little to no use.

Lack of Personal Pronouns: Culture

However, there is another reason why Koreans avoid using pronouns such as 당신/너, 그 and 그녀. It is simply considered rude to refer to people in that name. Politeness is an important aspect in Korean culture and a way to infer politeness is through the use of someone’s name. Names are important in Korean culture and not using them through pronouns is simply considered rude. Therefore you’ll hardly ever hear a Korean use pronouns except in the most informal of situations. It is best to simply never use personal pronouns in Korean. Besides, it is very easy to not ever use them anyway.

당신

There is one pronoun, however, I feel is important to highlight and that one is 당신. When you look at it 당신 is the honorific form to say ‘you’ in Korean. However, don’t let that ‘honorific’ part fool you. Of all the Korean pronouns, this pronoun is by far the most impolite one to ever use. I strongly discourage you from ever using this pronoun in conversation. 

When you use it when speaking to someone, that person will assume one of two things: you are belittling him or you are picking a fight. Simply, don’t. If you have to use the Korean ‘you’ and you are close friends, you have to use 너!

This pronoun can only be used in two situations without ever offending someone. The first situation is when talking to your spouse in your house. When you use it in that situation the word 당신 has an endearing connotation. the second use, is the impersonal use. You see, even though I said Koreans hardly use words such as 당신, you’ll come across 당신 in advertisement quite often. However, they are not using 당신 for you personally, that 당신 is impersonal, referring everyone. Because it can refer to everyone, it is okay to use that.

So I repeat don’t ever use 당신. It is not worth the risks that it brings with improper use.