An important skill we all learn when we are young is how to count. We use numbers for a lot of daily activities such as cooking, shopping, chit chat, etc. So it won’t come to a surprise that if you want to master Korean, you need to master the numbers in Korean and how to count things in Korean. However, both might be a bit more complicated than you’d expect.

Numerals In Korean

The first thing you will need to learn are the numbers in Korean. Here you will encounter the first unexpected difficulty. In Korean, you don’t use one, but two numerals. There are native Korean numbers, which are as the name imply pure Korean. There is also the Sino-Korean numbers which are derived from Chinese.

Let’s see what both numerals are all about.

Sino-Korean numbers

The first set of numerals are the Sino-Korean numbers. You will soon discovered they are the easiest numbers to master. Since there are two sets of numbers a normal question is: “When do we use which?” That is a great question! The two sets have mutually exclusive uses. In certain situations the type of number will dictate the meaning of a sentence; so watch out.

The Sino-Korean numbers are used to express the following things for example: telephone numbers, bus line numbers, height, weight, address numbers, days, years, month’s, minutes, seconds and prices.

The image below has all the basic Sino-Korean numbers up until 10 000.

Sino-Korean Numbers
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All the Sino-Korean numbers; from 1 to 10 000.

Native Korean numbers

The second set of Korean numerals are the native Korean numbers. These are pure Korean words and in a way it shows as they are more difficult to master. However, they are equally important to know. However, modern Korean only uses the native Korean number up until 99; starting from 100 (백) they switch over to Sino-Korean regardless the situation.

You use the native Korean numbers to tell the time (hours) and counting nouns.

The image below has all the native Korean number up until 100 with 100 being a Sino-Korean number.

Native Korean Numbers
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All the native Korean numbers from 1 to 100.

Counting In Korean

When I talked about the Korean native numbers, I mentioned they are used with counting nouns. Counting nouns are small words that allow us to count objects or people. You cannot just say a number and a noun to say how many of those things there are. Let me explain it with an English example:

Take the English word bread. You cannot say 2 breads, that is simply incorrect. You need to say 2 loaves of bread.

Korean counting nouns are essentially loaves in English, a word to aid us in counting.

There are many counting nouns as most are specific for certain types of objects. All of them are used with the native Korean numbers. The best part of counting nouns when you truly know them is that they generally tell you what the other person is talking about without a need of repeating it.

The most important counting nouns for beginners are: 명 (persons – neutral), 분 (persons – honorific), 마리 (animals), 권 (books), 개 (general counting noun), 병 (bottles), 잔 (glasses and cups), 장 (paper and paper like things such as tickets) and 살 (age).

Try to make sure to keep 개, the general counting noun, in mind at all time. Whenever you are unsure which counting noun is suitable, use it as your fall back. Even Koreans struggle remembering all counting nouns and they’ll use 개 just as well.

Lastly please keep in mind the numbers 하나 (1), 둘 (2), 셋 (3), 넷 (4) and 스물 (20) are shortened when placed before a counting noun. They become 한, 두, 세, 네 and 스무.

Korean Counting Nouns
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A short overview on the most important things to keep in mind when using Korean counting nouns.