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Korean Konglish: The Definitive Guide

korean konglish

Before Reading About Konglish

This topic turned out to be more sensitive than I expected.  This article is just for fun. There is no academic research supporting this article. I am fully aware a lot of these words were borrowed from other languages, other than English, but still labelled Konglish. I am not the one who chooses what is Konglish and what is not. I just wrote what Koreans and other expats label as Konglish.  I agree, many of these words are incorrectly labelled as Konglish, but again, I am not the one who decides.

What is Korean Konglish?

Konglish is the mixing of English words and sentences into the Korean language. When an English native speaker encounters Konglish words, expression and sentences, they are almost always confused, but at the same time, amused.  Konglish is strange, funny, and often inappropriate.  Konglish is one of the cutest things about Korea and I hope everyone enjoys it as much as I do.

Korean Language  + English Language = Konglish

A lot of countries mix English with their national language and create their own English.  Some more examples are:

Chinese + English = Chinglish
Singaporean + English = Singlish
Hong Kong (Cantonese) + English = Honglish
Japanese + English = Japanglish / Japlish / Janglish
Spanish + English = Spanglish

Also unique and interesting to Konglish is that it is a modern example of how the North and South Korean language has evolved differently.  South Korea eagerly adopts a lot of English words and even creates new Konglish words, but North Korea does not allow English words into their Korean language to keep it pure Korean.  A lot of North Koreans who make their way to South Korea have to adjust like a foreigner to South Korean Konglish.

There are five debatable types of Konglish:

  1. A word borrowed from English commonly used in the Korean language with Korean pronunciation.
  2. An English word given a Korean meaning that does not exist in English.
  3. An English sentence that almost makes no sense at all or is extremely awkward.
  4. The attempted spelling of English words using Korean phonetic sounds.
  5. Full out Konglish. All English words in a sentence are said using only the Korean phonetic characters.  The Korean speaker does not understand the words of the English sentence. The speaker is just trying to replicate the sound of the words in the sentence to convey their message.
  6. Advanced Konglish.  Using language puns to create words that mix English and Korean.I threw this list together, but I am certainly open to more ideas, opinions and comments about what is Konglish.

1. Borrowed English (Foreign) Words

A word like the English word ‘video’ is spoken using the Korean pronunciation based on the phonetic sounds of their alphabet.  These English words are spelled with Korean characters and retain the same original meaning from English.  If you do not speak Korean, it is very easy to understand these words if you can adjust to a slight pronunciation difference.  If you use these words in English, most Koreans will understand you regardless of their fluency level.

Some words are borrowed from other languages, but oddly enough still labelled Konglish.

Hof (German)
Arba (German

Here are some common examples of Korean words borrowed from English that retain the same meaning:

Video (비디오)
Computer (컴퓨터)
Sofa (소파)
Juice (주스)
Shopping (쇼핑)
Menu (메뉴)
Pizza (피자)
Coffee (커피)
Television (텔레비전)
Banana (바나나)

2. An English Word but a Korean Meaning

A lot of English words have been adopted by the Korean language, but sometimes the meaning of the word is not adopted.  Koreans will use the English word, but attach a new meaning to the word that is not always understood by an English native speaker.  The new Korean meanings of English words can be quite confusing to native English speakers because it sounds like a Korean is speaking English, but the context of the word or sentence is misunderstood.

The best example of completely beautiful Korean Konglish term is the word ‘Fighting’ (화이팅 / 파이팅). To an English speaker ‘fighting’ means some sort of violent action.  In the sentence, ‘Dave and Rob are fighting’, a native English speaker will conjure up an image of two people physically hitting each other.  Ironically, Koreans have adopted the word, but have attached more positive meanings to it.  The Konglish term ‘fighting’ cannot be directly translated into English, but it is used to express, ‘cheer up’ or ‘good luck’ depending on the situation.  It is an expression of support before a test or sports match.  Koreans will say it as just one word and usually add an arm/fist pump for emphasis. Also note, when Koreans say it, there pronunciation is slightly different since there is no consonant ‘f’ sound in the Korean alphabet.  ‘Fighting’ sounds more like ‘hw-i-ting’.

An example use of ‘Fighting’:
A: I am worried about my test scores.
B: Fighting!

A: We will play Busan in the playoffs.
B: Fighting!Korean konglish fighting

In Korea, there are many English words in which the new meaning must be learnt by native English speakers.  It takes a little while, and a lot of exposure of the Konglish expressions to fully understand the sense of how, where and which context to use them in.

Although Konglish terms like ‘fighting’ are difficult to understand for a native English speaker experiencing the word for the first time, a lot of Konglish words are easier to understand and figure out when a foreigner first hears them.  For example, although ‘handphone’ is not proper English, it takes seconds for an English speaker to understand the meaning.  Konglish words such as eye shopping, aircon and one room, may cause confusion at first, but with a simple explanation these words are easily understood.

Eye Shopping = Window Shopping
Aircon = Air Conditionor
One Room = Bachelor suite apartment or studio apartment.

Foreigners living in Korea, often adopt these funny and cute Konglish terms into their own vocabulary.  I will admit some of them are useful and easier to express something than English words.  For example, the Konglish term, ‘skinship’ means intimate or affectionate touching (sexual or non-sexual) between lovers or close family members. For me, saying ‘skinship’ is the perfect and sweetest way to express showing physical affection.

3. Random or Awkward English Sentences

This use of Konglish will confuse you, shock you, and make you shed a tear due to the butchering of the English language.  You will see these strange English sentences on t-shirts, signs, stationary, tattoos (facepalm + headshake)  and basic interior wall designs for restaurants or coffee shops. When you encounter a full on Konglish sentence you will not believe your eyes.  You will read it and try to make sense of it, but you will fail.  Konglish sentences look like English and some word groupings may make sense, but it is closer to random gibberish than an actual English sentence with a specific message to get across (not unlike this article).  These strange sentences are almost always due to bad translations by electronic or online dictionaries. 

Believe it or not using English sentences and words are good for designing.  It is art, cosmetic and gives a Korean company or product a global sense which is attractive to Koreans.  The English is not written for English native speakers. It is written for Koreans.  If a Korean cannot understand the Konglish sentences, they will most likely see it as their lack of English as the problem rather than lazy marketers.

A foreigner will quickly wonder which editor allowed this to be printed on shirt or published as a slogan, but keep in mind, a foreigner is not the target audience.  Korean apartments have English names like Xia, Humanasia which of course means nothing in English, but seems sophisticated to a Korean.

If you are a native English speak and point out the syntax, grammar and spelling problems in these goofy sentences to a Korean, you will realize they are not as sensitive about the crimes against the English language as you.

You may come across a perfect English sentence, but the context usage is wrong…very wrong.

konglish shirt

Let’s talk about Korean Pop Music (Kpop).  If you listen to Kpop music, you will notice almost every Korean artists sings a lot ofEnglish verses that can only be described as Konglish.  They are close to English, but the grammar or pronunciations of the lyrics are just wrong or slightly off.  You might say, ‘why don’t they fix up the grammar of these songs and improve the pronunciation of their common English choruses’, but in fact these companies actively use and prefer more Konglish style lyrics. Many Kpop singers who do speak fluent English are made to say these inaccurate English lyrics. Why? I have no idea.

4. Funny Attempted Spelling of English Words

I encourage and praise South Korea for trying to be more foreigner-friendly by adding English to tourist signs and restaurant menus.  Unfortunately, many people who make these signs try to spell the English words with only their knowledge of the Korean alphabet and make their best guess at the spelling.

engrish in Korea

5. Full Konglish All The Way

The last type of Konglish is the most disturbing form of Konglish. A Korean speaker will focus on the sound a specific English sentence makes rather than the words or even spelling.  They just break down a sentence into its basic phonetic sounds.  When a Korean says these sounds, it sounds similar to the English sentence they want to say. For example:

English Sentence – “Let’s eat dinner.”

Koreans Say – “Lets-uh eat-uh dinna.”  (Please excuse my basic Romanization of Korean speaking)

A Korean does not need to know what the individual words ‘let’s’, ‘eat’ and ‘dinner’ mean.  They only need to know the meaning of the sentence and how to say it in Korean with a similar sound. It is up to the listener to adjust to the odd accent of the sentence.  It is ugly, but it works at a basic level.

full konglish in korea

This style is not unique to Korea.  This is common in guide books around the world.  Usually tourists do not have time to learn the local language and rely on these types of translation guides as a quick fix to communication problems.

Jackie Chan, who is legendary for his lack of English skills, is rumored to often use this method to deliver a lot of lines in movies.  If he needs help for pronunciation, he gets someone to break down the English lines into basic phonetic sounds.

6. Korean-English Puns

The most advanced level of Konglish is more of a visual than spoken experience.  It requires you to know Korean and English and be able to understand puns that connect both languages.  The best example of this are Konglish expressions using the number ’5′.  In Korean, ‘five’ is said as ‘oh’.  Therefore, you can say ’5MyGod’ which is the same as ‘Oh My God’.  ’5ffice’, ’5fficetel’ are other examples.

5 my god konglish

Essention Konglish

Essential Konglish terms you should know:

Konglish Word: Meeting (미팅)
Korean Meaning: Blind Date

Konglish Word: Name Card (네임 카드)
Meaning:  Business Card

Konglish Word: One Piece
Meaning: A Dress

English Word: M.T. / Membership Training
Meaning:  Freshman Drinking Trip / Company Workshop

Konglish Word: Officetel (오피스텔)
Meaning:  An apartment that is for single people or small companies.

Konglish Word: Cunning (커닝, 컨닝)
Meaning: Cheating

Konglish Word: Pension
Meaning: A condo that you travel to for your vacation.

Konglish Word: Selca (셀카)
Meaning: A selfie.  A picture you take of yourself.

Konglish Word: Overeat
Meaning: A selfie.  Throw up

Konglish Lists

There are thousands of Konglish terms and the list is growing every year. For a beginner Konglish list, please check out The Ultimate Konglish List and of course the Wikipedia Konglish List.

Konglish Videos

 Be sure to check out the awesome Konglish Song and Random Korean Konglish #1.

I love Konglish terms.  They are confusing at first, but after you get a sense of the word, they are often a more efficient and accurate way to express or explain something than its English counterpart.

Let me know if you know any new and cool Konglish.  I love hearing and learning about new Konglish trends!

Please comment below or like and share!

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5 Responses to "Korean Konglish: The Definitive Guide"

  1. Jen says:

    Explains a lot of things my Korean students say. THx

  2. Petar says:

    Actually, a notebook is a type of a mobile PC computer, which has the same meaning as a laptop.

  3. Chris Backe says:

    Want more Konglish? I put together a book called 'Octopus Formality' – a collection of the best Konglish I saw in five years. It's over on Amazon – http://is.gd/SJgNHt

  4. Hennie Greyling says:

    Only North Americans think that "aircon" is Konglish. ㅋ

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