If you are one of those who have studied Korean for some period, you might have had such questions as:
Korean homonyms, and Korean words with multiple meanings can be one of the most challenging parts for learners wanting to improve their listening and reading comprehension.
This article will teach you some of the most common examples of Korean homonyms and Korean words with multiple meanings (polysemy).
The difference between homonyms and polysemy will be touched upon, as well as the processes through which these have appeared in the Korean language.
Before anything else, let us explain why some Korean words sound the same and are challenging for language learners. There are three main reasons for this:
Reason #1: Korean words which are spelled the same can have different meanings depending on the length of the vowel sound. The phenomenon of long and short vowel sounds is thought to be evidence that ancient Korean was a tonal language.
For example, with a long vowel sound « 말 » can mean a “language” or a “word”, and « 말 » with a short vowel sound means a “horse”.
As an example phrase containing these two words, there was a news article entitled “말 안 듣는 말”, which means “A horse that doesn’t listen to the words (of the rider)”. That was to describe an unfortunate case of a horse rider who lost the race because of his uncontrolled horse.
In this phrase, the first occurrence of the word « 말 » should be pronounced with a long vowel, whereas the second occurrence of the word « 말 » should have a short vowel sound.
Here are some more examples of Korean words which are spelled the same, but have different meanings depending on the length of the vowel sound:
Reason #2: A lot of different words derived from the Chinese language can be pronounced the same in Korean. ( related article: Are Korean and Chinese Similar Languages? )
For example, « 부자 » can mean “the rich” as well as “a father and a son”, since their Chinese characters are different whereas their Korean pronunciation is the same.
Below are some other common examples of this phenomenon:
|Word||Chinese character||English meaning|
|이성||理性||Reason, the capacity to think and judge logically|
|異性||The opposite gender|
|自費||One’s own expense, self-financing|
|思考||Thought, thinking, contemplation|
|收入||Earning, income, revenue|
|水道||Water supply, waterworks|
|장관||長官||Minister, the head of a government ministry|
Reason #3: The sound change rules make some different words sound the same.
One of the most well-known and confusing examples of this is related to [낟]. 낟, 낫, 낮, 낯, and 낱 are all pronounced the same as [낟].
However, each of them has got different meanings and usages. « 낟 » is used to indicate a single grain, and « 낫 » is a sickle as a farming tool. « 낮 » means the daytime, and « 낯 » is the face of a person or an animal.
This is caused by the rule that all the final consonants should be pronounced as one of the seven consonants, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, and ㅇ. The final consonants, ㄷ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅌ, and ㅎ should all be read as [ㄷ], which is why [낟] can be confusing as to what it refers to.
The sound change rules other than the one mentioned above can make different words sound the same. Some of the common examples are provided below.
Here you can learn about some other Korean homonyms with the example sentences. This part will be helpful with your comprehension skills if you pay special attention to the example sentences.
Words with multiple meanings, also known as polysemy, are different from homonyms in terms of the correlation among the various meanings.
Homonyms have unrelated meanings to each other whereas we can understand the meanings once we grasp one of the many meanings of polysemy.
Let’s take a few examples of words with multiple meanings out of the ocean of them.
This ends our discussion of Korean words that sound similar to each other. By understanding how these occur in the Korean language, and learning the most common examples of them, language learners will take an extra step towards fluency.
Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.