소자 vs. 소신

The good thing about having so many Korean novels is when I get bored/frustrated with one, I can always move onto another.  I’m pretty sure that at the moment I have a bookmark in every single one I own – but I’m close!  So close!  This close to finishing 우리들의 행복한 시간…. and I started reading 해를 품은 달 again (Note: The novels are fun but I do not recommend the drama.)  It’s sad but also amusing that I was reading these two books at the same time way back in 2012 as well.  Amazing how time zips by.

I’m not going to be critical about the fact that I haven’t improved much in Korean over the past couple years because I know I was struggling with bigger issues than just trying to get over a learning slump.  Only in the past few months have I made a real return to reading and listening to Korean on a daily basis again.  And I’m so, so happy to say that it brings me just as much joy now as it did when I first started!

So I reunited with 해품달 again a few days ago and have already read 50 pages or so from where I last left off.  No more skipping paragraphs/chapters and only reading for the Hwon-Yeonwoo Tragic Romance (TM)  Storyline!  Actually, a lot of characters have tragic moments in the novel and somehow – maybe it’s something about actually reading it – I can feel the tugging of my stiff, underused heartstrings more intensely than I did when I watched the drama.

This particular passage comes from Yangmyung’s point-of-view regarding his father, the King.  For those not familiar with the drama or novel, Yangmyung is the older son of the King and one of his concubines but has always been overlooked by his father.  All he ever wanted was to hear a word of praise from the King and, in hopes of achieving it, he throws himself into studying the philosophies and principals of being a good ruler.  But, knowing that Yangmyung will never ascend the throne so long as Hwon is alive, the King sees his academic achievements as “impudent” (건방지다).  Crushed, this is what Yangmyung decides:

이 일이 있고 나서부터 양명군은 ‘아바마마’와 소자라는 단어 대신 ‘상감마마’와 ‘소신’이란 단어만을 입에 담았다.

Something I’ve always found fascinating about the Korean language is its ability to, with almost no ambiguity, accurately define interpersonal relationships – which is why this one sentence alone is sufficient to tell the reader how swiftly and harshly Yangmyeong perceived the change in his relationship with the King.  The key words alluding to it were:

  • 아바마마 vs. 상감마마
  • 소자 vs. 소신

The first bullet is simple to understand – it’s just the difference between calling the King ‘my royal father,’ which is used by princes, to ‘Your Majesty the King,’ which is used by ordinary subjects.  It’s sort of easy to guess the meaning of 아바마마, given that it derives from 아버지 and 마마 (‘majesty’).  On the other hand, I had heard 소자 and 소신 many times while watching historical dramas and knew enough from context that they were both first-person personal pronouns or 1인칭 대명사 (i.e. “I”), but I couldn’t really tell what the difference was.

  • 소자 [小子]:  honorific way for a son to address himself to his parents
    • 小:  작을/젊다 소
    • 子:  아들 자
  • 소신 [小臣]:  honorific way for a subject/citizen to address himself to his liege
    • 小:  작을/짧다 소
    • 臣:  신하 신

The breakdown of the Hanja really makes the difference between the two pronouns clear:  소자 = “young son” and 소신 = “young citizen.”

You could liken it to the difference between 저 (polite) and 나 (casual) except the fall from addressing yourself as a prince to addressing yourself as a mere subject seems much more precipitous!  By changing the way Yangmyung addressed himself to the King, he made clear the change in their relationship – and the severing of familial ties – to everyone in the court. It’s such a simple change and yet it is heartbreaking….  Perhaps I feel the contrast more strongly because I’m not a native Korean speaker!  In any case, I’ll  continue to marvel at these linguistic gems that I pick up from the novels I’m reading.

V + ㄹ세

As you all may or may not know, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is one of my favorite dramas; the books are equally entertaining albeit horribly difficult to read.  I’m still plowing through book one, but I have paged through a lot of it and read chunks here and there.  This bit is from the last chapter of book one (all copyright belongs to the author 정은궐).  If any of you are planning to get the books or watch the drama later, don’t worry, none of these passages should be spoiler-worthy.

Okay so this isn’t strictly 사극 말투 but since I’ve often heard it and read it in historical dramas/books, I decided to include it in here.  It’s important to note V+ㄹ세 is sometimes used among the older generation when speaking 하게체, but rarely (if at all) among the younger current generation.  Here we go!

Three scholars in charge of Sungkyunkwan’s student publication (문집) accost Guhro and physically restrain him from escaping.  This year, they intend on getting his contribution to the publication one way or another, even at the risk of their own lives.

“뭐, 뭐야!  이거 놔!”
“글을 주기 전엔 놓아줄 수 없네.  걸오!  글 좀 주게나.”
“죽고 싶지 않으면 썩 떨어져!”
“죽더라도 글을 받기 전엔 떨어지지 않겠네.  우린 지금 유서 써 놓고 이리 달려들었어.”
“무슨 글?”
“우리 셋이 이번에 문집을 맡았네.  꼭 자네 글을 싣고 싶단 말일세.”
“에잇!  내가 미쳤다고 그런 글을 줘?”

Later, Yoonhee marvels over Guhro’s writing.  Guhro gives her a short poem to read and tells her to take it if she likes it.  Yoonhee is amazed that the contents of the poem and the disposition of the writer can be so… different.  Yongha butts in… 

“이런 걸 두고 사기(fraud)라고 하지.  시 속에 지은이의 성품이 녹아 있기 마련이라더니, 말짱 헛말일세!”
“시비 걸려면 내놔!”
“싫습니다!  이제 이건 제 겁니다.”
윤희는 그가 빼앗기 전에 얼른 소맷자락 속으로 넣아서 감추었다.  용하가 평소와 달리 대단히 기분 나쁜 투로 말하였다.
“걸오!  난 왜 안 주는가?  내가 자네 글을 얼마나 갖고 싶어하는데, 왜 난 안 주고 여기 대물만주는가!  나도 사랑 시를 지어 주게.  나도 달란 말일세!”

V + 일세 is used in one of three situations.

  1. When you are letting another person know of your thoughts/opinion on some matter.
  2. As an exclamation, when you’ve realized something for the first time.
  3. When you are conjecturing/surmising or intending to do something.

I think the first and third examples fall more under situation 1.  (Though I do tend to hear this construction more when I would expect to hear 모모 말이야 in contemporary Korean.)  The second example falls more under situation 2.  Not to be mixed up with the 말일세 of the other examples, 헛말 refers to “meaningless/useless words” and the 일세 in this context functions more like 이네.  Note that this construction is used between social equals or to inferior – it’s practically like using 반말.

There you have it!  I hope you don’t mind the long examples.  I love the humor in these books and it’s a delight to read richer, rounder versions of the characters I loved so much from the drama.


The lovely Yulia encouraged me to make more 사극 말투 posts, so here we go.  Unfortunately, 해를 품은 달 and 성균관 유생들의 나날 are the only two Korean historical fiction novels I own so unless I get to watching more 사극 dramas, most of my examples are going to come from those novels.  The Moon/Sun sheen’s worn off a bit for me and I’m starting to notice how truly 오글오글 the writing is in this book but I’m still going to keep going with it hopefully!  It’s an amazing feeling to be able to comprehend Korean prose.

Having discovered that Wol was brought to the palace as his personal talisman, Hwon uses his headache as an excuse to see her early one day.  Being the shameless flirt he is, he kisses her on the cheek…

“아.  미안하구나.  놀라게 하려던 것은 아닌데.  그럼 놀라게 한 죄로 나도 벌을 받으마.”

The conversation turns back to Wol’s identity before she became a shaman.  Wol doesn’t have the answers but Hwon is determined to keep her by his side nevertheless.

“월아, 이렇게 다시 만났으니 이번에는 절대 놓치지 않을 것이다.  어떻게든 무적에서 빼낼 방법을 찾으마.  기다려 다오.”

V + 으마 is actually very simple.  It’s a verb/sentence ending that is used when the speaker is conveying his intention or promising to do something for someone.  Sound familiar?  From context, I’m guessing that it’s used in the same way as V + 을게, but exclusively by a person of higher status or older age to a person of lower status/younger age.  Loosely translated, then:

놀라게 한 죄로 나도 벌을 받으마(받을게). = I too will suffer punishment for frightening you.

어떻게든 무적에서 빼낼 방법을 찾으마 (찾을게).

Most importantly, don’t mix up V+ 으마 with V + 지마(라)!  It’s tempting because they look so similar.

방법을 찾지마! = Don’t look for a way!
방법을 찾으마!  = I will find a way!

Similar, but oh so different.

V + 자꾸나

Hwon and Woon are lost in the forest.  Night is upon them and a misty rain begins to fall.

제운은 아랑곳없이 눈을 감은 채 고개를 숙이고 주위의 움직임을 읽었다.  먼 곳을 보던 훤이 산자락에 있는 희미한 불빛을 발견하고 반갑게 말했다.

“아!  잠시 저기서 비를 피하자꾸나.”

-정을궐, 해를 품은 달

First off, here’s a structure most of you are probably very familiar with:  V + 자” – the casual way to propose something you want to do with someone else.

예) 먹자! = Let’s eat!

예) 가자! = Let’s go!

-자꾸나 is equivalent to -자.  It can mean “Let’s…” or “How about… [we do something]?” but it tends to sound more intimate and is often used by an older person when addressing a younger person.  (In this case, Woon is older but Hwon is the king.)

예) 한잔 하자(꾸나) = Let’s have a drink.

예)  잠시 저기서 비를 피하자(꾸나). = Let us seek shelter from the rain for a moment over there.

V + 아/어/여 다오

Since I really love sageuks and “old” Korean, I think it would be fun to occasionally post some grammar points and vocabulary from the dramas and novels I’m currently reading.  I’m not sure how accurate some of these posts might be, so feel free to correct me if I get something wrong!  Most of this is just a summary of stuff I’ve read while browsing Korean language forums and such.

I think I’ll just post a few of my favorite passages from 해를 품은 달 and 성균관 유생들의 나날 as examples of the grammar/vocabulary that I want to write about (nothing spoilery, I promise!)  Without further ado:

“왕인 이 몸에 주술을 걸었다면 넌 능지처참*을 당할 것이다.  말해보아라. 주술을 건 것이냐?”

월이 놀란 눈으로 다시 훤을 돌아보았다.  그의 눈빛이 따뜻하게 웃고 있었다.

“아니면 내 마음이 왜 이런 것이냐?  설명해 다오.  목소리를….., 들려 다오.” 

*능지처참:  death by dismemberment 

– from 해를 품은 달

I cheated a little bit in that 다오 is an example of 하오체 which isn’t exclusively heard in sageuks (it can be heard in contemporary Korean and I’ve read it here and there on the internet but I’m not sure how common it is overall).  It is quite commonly heard in sageuks and gives the dialogue a more “old-fashioned” feel.

It’s pretty easy to tell from context how 다오 is used.  Basically, it’s a semi-informal way of requesting someone to do something.  Examples:

예) 돈 좀 빌려 다오. = Lend me some money.
예) 창문을 조금만 열어 다오. = Open the window a bit.

Two updates in a day?  My oh my.  I hope this means I’ll get back into the habit of blogging regularly.


I can’t adequately express how much I’m loving 해를 품은 달 (The Moon That Embraces the Sun) these days.  It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve been this emotionally invested in a story of any kind and it feels refreshingly good.  Although I’d say I’m enjoying the novel a tiny smidgen more than the drama at the moment, the first few episodes of the drama really swept me off my feet.  The child actors are so precious and talented; I just want to keep them in my pocket forever and ever!  This scene from episode four is one of my favorites:

: 가만. 설마 너 나와 그 아이를 질투하는 것이냐?
연우: 예? 아님니다.
: 이거 큰일이구나. 투기는 여인의 칠거지악 중 하나거늘…  나의 비가 될 아이가 이리 투기심이 많아서야…
연우: 아니라는데 왜 자꾸 그러십니- 예?
: 세자빈 간택이 시작된다는 말이다.  너도 처녀단제를 올릴테지? 기다리겠다.  너라면 분명 세자빈이 될 수 있을 것이다.

칠거지악 is a curious little word that I wasn’t familiar with.  I’ve seen it translated as “The Seven Deadly Sins” but that’s not what it literally means.

칠거지악 [명사]조선 시대, 아내를 내쫓을 수 있는 이유가 되는 일곱 가지의 허물. 곧 시부모에게 순종하지 아니하는 것(不順舅姑), 자식을 낳지 못하는 것(無子), 행실이 음탕한 것(淫), 질투하는 것(妬), 나쁜 병이 있는 것(惡症), 말이 많은 것(多言), 도둑질을 하는 것(盜) 등을 이른다. (source)

During the Joseon era, these were seven reasons for divorcing a wife:  Disobedience to her in-laws.  Inability to bear children.  Promiscuity.  Jealousy.  Having an incurable disease.  Talking too much.  Stealing.  

I did a bit more research into 칠거지악 and learned that it is a Confucius teaching found in 대학(大學) or The Great Learning, one of the 사서(四書) or Four Books which, along with the The Three Classics, make up the definitive texts of Confucianism.  Collectively, they are called 사서삼경(四書三經) or the Four Books and Three Classics.

Unsurprisingly, there is no equivalent for a woman wanting to divorce a man.  However, I did read that there are three exceptional situations in which a man cannot divorce his wife, even if she commits one of the seven faults under 칠거지악:

  1. If she has no other place to go.
  2. If she has mourned his parents for three years.  (i.e. She demonstrates filial piety.)
  3. If she was at first poor and then became rich after getting married.  (i.e. She raised her family’s social status through marriage.)

I remember learning a little bit about Confucianism forever ago in high school but not terribly in depth.  I wouldn’t say I’m… completely interested in learning about it but in the context of sageuk dramas, it definitely helps to understand Confucianism to understand certain plot points and bits of dialogue.  It’s also a novel experience (no pun intended)  trying to read up on Confucianism in Korean… yeah… I think I’ll stick to English for now.