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.


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.

해를 품은 달 and reading in Korean

Jung Eun-gwol, the author of 해를 품은 달 and 성균관 유생들의 나날, sure knows how to craft a story that pierces one’s heart.  I don’t think I ever fully recovered from Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which is why I think I was so fervently anticipating The Moon That Embraces the Sun ages before they even started casting.  I was dying to get my hands on the book, too, which Jeannie so kindly sent for me from Korea!

The drama deviates quite a bit from the novel, but both of them have their own charm so I will forgive this otherwise heinous crime this one time.  Heh.  The drama also had an incredible cast of child actors for the first six episodes; and currently, Kim Soohyun is stealing the screen, blazing as the young, bitter king whose heart longs for the girl he loved as a boy.

The drama is garnering shockingly high ratings week after week; whether that’s to be attributed to the pure genius that was Tree With Deep Roots or the Joseon crack that was The Princess’s Man or perhaps the popularity of the novel itself, it’s hard to tell.  For me, however, the magic is more in the novel than the drama.

The novel takes place during the Joseon dynasty, so there is quite a bit of figurative language and historical words that I’m not familiar with (and also a lot of words that I just don’t know in general; unsurprising, considering the fact that I’m attempting to read a historical novel barely two years into learning the language).  The incredible thing is I can understand most of the plot despite my extremely limited vocabulary and, while I’m at it, I’m gaining such an appreciation for the beauty of “old” Korean.

Personally, I find contemporary Korean more poetic than English and speech during the Joseon era, especially royal speech, even more so.  Unsurprisingly, this novel is filled with absolutely gorgeous language.  Metaphors and motifs galore and, my personal favorite, parallel structure, which is just as pleasing to read in Korean as English.  I plowed my way through book 1 and I’m halfway through book 2, but at this point, I’m reading more for the language than the plot.  In terms of the plot itself, well, I will suppress my inner literature bitch.  It’s little more than Joseon flavored cotton candy fluff but it’s addicting and definitely worth reading for the language.

Mom and I were talking a few days ago about reading in different languages.  My mom’s trilingual in English, Marathi, and Tamil.  She grew up reading novels with ease in both  English and Tamil.  I asked her if she ever had a weird out-of-body feeling when she was reading in either language because I experienced that several times while reading 해를 품은 달.  I’d be sucked into the story for several minutes and then I’d stop and marvel at the fact that this story is written entirely in a language that was unknown to me for 20+ years.  And I was understanding it.  Not only was I understanding it, I was having a visceral reaction to it.  For the first time since I started learning Korean, I was doing more than just comprehending.  I cried during the sad scenes, blushed during the romantic scenes, bit my nails when things were getting intense.  I always thought that no matter how long I study Korean, I would never be able to shake off that element of “foreignness.”  But the fact that I’m getting to the point where I can react to a story written in Korean the same as I do when it’s in English is yet another indication that I can be comfortable enough in a “foreign” language to the extent that it doesn’t feel “foreign” any more.  Amazing!

Mom said she never felt like that when she switched between reading in different languages, probably because she grew up learning all three at the same time.  Sometimes  I wish I had grown up knowing multiple languages just as well as I know English, but then I guess I would miss out on experiencing a transition like this!


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.