Schadenfreude. Ennui. Weltschmerz. Haragei. Lítost. These are all words from different languages which capture cultural concepts or human emotions for which there are no direct English translations. Korean is full of similarly untranslatable words, many of which are closely tied with unique aspects of Korean culture. Seven such words are explained below— although some of these expressions are universally relatable, the fact that Koreans have single words for certain Korean concepts and a mutual, inherent understanding of them provides us with insight into the culture itself.

 

7 Important Korean Concepts That Explain Much About The Culture

Gibun (기분)
gibun aka feelings
Gibun loosely means one’s current emotional state or temperament. “Feelings” could be a close English match, but gibun is also closely associated with personal dignity and pride. In any moment, your gibun can be good, bad, or strange. People’s gibuns can also be hurt—for example, when someone is not shown the proper respect by a subordinate, his gibun may be hurt, causing him to feel offended and lose face. Preserving outward social harmony in relationships plays a large role in Korean culture. Generally, Koreans place much emphasis on looking out for others’ feelings to maintain a peaceable social atmosphere—thus, tact and noonchi (social awareness) are often placed above honesty in many situations.

 

Nunchi (눈치)
nunchi-eye-measure
Nunchi, a combination of the words “eye” and “measure”, is a highly important concept in Korean culture. It can be described as unspoken social intuition and awareness of the feelings of those around you. From the workplace to schools to social outings, having nunchi is useful in a variety of situational contexts. Nunchi and gibun are closely intertwined— having good nunchi is essential to assessing others’ gibun and acting accordingly and tactfully. Noonchi is something you can have or not have; If you’re lacking it, you’re liable to unwittingly hurt others’ feelings or make a social blunder.

Nunchi can also relate to assessing how others view you. Many people, especially Koreans, care about what others think of them. If you’re busy looking at others’ nunchis (눈치 보느라 바빠), it means you’re spending much time caring about what others are thinking of you.

 

Gyopo (교포)

Dumbfoundead, gyopo rapper

Dumbfoundead, gyopo rapper


The general understanding of this term is an ethnic Korean who was not born or raised in Korea. Many gyopos often grow up in a dual-culture household. While some believe there is a stigma attached to the word, and many gyopos face certain hardships living in Korea, the term itself has largely become a practical classification. Gyopos can range from having little to no knowledge of Korean concepts and language to being completely fluent and possessing a deep understanding of the culture.

 

 

 

Han ()
Han-korean-oppression
Han is a deep feeling difficult to precisely capture with words, but is a combination of sorrow, anger, helplessness due to greater forces of oppression. However, han is also hope—hope of overcoming the injustices in one’s life, hope of a better tomorrow. Many scholars agree that the Korean concept of han has stemmed from the feelings of powerlessness and unavenged injustice felt by Koreans during the country’s historically trying times, as the small nation has experienced poverty and suffering due to frequent invasions, oppression, and tumultuous politics. Han has become a unifying concept in Korean culture. Many Koreans today who have never directly experienced the former hardships of the nation come to understand Han through the experiences of their parents and forefathers. Even though it has its roots in the historical, han finds itself many modern and universal applications. Han is experienced by the marginalized minority group, by the single mother struggling to support her children, by the bullied high-school student, by the worker with an unfair boss. Although the word han has developed through a history unique to Korea, this sentiment of long-endured suffering and the subtle-but-present hope of prevailing is most definitely a universal human experience. Check out quotes from Anthony Bourdain’s perspective on Han and more on his visit to Seoul for the Season 5 premiere of Parts Unknown.

 

Jeong ()
Jeong-sharing-food
Like han, jeong is a combination of several individualized feelings. The Korean concept of Jeong is a type of deep-seated love—it is the feeling of affection, concern, understanding, loyalty, warmth, and emotional connection to someone or something. You can feel jeong for your family, friends, lovers, teachers, coworkers, strangers and even for places and objects such as your hometown or first car. Like many emotions, jeong is more easily felt than explained; Koreans often express it through unspoken actions. Jeong can be seen in the Korean custom of sharing food, the mother rubbing her child’s stomachache away, or the teacher giving gifts to her students.

What can happen if jeong is misunderstood? Check out this scenario that SeoulSync’s production team filmed on jeong!

 

Jondaemal / Banmal (존댓말/반말)
Jondaemal-Bowing
These two words possess no English translation because it is a uniquely Korean concept tied to the language system itself. Korean uses a substantial system of honorifics to show the speaker’s relationship to the spoken. Respecting others, especially those older than you, is a huge part of Korean culture. Jondaemal is formal or polite Korean speech, and automatically connotes respect. It’s generally used when speaking to strangers, those older you, those in a higher position than you, and is also seen in formal publications, news reports, and on public signs. Banmal, on the other hand, is informal and casual speech, used when speaking to friends, close relatives, or subordinates. When two people of similar age or status who don’t know each other well become closer over time, they may both agree to switch from jondaemal to banmal, as it allows the relationship to be more relaxed. Knowing when exactly to use jondaemal or banmal is often confusing to those learning Korean, especially because there really isn’t a separate grammatical structure for formal or informal speech in English. If you want a more in-depth explanation of the uses of jondaemal and banmalthis informational video does a great job illustrating these Korean concepts.

 

Can you think of any other Korean concepts without simple English equivalents? Let us know in the comments below!

Image credit: Gibun | Nunchi | Gyopo | Han | Jeong | Jondaemal