A proverb can be defined as a short well-known statement that gives practical advice about life, and each society has its own manifold of proverbs that are deeply entrenched in the history and the culture of that language. So in this article, we’re going to learn seven of the most well-known Korean proverbs, from which you can learn more about the Korean culture, and the practical advice about life that has been passed down the generations in Korea.
Korean Proverb #1: 꿩 먹고 알 먹는다
- 꿩 (ggwong): pheasant
- 먹고(mukgo): and eat (infinitive form 먹다)
- 알 (al): an egg
- 먹는다 (mugneunda): eat (infinitive form 먹다)
꿩 먹고 알 먹는다 (ggwong mukgo al mugneunda) literally translates to if you eat a pheasant, you also eat the egg. The essence of this proverb’s meaning is the same as the English proverb ‘to kill two birds with one stone’, so the basic idea behind this proverb is to accomplish two things through one action. However, instead of killing birds, Korean proverb is about eating the birds!
The way we use this proverb is the same as the English proverb, so if you’re ever in a situation where someone can achieve two things by doing one thing, then you can use this proverb.
Korean Proverb #2: 세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다
- 세 살 (sesal): three-years-old
- 버릇 (beoreut): a habit
- 여든 (yeodeun): 80
- 까지 (ggaji): until
- 간다 (ganda): will go, last (infinitive form 가다)
세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다 (sesal beoreut yeodeun-ggaji ganda) literally translates to habits of a three-year-old last until the age of 80, and this can be interpreted as meaning that the habits you learn as a young infant will stay with you until the day you die.
This proverb is similar to the saying ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’, so the essence of 세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다 means that people’s characters don’t change. What this proverb also highlights is the importance of developing good habits from an early age since they will last a lifetime.
The use of this proverb is generally associated with bad habits, rather than good habits, so whenever someone repeats the same mistake or shows the same bad characteristics, such as being messy all the time or being deceitful, then we say 세 살 버릇 여든까지 간다 to highlight that the person will never change.
Korean Proverb #3: 낮 말은 새가 듣고 밤 말은 쥐가 듣는다
- 낮 (nat): daytime
- 말 (mal): speech
- 새 (se): a bird
- 듣고 (deutgo): and listen (infinitive form 듣다)
- 밤 (bam): night
- 쥐 (jwi): a mouse
- 듣는다 (deutneunda): listen (infinitive form 듣다)
낮 말은 새가 듣고 밤 말은 쥐가 듣는다 (nat maleun sega deutgo bam maleum jwiga deutneunda) literally translates to birds listen to what you say during the day and a mouse listens to what you say at night.
At first the meaning of this proverb can be quite confusing, but essentially it means that there is always someone listening to what you are saying, so you should always be careful with what or who you’re talking about. Regardless of how careful you are, others will find out what you have said about something or someone.
As you can probably guess, we use this proverb when we think someone shouldn’t be saying what they are saying, or when we think that the other person might get in trouble if other people found out what was said. So in these situations, we can say ‘낮 말은 새가 듣고 밤 말은 쥐가 듣느다’ to warn them that they should be more careful with their words.
Korean Proverb #4: 백지장도 맞들면 낮다
백지장도 맞들면 낫다 (baekjijangdo matdeulmyeon natda) literally translates to even lifting a white sheet of paper together is better, and this proverb means that even the simplest of tasks, such as lifting a sheet of paper, can become easier if you work together.
This proverb is similar in meaning to the English proverb ‘many hands make light work’ so both proverbs highlight the importance of working together to accomplish difficult and simple tasks.
As mentioned before, we use this proverb to highlight the importance of working together with other people. So if and when we want to emphasize this point, or there seems to be a lack of teamwork among a group of people, we can say ‘백지장도 맞들면 낫다’.
Korean Proverb #5: 말 한마디에 천냥 빚도 갚는다
- 말 (mal): saying
- 한마디 (hanmadi): one phrase
- 천 (cheon): a thousand
- 냥: Nyang (an old unit of Korean coinage)
- 빚 (bit): (a debt)
- 도 (do): too, also
- 갚는다 (gamneunda): to pay back (infinitive form 갚다)
말 한마디에 천냥 빚도 갚는다 (mal hanmadie cheon-nyang bitdo gamneunda) literally translates to you can pay back debt of 1000 nyang with one saying, and this phrase means that if we talk to people in the right way, we can accomplish even the most impossible-looking tasks.
Nyang is an old unit of Korean coinage and a 1000 nyang of debt was considered a great amount of money in the past, so by saying that we can pay this debt back through one saying, we’re highlighting how important it is to be careful with words when we speak to people.
As this proverb highlight the importance of how we speak to people, we use this phrase when we want to emphasize this point to someone. So whether someone has to meet someone and persuade them to do something, or whether it’s important for someone to form a good relationship with someone, we can use this proverb and emphasize the importance of talking to people in the right way.
Korean Proverb #6: 낫 놓고 기역자도 모른다
- 낫 (nat): a sickle
- 놓고 (noko): to put down (infinitive form 놓다)
- 기역 (giyeok): ㄱ in Hangul
- 자 (ja): a letter
- 도 (do): too, even
- 모른다 (moreunda): don’t know (infinitive form 모르다)
낫 놓고 기역자도 모른다 (nat noko giyeokjado moreunda) literally translates to you don’t know the letter giyeok even after putting down a sickle, and we use this proverb in a metaphorical way to highlight someone’s lack of intelligence. However, to better understand this saying, let’s analyze this proverb in more detail.
ㄱ (giyeok) is the first letter in Hangul, the Korean Alphabet, so naturally when you learn to read Hangul from a very early age, you learn ㄱ before any other letter. So you could say that knowing ㄱ is the most basic knowledge for any Korean.
A sickle was a common farming tool in Korea in the past. Perhaps it’s less often used nowadays due to the modern farming technology, but it was an important tool in rice farms. The shape of sickles is similar to the letter ㄱ in Hangul, so the idea is that if you look at a sickle, you should be reminded of the letter ㄱ. And this proverb plays on this resemblance and say that you’re so unintelligent that you’re not even reminded of the letter ㄱ even though you’ve put down the sickle and can see its shape.
Because of the way this proverb highlights someone’s lack of intelligence, in general it’s not something we say to other people. However, Koreans often use this phrase with people they are close to, so if a close friend or a family member does something foolish, then we can say 낫 놓고 기역자도 모른다 to highlight the foolishness of something they did.
Korean Proverb #7: 누워서 떡 먹기
- 누워서 (noowoseo): Lying down (infinitive form 눕다)
- 떡 (ddeok): rice cake
- 먹기 (mukgi): eat (infinitive form 먹다)
누워서 떡 먹기 (noowoseo ddeok mukgi) literally translates to eating rice cake lying down, and we use this proverb to say how easy something is.
This proverb is similar to the English saying ‘a piece of cake’. In both cultures, we associate something being easy to eating something, but in English we compare something being easy to eating a piece of cake, and in Korean we compare it to eating rice cake. And to further emphasize how easy the task is, we add that it’s easy as eating rice cake – lying down.
Of all the proverbs we have covered in this article, 누워서 떡 먹기 is the most commonly used proverb in everyday speech, and we generally use it when we want to highlight how easy something is. So if you think you can do something easily, then you can say ‘that’s 누워서 떡 먹기!’
In today’s article, we discussed 7 of the most common proverbs in Korean. We learned the meaning of these proverbs and how we can use them in everyday situations.
I hope the seven proverbs helped you gain a better understanding of the Korean language and the culture of Korea. As always, to better improve your Korean, make sure to practice Korean daily with the Clozemaster app! 감사합니다! 다음에 또 뵐게요!
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