Even though I’m currently in Denmark on a long vacation, I’ve brought quite a few Korean books with me. I make sure to dedicate at least an hour per day to studying Korean, and this does not include watching dramas, texting, speaking on the phone, browsing news sites and other activities that I will naturally do in Korean. Including all these activities, I probably spend several hours per day doing something Korean-related. Well, I guess it’s true that you can take the girl out of Korea, but you can’t take Korea out of the girl.
Anyway, during one of my recent study sessions, I was reviewing some grammar from the Korean Grammar in Use book, when I suddenly came to think about my writing teacher Mr. Park from Sogang level 5. He used to put a lot of emphasis on what he considered male and female speech, and he would promptly correct the male students if they said anything that sounded too feminine. The fact that he never really corrected the girls for male speech is probably worth a separate blog post on gender equality (or lack of gender equality) in Korea.
Anyway, Korean is truly a gendered language. This is something that appears obvious in the case that there are some words you can only use if you are a guy (누나 noona to an older woman or 형 hyeong to an older man) and if you are a girl (언니 eonni to an older woman or 오빠 oppa to an older man). While these terms literally mean older sister and older brother, respectively, the gendered words also expand to other family relations which I’m not going to bore you with here today. Instead, I’ll direct you to this handy chart.
Most people even just remotely familiar with Korean, know that Korean is a language, which reflects even the slightest differences in social status in the countless levels of politeness and different ways of speaking to each other. However, albeit more subtly, the language also reflects the gender of the speaker.
While I had noticed this in my interactions with male and female Korean speakers, I still found it difficult to truly pinpoint the differences in speech except for the intonation. Personally, I had noticed that girls usually speak a bit more softly and drag the last syllable of the last word in a sentence or greeting longer than guys. Saying thank you in Korean (감사합니다 kamsahamnida), a girl (including myself) will usually say kamsahamnidaaaa~ while a guy would say kamsahamnida! Same word, but very different pronunciations. In fact, guys can get teased if they accidently pronounce something too girly. When guys drag the syllables this way, they are usually joking or trying to appear cute.
But this is not all. In my efforts to dig a bit deeper, I stumbled on a book called Korean language in culture and Society (by Ho-min Sohn). He has a whole chapter on gender differences of the language and particularly stresses the differences in sentence endings when asking questions in the informal style. Among females, the ending ~니 (~ni) is used, which sounds much softer than the preferred and harsher sounding ~냐 (~nya) among males. So, how do men and women then speak to each other in the informal style? We simply use the gender neutral endings of the present tense with rised intonations. Let me give you an example:
Girl #1: 넌, 그 남자를 좋아하니? (Do you like that guy?)
Girl #2: 에이, 웬일이니? 난 그 남자가 싫다니까. (Ah, what are you talking about? I told you I hate him.)
Guy #1: 넌, 그 여자를 좋아하냐? (Do you like that girl?)
Guy #2: 장난하냐? 난 그 여자가 싫다니까. (Are you kidding? I told you I hate her.)
Girl: 넌, 그 여자를 좋아해? (Do you like that girl?)
Guy: 장난하는 거야? 난 그 여자가 싫다니까. (Are you kidding? I told you I hate her.)
So, as you can see, there is clearly a difference in speaking style. Moreover, women generally speak with a more rising intonation (which sometimes can seem even child-like) while men tend to have a falling intonation.
Finally, although I know several younger males who are an exception to this rule, the author argues that women use more grammatical tag questions using endings like 지 and 죠, (e.g. The weather is nice, isn’t it?) which is technically a statement-turned-question, as if seeking the listener’s approval.
Of the more profound cases of differences in male and female speech, one example can be found among some (definitely not all) more traditionally oriented married couples, where the husband speaks informally to his wife while she speaks formally to him. I personally could not be more against this, but to each their own.
There are obviously many more cases of gender differences when speaking Korean, but in the interest of not making this blog post too long (yep, I know that’s too late now) I’ll wrap it up.
So, dear readers, I hope you found this useful. Because of these differences in speech I also highly recommend self-learners to have language partners of both genders, so that you can get equal exposure to the different styles. Happy Friday and happy studying!