The title of this post might confuse you. Before learning Korean language, you might never have heard of “high-context” and “low-context” languages. If you haven’t learned a high-context language yet, these terms may be hard to conceptualize and figure out.
In a nutshell, Korean (like some other Asian languages) is a high-context language. It relies more on contexts, shared assumptions, and nonverbal signs than on the WORDS themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, English is considered a low-context language. English native speakers tend to say exactly what they mean, word by word. Linguistically, English is very structure-based, with many agreement rules that speakers are expected to follow strictly, such as subject and predicate agreement.
Returning to the main point, the most crucial part of Korean’s high-context linguistic character is the frequent omission of pronouns (as subjects). I’ve seen so many Korean learners who become confused about how pronouns are not nearly as common in Korean as they are in English. Pronouns are words used in place of nouns, typically to avoid repetition and redundancy, or when we are unsure of the exact name of the person or thing.
When Korean repeatedly refers to the same person or thing, there is no strict requirement that you must use a pronoun. Because Korean is a language that can drop elements that are obvious from context, you may not need to repeat any references at all. Obviously, pronouns EXIST in Korean, but they are rarely used, except for inanimate objects such as “this (이거 [igeo])” or “that (저거 [jeogeo], 그거 [geugeo]).” In English, the use of pronouns is absolutely essential to communicate effectively and clearly. In Korean, the inclusion of pronouns (as subjects) is not always essential and is often assumed to be understood among the speakers. In other words, when the subject is clearly understood (and sometimes even when it’s not) and the context is obvious enough, the pronoun is dropped.
For example, instead of saying “I went to Starbucks,” you can just say “Went to Starbucks,” and everyone will know what you mean.
|Korean||Literal Translation||Proper Translation|
|스타벅스에 갔어요. [seutabeokseue gasseoyo]||Went to Starbucks.||I/he/she/they went to Starbucks.|
|어디 가요? [eodi gayo]||Where go?||Where are/is you/he/she/they going?|
|했어요? [hesseoyo]||Did?||You/he/she/they did it?|
|못 했어요. [mot hesseoyo]||Couldn’t do.||I/he/she/they couldn’t do it.|
I’ve had many questions from learners about how to figure out who the subject is. You never need to worry about that, actually. Depending on the context, you will know who or what is the subject of the sentence.
I hope this post helps you understand the high-context characteristics of Korean, which is a crucial ingredient in making you sound like a native speaker. I’ve encountered many Korean learners repeating the subject, which, sadly, makes them sound less fluent. Please take out subjects from now on.
- Yeon J, Brown L. Korean : A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge; 2013.
- National Institute of the Korean Language. Everything You Wanted To Know About The Korean Language. Seoul: National Institute of the Korean Language; 2010.
- Harris R. Roadmap To Korean. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym; 2003.