Korean words that sound similar to each other

If you are one of those who have studied Korean for some period, you might have had such questions as:

Korean homonyms, and Korean words with multiple meanings can be one of the most challenging parts for learners wanting to improve their listening and reading comprehension.

This article will teach you some of the most common examples of Korean homonyms and Korean words with multiple meanings (polysemy).

The difference between homonyms and polysemy will be touched upon, as well as the processes through which these have appeared in the Korean language.

Why do some Korean words sound the same?

Before anything else, let us explain why some Korean words sound the same and are challenging for language learners. There are three main reasons for this:

Reason #1: Korean words which are spelled the same can have different meanings depending on the length of the vowel sound. The phenomenon of long and short vowel sounds is thought to be evidence that ancient Korean was a tonal language.

For example, with a long vowel sound « 말 » can mean a “language” or a “word”, and « 말 » with a short vowel sound means a “horse”.

As an example phrase containing these two words, there was a news article entitled “말 안 듣는 말”, which means “A horse that doesn’t listen to the words (of the rider)”. That was to describe an unfortunate case of a horse rider who lost the race because of his uncontrolled horse.

In this phrase, the first occurrence of the word « 말 » should be pronounced with a long vowel, whereas the second occurrence of the word « 말 » should have a short vowel sound.

Here are some more examples of Korean words which are spelled the same, but have different meanings depending on the length of the vowel sound:

    • [눈] - Eye on the face of a person or an animal
    • [눈:] – Snow
    • [밤] – Night or evening
    • [밤:] – Chestnut
    • [병] – Bottle
    • [병:] – Disease, Illness
    • [벌] – Punishment, penalty
    • [벌:] – Bee
  1. 적다
    • [적다] – To write down
    • [적:다] – Little, a little

Reason #2: A lot of different words derived from the Chinese language can be pronounced the same in Korean. ( related article: Are Korean and Chinese Similar Languages? )

For example, « 부자 » can mean “the rich” as well as “a father and a son”, since their Chinese characters are different whereas their Korean pronunciation is the same.

Below are some other common examples of this phenomenon:

Word Chinese character English meaning
의사 醫師 Medical doctor
意思 Mind, intention
이성 理性 Reason, the capacity to think and judge logically
異性 The opposite gender
자비 慈悲 Mercy, compassion
自費 One’s own expense, self-financing
전기 電氣 Electricity
傳記 Biography
사고 事故 Accident, trouble
思考 Thought, thinking, contemplation
수입 輸入 Import
收入 Earning, income, revenue
수도 首都 Capital city
水道 Water supply, waterworks
동기 動機 Motive
同氣 Sibling
장관 長官 Minister, the head of a government ministry
壯觀 Spectacle, scene

Reason #3: The sound change rules make some different words sound the same.

One of the most well-known and confusing examples of this is related to [낟]. 낟, 낫, 낮, 낯, and 낱 are all pronounced the same as [낟].

However, each of them has got different meanings and usages. « 낟 » is used to indicate a single grain, and « 낫 » is a sickle as a farming tool. « 낮 » means the daytime, and « 낯 » is the face of a person or an animal.

This is caused by the rule that all the final consonants should be pronounced as one of the seven consonants, ㄱ, ㄴ, ㄷ, ㄹ, ㅁ, ㅂ, and ㅇ. The final consonants, ㄷ, ㅅ, ㅈ, ㅊ, ㅌ, and ㅎ should all be read as [ㄷ], which is why [낟] can be confusing as to what it refers to.

The sound change rules other than the one mentioned above can make different words sound the same. Some of the common examples are provided below.

  1. [가치]
    • 가치: Value, worth
    • 같이: Together, with
  2. [낟따]
    • 낮다: Low
    • 낫다[낟:따]: Recover, get well; better
    • 났다: The past tense of 나다. 났다 can mean ‘to grow,’ ‘to form,’ or ‘to show,’ etc.
  3. [막따]
    • 막다: To block, to hinder, to stop
    • 맑다: Clean, clear, fine

Korean Homonyms

Here you can learn about some other Korean homonyms with the example sentences. This part will be helpful with your comprehension skills if you pay special attention to the example sentences.

  1. [솔] (Pine tree) vs [솔:] (Brush)
    • 솔은 항상 푸르다. The pine trees are always green.
    • 솔로 먼지를 좀 털어라. Dust the dirt off with the brush.
  2. [굴] (Oyster) vs [굴:] (Cave, tunnel)
    • 굴은 정말 맛있어. Oysters taste so good.
    • 굴 속은 좀 추워. It is a little chilly in the cave.
  3. [해] (The sun) vs [해:] (harm)
    • 이제 해가 떠오른다. Now the sun is rising.
    • 그녀는 해를 입을까 두려워한다. She is afraid of being harmed.
  4. [돌] (First birthday) vs [돌:] (Stone)
    • 우리 아들은 이제 돌이 되었다. My son becomes one year old now.
    • 누군가 내 차에 돌을 던졌어. Somebody threw a stone at my car.
  5. [손] (Hand) vs [손:] (descendant, posterity, offspring)
    • 그 남자는 손이 크다. The guy’s hands are big.
    • 그 집은 손이 귀하다. The offspring of the family is rare and precious.
  6. 소화 (消火 – Fire extinction) vs 소화 (消化 - Digestion)
    • 큰 건물은 소화 설비를 갖춰야 한다. Tall buildings should be equipped with fire extinguishing facilities.
    • 젊을 때에는 무엇이든 소화를 잘 시킨다. Young people can digest anything well.
  7. 가사 (家事 – Housework, chores) vs 가사 (歌詞 – Lyrics)
    • 우리 집엔 가끔 가사 도우미께서 오신다. The woman who helps with the housework comes to my house every now and then.
    • 그 노래의 가사는 멋진 시처럼 들린다. The lyrics of the song sound like a piece of poem.
  8. 이상 (以上 – or more, and over) vs 이상 (異常 – abnormality) vs 이상 (理想 – ideal)
    • 요즘에는 자녀가 넷 이상 있는 가정이 드물다. These days, households with more than 4 children are rare.
    • 이상한 행동을 하지 마라. Do not do the abnormal behaviors.
    • 우리 모두는 이상을 추구한다. All of us are searching for an ideal state.
  9. 타다 (to burn) vs 타다 (to ride) vs 타다 (to mix, to add) vs 타다 (to receive)
    • 마른 나무는 불에 잘 탄다. Dry wood is prone to burn.
    • 버스를 타고 서울에 갔다. I took a bus to Seoul.
    • 커피에 설탕을 타지 마세요. Do not add sugar to my coffee.
    • 그녀는 작년에 상을 탔다. (She got the prize last year.)

Korean words with multiple meanings

Words with multiple meanings, also known as polysemy, are different from homonyms in terms of the correlation among the various meanings.

Homonyms have unrelated meanings to each other whereas we can understand the meanings once we grasp one of the many meanings of polysemy.

Let’s take a few examples of words with multiple meanings out of the ocean of them.

  1. 아침
    • 아침이 되었다. The morning came. (아침 – Morning)
    • 아침을 먹고 학교에 갔다. I went to school after having breakfast. (아침 – Breakfast)
  2. 머리
    • 그는 머리를 끄덕였다. He nodded his head. (머리 – Head)
    • 머리하러 미용실에 다녀왔다. I went to the hair salon to do my hair. (머리 – Hair)
    • 그녀는 정말 머리가 좋다. She has an amazing intelligence. (머리 – Intelligence)
    • 여기는 길이 잘 뚫려 있다. They paved the big road here. (길 – Road)
    • 집에 돌아오는 길에 가게에 들렀다. I stopped by the store on my way home. (길 – In-transit)
    • 이것이 우리 가문이 걸어온 길이다. This is how our family has come through. (길 – Process, path)
    • 오늘은 소풍 가는 날이다. It’s an excursion day today. (날 – Day)
    • 비가 오다가 날이 개었다. It rained but the weather became clear. (날 – Weather)
    • 그는 발이 크다. He has big feet. (발 – Foot)
    • 내 동생은 발 빠르게 행동했다. My sister came up with a quick solution. (발 – Step, behavior)
    • 우리 아버지는 정말 발이 넓으시다. My father has a wide circle of acquaintances. (발 – relationship)

This ends our discussion of Korean words that sound similar to each other. By understanding how these occur in the Korean language, and learning the most common examples of them, language learners will take an extra step towards fluency.