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Glossary: Banmal

While Eun-jo never called Ki-hoon “oppa,” she certainly used her share of banmal with him

One of the things I find endlessly fascinating about the Korean language is the magnitude of what people call each other, and how they address one another as relationships evolve. As javabeans noted, in romantic comedies, we often squee equally over kisses as we do over the first time characters use banmal with each other. So what is banmal, and what are the rules? How can banmal be rude in one moment, and romantic in the next? Who gets to use banmal, and why is it meaningful when characters switch from jondae to banmal?

Banmal is informal or familiar speech, and the literal word can be translated as: “half” and “word/speech.” It’s half-speak, or jondae cut in half. It’s not so much the volume of words that’s cut, although banmal does require fewer words to convey meaning. It’s the formality and the extraneous polite address that can be pared down when using banmal.

As a general rule, people who are: 1) of the same age or older than you, and 2) familiar with you can use banmal.

The clearest delineations are within families. Anyone who’s older than you in your family will use banmal with you. The reverse is a little trickier. If you’re the younger person, when can you use banmal?


Feelings

Within immediate families, siblings use banmal with each other. Some people who are more distant with their parents use jondae, while most close families use banmal with parents. I speak to my parents in banmal and will continue to do so my whole life. There is also a generational difference, because while I use banmal with my parents, they use jondae with their parents.

But there’s no hard and fast rule, even with family members, because banmal is used only when you feel that level of comfort with someone. For example, in Cinderella’s Sister, Ki-hoon uses jondae with Ki-jung, although they are brothers. In Coffee Prince, Eun-chan uses banmal with her mom, since they are very close. (This is common in most mother-daughter relationships and is, for instance, far more common than the use of banmal between father and son.)

The family rules can be applied to any sort of external group as well. Think: crime families, groups of mixed-aged friends at a university, a team of co-workers. Naturally, anyone who is older or in a position of authority (the hyung-nim, the sunbae, the boss) will use banmal, while everyone else will speak in jondae.

In Pasta, Yoo-kyung uses banmal with Hyun-wook, thinking he’s the new kid, below her on the totem pole. This assumption, regardless of age, allows her the freedom to use banmal. That is, until the next day, when Hyun-wook is introduced as the new Head Chef, at which point the roles are reversed. Chef now uses banmal, while Yoo-kyung switches to jondae.

When you’re a kid, things are simple: you use jondae with adults, and banmal with other kids. As an adult, banmal is used only with people you are familiar with, having already established that you are on banmal terms. You would never start out an interaction using banmal. Not cool.

So how on earth do you establish banmal terms? Cutting down to banmal requires a tacit agreement to do so, by both parties. Usually there is a conversation, or one person does so experimentally, seeking approval to speak comfortably. The general rule is, you must get permission to do so. Once jondae is cut, there’s no need to go back.

For example, in Coffee Prince, Eun-chan has only met Han-seong a few times, so they still speak to each other in jondae. But when they get friendlier and she finds out that he’s 31 versus her 24, she tells him to “lower his words,” which he does immediately. This is an example of the most common way to get to banmal.

If you are identified as older, you have more freedom to cut your words. Han-kyul, in contrast, uses banmal right away with Eun-chan because a) he thinks she’s a dude, and b) he thinks she’s a punk kid on top of it all. Here again, gender relations come into play, because note that Han-seong starts out using jondae despite the age difference because Eun-chan is a girl. Whereas Han-kyul uses banmal comfortably, thinking that Eun-chan is a guy.

Now, in a romantic relationship, these differences take on more significant meanings. Whether or not a couple uses banmal with each other speaks volumes about where they are emotionally, and how comfortable they feel around each other. If one party is older, then the older one may drop the formalities as a sign of closeness. And very commonly, men will cut to banmal first.

In more traditional couples, men/husbands use banmal while women/wives use jondae. I know. Don’t hate mail me. I didn’t invent it. Personally, I think it should be all or nothing, and none of this in-between stuff, especially if you’re married. But this is still the dominant practice in traditional couples, as being the man or head of the household gives one an elevated status in a patriarchal society. It’s not so much that doing it one way or the other is right or wrong; here it’s a matter of choice, and it reveals what sort of dynamic is in play within the couple.

But the reverse is true too, in that a girl’s got some power in how she chooses to wield jondae/banmal. In Boys Before Flowers, Jandi uses jondae with Ji-hoo sunbae and the rest of F4, indicating respect (since they are older). But she refuses to give Gu Jun-pyo any respect, because she finds him hateful. She therefore strictly uses banmal with him, which is frustrating to Jun-pyo, who is used to the entire world kissing his feet and cowering in his presence.

Similarly, in Cinderella’s Sister, Eun-jo uses banmal with Ki-hoon in a deliberately disrespectful way. It’s different from Hyo-sun’s use of banmal, since she always calls him oppa. But we all know Eun-jo would rather die, so she speaks in banmal knowing that she’s overstepping her bounds.

Using banmal goes hand in hand with how people address each other. If a couple is roughly the same age, they will start out calling each other name-sshi and speaking in jondae. Once you get to banmal, name-sshi becomes name-ah or name-ya (which are both equivalent and based on consonant/vowel, just like “a tree,” “an apple”; eg. Eun-jo-ya, Ki-hoon-ah).

Here’s the main difference between jondae and banmal: there’s no way to say “YOU” in jondae. Only in banmal. Jondae is built structurally so that you cannot address an elder directly in the second person. So even when you are speaking to your teacher directly, you will be saying something like, “I will give the assignment to Teacher,” or to your mom: “Mom doesn’t get me.” It’s weird in English, (which is why this difference is lost in translation) but the distance is built into the language on purpose in jondae. Titles, like “Mom” will always keep that distance in speech, no matter if you use banmal.

But with friends, colleagues, significant others—anyone you call by name, once you cut to banmal, you can say the equivalent of “you,” so that you can speak to each other without the third-person address. So you could say to your friend: “You suck.” No titles, no frills, no referring to each other in the third person.

This may seem like a small change, but it’s a world of difference in personal interaction. Imagine if Ki-hoon continued to use jondae, as he does when he first returns after his eight-year absence: “Eun-jo-sshi is awful.” It’s a totally different feeling from the very direct: “You awful girl.”

Think of it this way too: “I love Ki-hoon-sshi,” vs. “I love you, you silent, noble idiot!” Okay, that last part was editorialized, but you catch my drift. There are middle ground ways around this, of course, like the use of endearments + jondae, or opting out of direct address, but this is the basic structure of jondae/banmal.

The colloquial words Koreans use in order to cut formality reveal a lot about their feelings towards jondae vs. banmal: “drop, lower, cut, peel, pare, strip, subtract, reduce, ease, relieve, release, let go, set free, liberate.”

The most common phrase used when suggesting banmal is to “speak comfortably” or “plainly.” There’s a reason—using banmal actually frees up your speech. There are just things that are impossibly difficult to express when speaking in jondae. It’s a cultural perspective, to be sure, that jondaemal feels restrictive and formal, and that it creates a distance between speakers.

Conversely, using banmal actually makes people feel comfortable—it puts speakers at ease, because by cutting formalities in speech, you’re actually agreeing to be more open, free, and say whatever you please. It’s like a social contract, that if we’re in a banmal-kind of relationship, we’re cool to say what we really think. Of course it also says to the world that we’re close.

Which is why it’s a significant milestone in the drama couple’s journey. Even if it forces you to endure someone dissing you for the first time ever. That’s right, Gu Jun-pyo. I’m talking to you.

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Thanks, GF for a great explanation of banmal! I personally hate it when couples, especially married ones, stick with jondae because it feels so formal, like you're putting up a wall in between.

However, I would disagree with the whole -ah, -yah thing. Rather than "a Eunjo" or "a Jun Pyo", I would think the literal translation would be more like "Hey, Eunjo" or "Hey, Jun Pyo". Just my opinion :)

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@ 1 Jenn: I think you misunderstood my grammar shorthand. "a" vs. "an" is an example of how a consonant/vowel changes which word you use. Same with "ah" and "ya." If a name ends with a consonant sound, you add "ah." (Ki-hoon ah). If the name ends on a vowel sound, you use "ya," (Eun-jo ya).

Does that make it clearer?

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I laughed at the "name-YAH" line lol

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Reading this, I'm suddenly reminded of Ruler of Your Own World... it's been a very long time since I watched that drama, and at the time, I didn't know enough Korean to be able to tell the difference. I bet, though, that Kyung speaks in jondaemal to her whole family. I may go back and try to dig up an episode just to find out. :)

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I've always been intrigued by when sons start dropping banmal and using jondaemal to their parents. It seems like boys usually speak in banmal to his mom and jondaemal to his dad starting in high school, and for most guys, to jondaemal to both parents after returning from the army. Almost all men seem to start speaking in jondaemal to the parents (both his mom and his dad) after getting married, at least in front of others, including his wife. It almost makes the guy look childish/mama's boy if he continues to speak in banmal after marriage. Just my opinion.

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LOL that last picture of gu jun-pyo is so win.
on the topic of coffee prince because i finally watched (most) of it, i love han-seong and eun chan together =[ i wonder what would have happened if she still liked him when he fell for her.

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Ooh, and I just wanted to point out one thing that girlfriday mentioned regarding how in a traditional couple, husbands speak in banmal and wives speak in jondaemal. I've observed that this is only applicable when the couple is equal in age or when the husband is older. Even for traditional couples, when the husband is younger than the wife, the general trend is for both the husband and the wife to speak in jondaemal. (Ex. how Lee Soon Jae addressed his wife in "Bogo Ddo bogo.")

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Thanks for the article, girlfriday! I love how you explained it, you did a really good job :) These glossary bits are of great help to many so it's awesome that you guys have started to do this ^^
Though I'm not remotely Korean, I started to get the feel of the different nuances in language and addressing as I watched more K-dramas and now I get all excited too when the characters switch to banmal. I did learn a thing or two from this post, as welll.
There are also even higher forms of speech than jondae right? Or different 'versions' of it? I doubt you'll be choosing to do posts on this topic again, but I wonder how many different levels of politeness there are and in what the differences lie..or how they're expressed... For instance, the -nim ending gives additional respect, right?
Korea [Read more]

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Something else about the use of banmal and jondaemal in dramas that readers outside of Korea may be surprised to hear:

"A women’s group has issued a report on the “sexist” dubbing of foreign films and dramas, reports women’s newspaper Ilda The group took a look at some 27 English-language dramas shown on terrestrial broadcasting in September and October. It found that most of them employed sexist sexist practices when dubbed into Korean. Namely, male characters spoke in banmal, or “low language,” while female characters used jondaenmal, or “high/respectful” language, even though the original English dialogue made no such distinctions"

See more at http://www.rjkoehler.com/2006 [Read more]

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Hello, thank you this is exactly how I would love to explain the difference between Banmal and Jondaemal to my friend who wanted to know and for a fanfic that I'm currently working on. I didn't know how to explain it to her so I directed her to this site. Thank you.

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thanks for more of the cultural definitions!

loved the bit where you editorialized "i love ki hoon sshi" to "i love you you noble silent idiot"!!! :D

AND you just had to put chun's cute face at the top of the post - GAH!

*still not going to watch cinderella's sister for that scene! must! not! watch it!* >_<

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Haha, you hit upon so many point so well! Hats off to you.

Especially this: Here’s the main difference between jondae and banmal: there’s no way to say “YOU” in jondae.

When English started becoming the dominant language in our household I started calling my mother 'you', since of course in English it's not disrespectful at all. Because she always spoke in jondae to her mother, she expects the same courtesy from me, but translating jondae into English would just sound weird, correct? Anyway whenever I addressed her 'you' she read that as banmal and therefore rude. She would always scream at me, "That word 'you', that's so disrespectful!" xD But worry not, I'm too grownup to be bound by that now! Muahaha.

Thanks for that, it was really well-explained.

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I didn't think i had much to learn on this topic, but I actually didn't know a bit of it. Thanks a lot for this piece! i really enjoy them.

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That was very informative girlfriday, thank you. LOL at the last grumpy pants picture of LMH :)

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Lol @ the last picture.

Anyway.. I think that the rules are becoming less and less clear/strict and more easily broken. But as a rule, always use jondanmal for people who are older and those who you don't know well. If someone starts using banmal with you or if you are talking to an older member of the opposite sex it's cool to use banmal (if you are still young). Typically a guy will not be offended if a younger girl talks in banmal to him.. and vice versa.

If you are not good at Korean or don't know how to make something polite... you can always just tack on a "yo" to the end of your sentences. Even if your sentence is incorrect grammatically, they will understand and will appreciate the sentiment.

But yeah.. as a foreigner, you can get away with some of these rules. It wouldn't be [Read more]

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Complicated! Thanks for the insights. I really enjoy these explanatory essays.

@9 The Grand Narrative - thanks for the link... interesting point.

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Yesterday, I was walking home with anothe teacher who is older than me, and she said something to me in banmal, and I answered bck, but then she has this look on her face and was like is it okay if I use banmal with you? I thought it was funny, I mean I'm not even Korean and she is older than me, but I like that she respected me enough to ask. I told her to speak comfortably with me, and was so happy to be able to speak to her in banmal instead of jondaemal.

Okay, so what about historical dramas? Is that a higher form on jondaemal?

Another topic idea: The fan death stuff. The same teacher was saying to me with all seriousness yesterday that if I leave the fan on, without opening the windows the fan will suck up the oxygen and I could die. She really believed what she was saying and m [Read more]

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"There is also a generational difference, because while I use banmal with my parents, they use jondae with their parents."

So true, girlfriday, so true. I use banmal with my parents, but my parents use jondae with my grandfather. However, my parents use banmal with each other because my mom is secretly older than my dad but they pretend they're the same age. hehe~

I always get so show using banmal around people my own age. I'd prefer to chuck Korean and speak English. It makes everything so much easier and everyone is on the same level. =P

That said, I'm in the middle of rewatching Boys Over Flowers just for Lee Minho while cringing through Kim Hyunjoong's parts.

It's so delightful watching Jandi frustrate Junpyo. Oh, kdramas you make me smile so. <3

@9

Whoa. I never knew that. [Read more]

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I know javabeans isn't too keen on sageuks, but there's an added layer of intricacy when you jump into that more traditional and conservative world. When you throw in that social class system back when they had nobility vs. peasant, people became extra careful on how they spoke to each other. And when you throw royalty into the mix? Major formality right there. I remember there was one distinct scene in Dae Jang Geum where one of Jang Geum's friends goes from being a lower-ranked palace maiden to a concubine to the king. The other palace maidens and senior ranked palace servants suddenly were her social inferiors and when they spoke to her they had to consciously add a "yo" at the end of their sentences to show respect. More recently, in Dong Yi when Dong Yi goes from being a slave to a pa [Read more]

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@ GF: Sorry about that! I can't really think properly right now. I just came back from playing tennis for 5 hours xD

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even after reading this, i think its better off for me to stay quiet if i ever go to korea. i think it has to do with the way i was raise and my culture. im latina but im born and raise in america. Two culture that is very different to asia culture. i wouldnt even know im being rude....

i got asian friends but they know how americans and latinos are like so they know im not being rude on purpose, like for example one of my korean friends thought i was mad at her cause i told her to "shut up" when she telling me about her date. I explain to her that is how american teens express shock or like another way to say REALLY OR OMG FOR REAL. Now she says it which is really funny because when she realize she says it, she covers her mouth and start saying sorry.

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Thanks for this explanation. I've been going on with a simple understanding that there is a formal way of talking used for respect and an informal way of talking in closer relationships, but this shows more of the intricate results of having ways of speech define relationships.

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What is the reason and interest in blood type being listed for Asian actors?

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@23 blood types are like the horoscope/zodiac for Western cultures in Asia. There's a belief that your blood type determines or at least has some sort of influence on your personality. More famously people with B-type blood are known to be jerk-y types (My Boyfriend is Blood Type-B).

You can probably wiki this to get more info

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@23 - Blood Type is a bit like a zodiac sign

Basically:
A - Hardworking, strict, straight laced, etc
O - (me! :)) Outgoing, leader, etc
AB - Mysterious... can have a hidden personality
B -laidback, careless, always late, etc

Of course, it's a bit silly, but they really do use it (I think a little more seriously so in Japan than anywhere else..) for couple compatibility and personality description. But it's usually all in good fun.

Watch the movie "My Boyfriend is Blood Type B" if you want to see something funny about it.

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I love how different the generations are. All of the married couples around me speak banmal to each other, except for the ones maybe 60+. Yet when I see people getting married now, most of them find it so awkward to say 'yeobo' or something and still just call their husbands 'oppa' and then get teased/in trouble for it by older people.

And I never actually noticed the whole grammar structure girlfriday pointed out as a comment to #1. It's weird. I've used it all my life, but sometimes you don't stop and think.

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Thank you thank you......We are learning so much. This will be handy when we visit Korea.......keep it coming......

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I LOVE that you and dramabeans did little articles on this. I'm going to be MUCH more observant in my dramas now. I did notice when they would change from being formal to more casual but I didn't think of the significance it held. I think I had a very simplistic understanding of it and didn't look at the societal/cultural aspect.

@23 From what I understand, a lot of asian cultures believe that your bloodtype says a lot about your personality. That is shown in the korean movie My Boyfriend is Type B. I think in My Name is Kim Sam Soon there is also a moment about bloodtypes.

You guys should do an article on that! :)

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_types_in_Japanese_culture

That should give a gist about bloodtypes!

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Need some advice here please: if the first thing a non-Korean speaks to a new colleague who is Korean is "annyeong" (plus a little bow) (in Canada!), would this "informal hello" upset the Korean? Would the non-Korean be execused for using banmal to a new acquaintance?

Jondae is hard to learn... a couple phrases, sure, but for the whole conversation, it's kind of a stretch...

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agree with cheanne....keep it coming..;)

waiting for the next topic..

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you have explained it very well and i can't wait for me if there is any left to know. i think it's great using dramas as examples.

thanks!! keep it comeing

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Omg... IRL if I know both JB and GF... I will give you guys a big squish! But I am half a globe away so well...

Thanks... really "learning" a lot of this thru the fun way... imagine going for cultural class and have a instructor explaining to me, I will prolly zone out... but this is so much fun.

Yeaps I especially like it when parents and kids uses banmal and laugh a lot when kids get whack when knowing they are obviously close... I love K-drama gems like that a lot....

In relate to the whole man-woman/upper-lower speech, perhaps this is just how its like in Korean or even in Asian societies.

And this make me realize no wonder, it seems more sticky for noona-dongseng relationship in dramas... though its happening more often and I like that...
I remember Samsoon was lik [Read more]

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Great article GF! Korean's really similar to Japanese somehow, with all this informal / formal (honorifics etc) forms which you don't have in English. And all along I thought it was a pain congujating French verbs.

@ 9 Dele

Okay...I never knew people actually thought that the fan sucked up oxygen since...it...doesn't. It just circulates the air around. You do die if you don't open the windows though, eventually, since you'll run out of oxygen anyway, but I don't think it's caused by the fan. LOL. Strange, what people can believe.

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@ 30 Eefu

I'd say for the most part koreans wouldnt be upset. though here's some advice, stick to annyeong "haseyo." better safe than sorry, you know? koreans (or at least the people around me) dont really take it too seriously when the person isnt korean. after all, we just assume it all is based on whoever taught you or where you learn it from.

for the whole blood type thing, i always here my mom mention it when talking about other people. its always interesting how she incorporates it into her argument. i wouldnt be suprised if "blood type" gets its only little box on job applications.

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Thank you, girlfriday! You and javabeans have provided a wonderful service to the kdrama public. These posts are so interesting and give us viewers so much more to enjoy while watching our favourite dramas.

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GF, I couldn't get beyond the picture of PIE. What did you write again? Ban-what?

Good thing there are no billboards of him on the westside highway. I'd be crashing into the hudson river.

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Thanks GF! So do thanks JB.
This post mean so much for me.
Btw, when GF answer the comment of Jenn (1st comment)
it mean so much because when I want to make some short story or fan fiction, sometimes I confused because I don't know how to make the different between formal and unformal. Because, when u call Kim bum, that will be kim bum-ah.
N I don't know when we call min ho, so what's the called..
N finally I know that the called is minho-ya..hahaha.

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@37nycgrl.....i got curious, what is PIE??! i would crash just looking at CJM picture!!! ^_^

But thanks again GF !!! i really enjoy reading all this explanations!!!

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fantastic post gf! keep 'em coming! :-)
I'm already familiar with most of this stuff, but it's still fun reading your explanations!

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A lot of contemporary wives use banmal when at home but jondaemal to their husbands when with their in-laws. Also conventionally, children are supposed to switch from banmal to jondaemal when they enter junior high or high school. Some children are asked to do this, but others do it on their own as a sign of respect to their parents. However as Javabeans says, it really depends on the family dynamic.

Thank you! This is a very comprehensive article.

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PIE is CJM. Coined because he is such a "cutiepie/angsty-pie" then shortened to just PIE. The name has stuck and its ripgal who has the copyright on this term so please pay the lady 25 cents every time you use it.

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quick question GF: are songs usually composed in jondae or banmal?

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For the most part, koreans think its cute or even AMAZING (yes, its really really true -_-*) when a foreigner can speak in korean, whether it be jondaemal or banmal. however, if you were to be korean and you made that mistake, the reason as to why they would get mad is because they probably think you intentionally spoke in banmal to spite them. you know?

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@30 - No, it's really not a big deal.

In Korea, they tend to praise a foreigner for knowing any little bit of Korean... and they don't have high expectations at all. If you know how to use chopsticks and say even a little Korean they will be happy.

That's why it's actually very easy to live in Korea and not learn Korean. Which, sadly, many do and miss out on a lot.

I found in living there that the higher the level your Korean, the more accepted you are and the more you are let into the "inner circle" shall we say. But you are expected to adopt Korean culture as well if you really want to do it. So you can't go around acting like an ass even if you are fluent. They still wont see you as anything but a foreigner.

But yeah.. I self taught myself Korean while living there and got up to [Read more]

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@44 - Depends. Song lyrics are quite difficult in Korean. I'd say they use the "yo" "요" form most often.. but I can't generalize.

Some songs use banmal.. some use jondae... but either way, it usually depends on who the speaker is in the lyrics and who they are talking to.

But songs are way more complicated than regular speech. Often they abbreviate and use slang and contractions/konglish that is harder to understand.

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@Jo

Also don't speak with a perfect american accent when speaking english words if your a korean in korea because the service people will think you are showing off and looking down on them. My brother got into a fight with the waiter because he said "Coffee" and not "Cup-pi".

Also if you say "slipper" no one seems to understand what your saying until you say "si-li-pah"

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I have a question. Generally in kpop music, when a song is addressing a lover, like when the singer is singing to a lover, like "baby i miss you etc..." are they singing in jondae or banmal?

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wow interesting. thanks

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@44 & 48,

It really depends on the song, but generally, the newer "kpop" songs and especially the songs that would be categorized as dance, r&b, or rap/hip hop use banmal. Slower ballad songs (for example, songs by Shin Seung Hun, Lee Seung Chul, Tim) and trot songs tend to use jondaemal.

Personally, I prefer love songs to use jondaemal because I always found it to be more romantic because of the use of the words geudae and dangshin. Girlfriday pointed out that there is no way to address "you" in Korean. This is not entirely true because between lovers, you can always use the jondaemal form "geudae" or "dangshin." For instance, the actual Korean title for "Smile, You" is "Smile, geudae." Errg, I hate how that got translated into "Smile, You" although I've noticed some peo [Read more]

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