Learning how to conjugate verbs is a must when learning a language. Some languages will put a heavy emphasis on verb tenses such as English, while others will be more easier to get used to. Korean is a language that takes it easy. Let us explore the basic Korean verb tenses beginning with the present tense.
A Certain Etiquette
However, before I begin talking about verb conjugation we need to talk about something completely: your manners. No, I am not trying to tell you that you are an ill-mannered lout. However, if you are not careful many Koreans might assume you are. In Korean politeness is not only expressed in how they behave, but is also very clear in how they talk to each other. There is simply a certain etiquette to observe.
There are many types of politeness level, but some are less important for people just learning the language. When you need to a very specific form of speech a Korean will generally tell you or forgive you if you did not know if you are a foreigner. However, you should try to keep the main levels of politeness in mind when talking with Koreans. The levels are:
- 하십시오체, the formal level
- 해요체, the polite level
- 해체, the informal level
하십시오체, the formal level
This style of speech is generally referred as the formal style of speaking. Strangers will initially use this style when starting to talk to each other, but as the conversation progresses the level can change quickly to a lower level of politeness such as 해요체. You will hear this form of speech during news broadcasts in Korean.
This is a formal style that is used when strangers start talking initially, among some co-workers, during news broadcasts, by salesperson and certain fixed expressions such as 만나서 반갑습니다 (means: nice to meet you).
- Normal: 오늘 시장에 갑니다.
- Question: 오느 시장에 갑니까?
해요체, the polite level
This style of speech is referred as the polite style of speaking. This is the speech pattern Koreans use most often in their daily life and is probably the level you are most used to as someone learning Korean. Even though you might be using terms of honor when referring to a person such as 선생님, that itself does not rule out 해요체 in favor of 하십시오체.
This polite level of speech is used when strangers of equal age are speaking to each other or an older stranger to a younger. It is also used by between female co-workers or friends and is recently being used more often in favor of 하십시오체 as a less formal alternative.
When in doubt about which level of politeness to use, it is advisable to use 해요체. It will cause the least amount of misunderstanding. Also Koreans will forgive honest mistakes made by foreigners as they naturally understand that this concept is difficult to master for anyone who did not grow up in Korean.
- Normal: 사과를 시장에서 사요.
- Question: 무엇을 시장에서 사요?
해체, the informal level
This style of speech is referred as the informal level. It is a very intimate level that is reserved only to be used in very specific situations. Do not ever use this style with anyone you have just met. This style is reserved between close friends and family. It can also be used when talking with children.
- Normal: 나는 학교에서 공부해.
- Question: 무엇을 학교에서 공부해?
Look at the Time
That was a lot to take in, but we so far we have not talked about the Korean verb tenses whatsoever. There are 5 major Korean verb tenses and some have a broader use than their English equivalent, while others are narrower. Korean verb conjugation is pretty simple and you will get the hang of it pretty easily.
Please keep in mind that we will only mention the conjugation for regular verbs. There are irregular Korean verbs and we will deal with them in the near future; but for now we will stick to the regular ones.
The Present Tense
The first of the Korean verb tenses we will tackle is the present tense. The present tense can be used for simply the present, to show progression or the near future. It is also used to state simple facts or describe habits. As you see the use of the Korean present tense is has a broader use than its English counterpart.
Properly understanding how the present tense is formed will help you understanding the past tense later on. I made a little chart for you with the conjugation rules for the present tense for all three levels of politeness.