Korean 9 - Topic markers /Subject markers

Topic markers / Subject markers

Now that I have put the title, I somehow will go on... It is not an easy subject and I guess every Korean teacher pushes it off as long as possible... What is the problem? Well there is none except that the whole concept is quite different from Western languages and that - though there are rules for these markers- they are often omitted in daily life except for situations where they can't be omitted or where politeness requires them, or where you might sound more educated using them... and that we together have to establish a system for ourselves which will help us to fit into all this :D

After this encouraging introduction let's start.

In an English sentence word order is quite important. Let's take for instance:

The bird eats the worm.

We know from the word order, who is eating whom. The bird is the eater and the worm is the food. If we turn the words around like

The worm eats the bird.

the whole scenario is inversed. The worm is having the meal and the bird is the prey.

So who comes first acts on who comes after. The early bird catches the worm...

We could also express that differently. The first word (the noun preceding the verb) is the subject (the actor of the verb), the word following the verb is the object (the thing onto which the verb is acted, here it get's eaten)

Let's do that whole sentence in Korean.

- sae is the bird.

벌레 - peolle is a worm or any kind of bug

새 벌레 먹어요. sae peolle mogeoyo.

But unlike English, this is not quite clear. All we can say for sure is:

  • There is a bird.
  • There is a worm.
  • Someone is eating. We don't know who. Could be even me eating both of them...

Of course the context and common sentence will answer some of the questions. My appetite for worms is not so great. I find them 맛없어요 - mat-eops-eo-yo (they taste awful)

But we can also clearly mark who is doing what in the sentence. To do so in Korean you need to add suffixes to the different words. One of them you learned already. You know already how to mark the victim. :D We simply add the object ending 을/를.

새 벌레를 먹어요. Sae peolle-reul meogeoyo.

Now the worm can't escape its destiny... As for the bird it is not yet clear. To make sure that it won't be me snacking it, we can add a subject marker to the bird. Those subject markers are

(i) following a consonant
(ga) after words ending in a vowel (as is the bird we are trying to safe)

새가 벌레를 먹어요. Sae-ga peolle-reul meogeoyo.

Now there is no more doubt.

One interesting point is, since the distinction between Subject and Object is based on endings (suffixes) the word order is not crucial. Whatever order we move the words in our Korean sentence it is pretty clearcut who eats whom. Now one rule we have to keep in mind: The verb comes at the end. But we still could say:

벌레를 새가 먹어요. Peolle-reul sae-ga meogeoyo.

And it still would make sense, still mean The bird eats the worm.

We are one down :D That was still pretty easy... Now the Topic marker

The topic marker is something which we do not find at all in English. It is a bit like giving a title to our statement. The endings for topic markers are:

은/는 eun (after consonant)

So I could say now, I want to talk about the bird. I want to make a statement about the bird. It is actually eating a worm right now. I mean it is eating - never mind for the rights of unprotected little worms in our environment. We care for the bird right now.

새는 벌레를 먹어요. Sae-neun peolle-reul meogeoyo.

If I now want to say more things about the bird, other than that they are worm eaters, I don't need to use the topic marker again. If however I want to change the topic, maybe I want now to talk about the life expectancy of worms or I had enough of nature and want to tell you what my new car looks like... in this case I need to mark my new subject with the topic marker.

So far so good. The interesting part comes now:

The Subject of my sentences does not necessarily have to be my topic. e.g. My sentence The bird eats the worm. could be the last line of the Life story of Kim the rainworm (no idea what Koreans would call their rainworms..) Though maybe it is a bit late to mark the topic in the last sentence, maybe it should be the starting line of the story of Kim's son :D Anyway it is the following we would get:

벌레는 새가 먹어요. Peolle-neun sae-ga meogeoyo. As for the worm, the bird eats it.

But there is still more to it.

The topic marker can introduce general statements as:

Birds can fly. Water is blue...

It also can make a contrast to a previous statement:

I eat a lot of pizza. But what I really like is Kimchi.

We will work on such complex statements later. But let's introduce here finally some personal pronouns.

Let's start with I.

There is also 'na' but that is below our politeness level :D Let's stick to 'jeo' for now. Since you can omit 'jeo' in most sentences, we can safely assume that when you use it, you would want to emphasize it. 'As for me...' 'But I...' 'It is me, who...' So you can safely attach 'neun' to it. There might be cases where it doesn't carry 'neun', but the majority seem to be the 'joneun' situations.


uff, I am already running out of pronouns... maybe 우리는 - uri-neun = we. But that's about it.

You might wonder how come. What happened to you, he, she, it , you (pl), they ... Well of course there are words, but to use them would be counted as rude in most situations. So I am not even going to teach them to you at present. :D

A polite way of adressing a Korean person or to talk about a person is to call him / her by name + title.

For title there is the general (from about 20 years of age upwards) - shi

So if someone is called 수진 - Sujin for example (a feminine name) She would be called 수진 씨 - Sujin shi

Or 준서 Jungseo (male name) would be called 준서 씨 Jungseo shi

Let's imagine a scenario: You are going to a restaurant together with Jungseo and you are about to order your food. You might ask him:

저는 피자를 먹어요, 준서 씨는요 ? - jeo-neun pija-reul meogeoyo, Junseo shineun-yo? I eat pizza, how about you (Jungseo) ?

Did you notice the two topic markers? As for me I eat pizza, talking about you, what will you eat ?

You might leave out the object marker on the pizza, but you can't do without the topic markers.

We had this sentence before without pronoun. That was fine for a certain context. Let's say Jungseo asks you: What are you gonna eat? And you answer: I'll have pizza. - oh let's have this in Korean:

뭣을 먹어요? Mwos-eul meogeoyo? What do you eat?

피자를 먹어요. Pija-reul meogeoyo. I eat pizza.

Or if you want to drop the object particles...

뭐 먹어요? Mwo meogeoyo? What do you eat?

피자 먹어요. Pija meogeoyo. I eat pizza.

Here it is fine to not use any pronoun or topic marker, but if you contrast two different things or persons you need to use those markers. I eat this and you eat that. Kimchi is good but cheese is bad. etc.

Having come so far, let me teach you another word, how to adress a group:

여러분 yeo-reo-bun ( everyone)

And with that let me say:

여러분 안녕히 가세요 yeo-reo-bun an-yeonghi kaseyo ( goodbye, everybody)