Numbers and Counting in Korean

An interesting feature of a language is how it grammatically handles numbers and multiples of objects. At first sight, counting may look like an unremarkable tool, and nothing more than a necessity of every language. In Western languages counting is done in a simple and straightforward way.

Personally, despite my mathematical background I had not given number systems in languages a second thought. But elegant systems exist – different numbers and counting systems have been invented, with the intention to achieve different goals more efficiently.

When I first stumbled upon the number systems in Korean and Japanese, these concepts were foreign and confusing to me. Yes, both of these languages have two sets of numbers. They coexist simultaneously, and are used to count different object categories.

Moreover, counting things requires you to use a quantifier – a measure word which signifies what category the object belongs to.

Numbers in Korean.

Since this is what finally led me to look deeper into this topic and summarise what I’ve seen in this article – frankly, because it is a point I’ve struggled with repeatedly when studying Korean – I’ll provide an overview of the numbers in Korean.

In fact, one reason for my struggle is that Korean provides two sets of numerals. Here I’ll provide both. Neither of them are more important than the other, and both are necessary for learning the language.

Two number systems.

The first number system is natively Korean in origin. For that reason they are referred to as Korean numerals in grammar books. The second set of numbers has its roots in the Chinese language, and are aptly called Sino-Korean numerals.

Korean Sino-K.
1 하나
5 다섯
6 여섯
7 일곱
8 여덟
9 아홉

The key to form the higher numbers lies in knowing the numerals from 1 to 10. For example, to say 11 in Korean, we can combine the respective numerals for 10 and 1 to get 11. This rule is general – compare to the following table for the numbers from 11 to 20.

Korean Sino-K.
11 열하나 십일
12 열둘 십이
13 열셋 십삼
14 열넷 십사
15 열다섯 십오
16 열여섯 십육
17 열일곱 십칠
18 열여덟 십팔
19 열아홉 십구
20 스물 이십

This rule holds up for the Sino-Korean numbers. When moving up from the 10s to 20s, the same rule applies. To say “20” is nothing more than saying “two-ten”. There is only one additional rule once we are counting higher than 100.

Unfortunately, this is where the differences between the two number sets start to show. In the natively Korean system, each multiple of 10 has a different word. Moreover, the Korean numbers do not extend beyond 100 (although historically this was not the case).

This means that the Korean numbers requires more memorisation. However, with it comes a different intuition, which quickly guides someone’s mind to an exact number. Arguably, this speed and accuracy is more valuable when dealing with smaller numbers – numbers smaller than 100.

Korean Sino-K.
20 스물 이십
30 서른 삼십
40 마흔 사십
50 오십
60 예순 육십
70 일흔 칠십
80 여든 팔십
90 아흔 구십

Sino-Korean numbers are expressed systematically. In a way, these numbers are reminiscent of algorithmically writing down a number. This makes it easier to express big numbers, regardless of their scale, much in the same way the scientific notation does.

As seen in the table above, Sino-Korean numbers have a separate word man (만) for the number 10.000, and ak (악) for 10.000 times 10.000. With the efficiency of expressing big number in mind, allowing for base factors of 10000 is natural.

Counting quantifiers.

After learning how the two different number systems work in Korean, it still remains to learn how to actually count things. Similarly to languages like Chinese and Japanese, in Korean a number combined with a quantifier is used to count things like objects, and other concepts. this means that in order to express an amount of something, we must join a numerical prefix with a quantifier.

As an example: the quantifier “송이” is used for bunches of fruit, which grapes would classify under – in Korean podo (포도). Thus to say “two bunches of grapes” you would say “포도 두송이”. Note that, when joined with the quantifier, the final consonant of 둘 is dropped to become 두. Similarly, to say “one bowl of ramyeun” in Korean, you would say “라면 한 그릇,” using the word “그릇” as a quantifier for food served in bowls.

In both cases above, the quantifiers take pure Korean numerals as a prefex. S those numbers must be used to count those kind of objects. There are also a several quantifiers which must be used with Sino-Korean numerals, e.g. most units of time.

So far, I’ve come across a dozen or so quantifiers. I’ll list these below, as well as with what type of numeral they accept, i.e. pure Korean or Sino-Korean. A more exhaustive list can be found on Wikipedia – Korean count words.

Object Korean Sino-K.
long things 자루
papers, flat things
vehicles, machinery
picked flowers, bunches of fruits 송이
animals 마리
bowls 그릇
servings (of a dish) 인분
weeks 주일
Written by
Paul J.
 on .
Last updated at on .


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