Tag Archives: Korean proverb

“You can’t fix a human.”

B is a 21-year-old Korean male originally from Busan, South Korea. B is currently a college student in Los Angeles, California.

B informed me of this folklore while I was visiting him in his college dorm, which he shares with four other students. B recited the following saying to me after getting in a verbal argument with his messy roommate, who refused to clean his hair out of the shower drain.

B: You know, we have an old saying.. like, “you can’t fix a human.” You know you might give someone a second chance.. after they do something wrong, but they will still revert to their status quo even after a while. And it’s true most of the time.

Reflection: According to B, he did not know how to translate the exact Korean saying to English, as the full meaning does not transfer very clearly across languages. I can at least make an assessment based on the rough translation of “you can’t fix a human” and the context of its usage. It seems to be a direct reference to the idea that human nature is unchangeable, and people will make certain decisions regardless of outside influences. The saying is cynical and direct in nature, given that it assumes “broken” people are incapable of being ”fixed.” Or in other words, the hair will never be cleaned from the shower drain.

“The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime” (낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다)

Main Piece : 

“낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다”

Original Script : 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Natmalun saegadutgo bammalun jwigadutneunda

Transliteration : The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime

Full Translation : There will always be someone who listens to what you are saying, so be careful everytime when you speak

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : This is a pretty common one too. I don’t think this only pertains to the Korean society but it is true that you need to be aware of what you say no matter what. If you are gossiping about someone in public, actually, even in private, you never know who will be listening to you and spread the word. It’s kinda sad because it seems like it’s trying to tell us that there is no one to trust in this world but also tells us that you, yourself, need to shut your mouth and don’t make unnecessary comments about others and mind your own business. 

Analysis :

This proverb was very interesting because of the animals who will be listening to the person talking. We can also learn that a lot of Korean proverbs have animals taking action. By introducing the bird and the mouse as listeners, it makes the audience imagine birds flying around and mice running around to spread the message of the gossip. Upon my research, I also found a very interesting article that was published by JoongAng Ilbo in 2010, that shows a possible scientific explanation to this. This article talked about the movement of the sound; sound moves from cold places to hotter places due to refraction and during the day, the sound moves from the ground to the sky due to the sunlight and its heat. On the other hand, during the night, the air cools down as the sun sets and the ground is comparatively warmer because of the lingering heat inside the soil. Thus, during the day, the birds are more likely to hear what someone is saying because they are in the sky, and during the night, the mice are more likely to listen to what someone is saying. Before this project, I just thought this proverb was only meant to give a lesson to be aware of what you say to others. However, learning a scientific background made this quote more interesting and I wonder if any more proverbs have a scientific explanation to it too. 

“Not knowing is the medicine” (모르는게 약이다)

Main Piece : 

“모르는게 약이다.”

Original Script : 모르는게 약이다

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Morununge yak-ee-da

Transliteration : Not knowing is the medicine.

Full Translation : There is truth that is better off not knowing. 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So this proverb, which sounds more like a common saying is used when, for example, some person is trying to dig up information that will be harmful to them. For example, if your friend is trying to dig into a gossip full of drama, you would tell her, “there is truth that is better off not knowing”. This saying translates into how knowing unneeded facts can be harmful to you and thus makes not-knowing a medicine. 

Analysis :

I personally liked this example because this is a saying that I, myself use it a lot too. This is one of the best known proverbs in the Korean society, and it applies to a lot of situations. This proverb reminds me of my grandmother telling me this proverb whenever I became curious about what the adults were talking about whenever we had big family gatherings. Whether it is a school gossip or politics, there are some things that are better off not knowing. I like how the description of ‘knowing unneeded facts’ is considered harmful and not knowing is not even neutral but a medicine for one. 

“A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck” (돼지 목에 진주목걸이)

Main Piece : 

“돼지 목에 진주목걸이”

Original Script : 돼지 목에 진주목걸이

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Dwaeji mok-eh jinju mokgul-ee

Transliteration : A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck

Full Translation : One must live within one’s means

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So what do you think what it means by a pearl necklace on a pig’s neck?

E : Maybe that it doesn’t go along well? It doesn’t fit?

S : Basically, yeah. A pig will never wear a pearl necklace and even if it did, it won’t know the value of it, whether it is high or low. This proverb means that one must live within one’s means and know their own value. If one doesn’t live within their ‘range’ but only seeks for valuable objects, they will only look like a pig with a pearl necklace. 

E : Haha, I think that’s a very straightforward explanation of it – a pig with a pearl necklace.

S : It’s supposed to give that direct meaning, I guess.

Analysis :

This proverb shows the difference of a human and an animal and that they have different values for objects. While a human might admire expensive cars and jewelry, an animal would not value those objects but would rather value a good meal. This hints at a humor by comparing two unlikely matters; an expensive pearl necklace and a pig, which is an animal that is usually perceived to be dirty. 

Korean Proverb

Main Piece:

There is a proverb in Korea that is “소잃고 외양간 고친다”

Original script: 소잃고 외양간 고친다

Phonetic (Roman) script: So illko waeyanggan gochinda.

Transliteration: After losing cow, fix cowshed

Full translation: No point mending the cowshed after the losing the cow

Background:

My informant is a 20-year-old friend from Korea, identified as Y. She says it means that you don’t look ahead to your problems and wait until the very last minute or sometimes after the problem has occurred to fix your problems. In other words, in times of crisis you don’t have plan and you only start preparing after the crisis has begun.

Y saw this proverb in a collection of Korean proverbs and it stood out to her because she thought it was very applicable to everyday life. She relates it to her own personal life by saying that when she studies or does something, she likes looking ahead to her problems to prevent that problem coming back to bite her later. She said that instead of regretting that she should have studied more on the day of an exam, she wants to compliment herself for working hard and that’s why she thinks of this proverb.

Thoughts:

I think this proverb is very relatable to myself as well. I have a habit of regretting my actions after I do them and I often go back and think about what I should have done. I constantly think about “what-ifs” and my dad always tells me to not dwell on the past and think about the future. As this proverb says, there’s no point fixing the cowshed after the cow has fled. In real life, there’s no point thinking about what should have been after what already happened.