15 Effortlessly Evocative Korean Ideophones

These words convey sensory experiences ranging from the twinkling of lights to the beating of the heart to someone sawing logs.
The Korean ideophone 쿨쿨 (pronounced “kul-kul”) indicates the deep breathing of a restful slumber.
The Korean ideophone 쿨쿨 (pronounced “kul-kul”) indicates the deep breathing of a restful slumber. / CSA-Printstock/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

The Korean language is rich in ideophones, or “words that vividly depict sensory experience,” according to Oxford Bibliographies: A cursory search on Wikipedia shows a whopping 415 pages dedicated to them, but many are without their own listing, so the true number may be in the thousands.

Although English speakers may be familiar with onomatopoeias, they’re only a very small subset of ideophones, as the broader word class can also convey sensory experiences unrelated to sound. Without further ado, here are 15 Korean ideophones that are sure to make your language sparkle (or, to use an ideophone, 반짝반짝, pronounced “ban-jjak-ban-jjak”).

1. 드르렁드르렁 (pronounced “deu-reu-reong-deu-reu-reong”)

This ideophone is used to indicate a loud, vibrating sound—often someone’s prolonged and thunderous snores. This may feel slightly more familiar to English speakers because it’s onomatopoeic, but the Korean word conveys the rumble of a snore far better than the English “Zzz.”

2. 쿨쿨 (pronounced “kul-kul”)

This sleep-related ideophone denotes a particularly deep sleep. Although it can imitate someone’s loud breathing when they are completely dead to the world and happily in dreamland, it can also be used to describe the scene itself, without any sonic meaning. You can hear it here.

3. 졸졸 (pronounced “jol-jol”)

Naver Korean-English Dictionary lists the translations of this ideophone as “continuously” or “gently,” but in its most traditional use, it represents the sound a thin stream of water makes while flowing. The closest onomatopoeic options in English are trickling or bubbling, but they don’t quite capture the same sensation as the Korean. You can hear the word here and in the video above.

4. 줄줄 (pronounced “jul-jul”)

Not to be confused with 졸졸, the vowel in 줄줄 has been flipped from ㅗ (pronounced “o”) to ㅜ (pronounced “u”)—in other words, it has changed from a yang vowel to a yin vowel (you can hear the pronunciation here). Where yang vowels convey lightness, yin vowels convey heaviness. So while 줄줄 is still used for flowing liquids, it conveys a thicker, slower flow than 졸졸, and is more commonly associated with bodily fluids like blood, sweat, tears, or even a runny nose rather than water.

5. 촉촉 (pronounced “chok-chok”)

The ideophone 촉촉 is also related to water, although it paints a far more pleasant picture than 줄줄: It’s used to designate something pleasantly moist. If you’re into K-beauty, this would be the perfect word to describe your skin after applying all of your toners, essences, serums, creams, and moisturizers, for when your face is at its bounciest and most hydrated. You can hear it here.

6., 7., and 8. 빙빙 (pronounced “bing-bing”), 뱅뱅 (pronounced “baeng-baeng”), and 삥삥 (pronounced “pping-pping”)

Here, we have another example of vowels and consonants being changed within an ideophone to produce a subtly different meaning. The first form, 빙빙 (listen here and in the video above), is used to describe the motion of going round and round in circles, whether metaphorically (as in the English idiom, to beat around the bush) or literally. In 뱅뱅 (listen here), the vowel has changed from the neutral vowelㅣ(pronounced “i”) to the yang vowelㅐ(pronounced “ae”). As yang vowels indicate lightness, the resulting meaning is that the circles being produced are smaller. In 삥삥, the consonant has been doubled, from ㅂ (pronounced “b”) to ㅃ (pronounced “pp”). The pronunciation is tenser, and the word is more emphatic. This ideophone indicates moving in wider, larger circles.

9. and 10. 반짝반짝 (pronounced “ban-jjak-ban-jjak”) and 빤짝빤짝 (pronounced “ppan-jjak-ppan-jjak”)

Similarly, there are multiple variations of the Korean ideophone that illustrates a sparkle or flash of light. The single-consonant yang-vowel version, 반짝반짝, indicates a delicate and pretty twinkle from a small light. The double-consonant version of the ideophone, 빤짝빤짝, specifies a brighter, repeated twinkle from a small light.

11. and 12. 번쩍번쩍 (pronounced “beon-jjeok-beon-jjeok”) and 뻔쩍뻔쩍 (pronounced “ppeon-jjeok-ppeon-jjeok”)

The single-consonant yin-vowel version, 번쩍번쩍, specifies stronger blasts from a bigger light (you can hear it here), while the double-consonant version, 뻔쩍뻔쩍, indicates more intense and more repeated blasts, still from a big light. It’s amazing how much meaning can be conveyed just through vowels and consonants—you need a lot of words in English to express the same sensations.

13. 말랑말랑 (pronounced “mal-lang-mal-lang”)

This ideophone is often translated as “soft” or “tender” and is typically used to portray the delightful feeling of biting into squishy foodstuffs, like marshmallows, tteok (Korean rice cakes), or some particularly light and fluffy bread. You can listen to it here.

14. 바삭바삭 (pronounced “ba-sak-ba-sak”)

The antithesis of 말랑말랑, 바삭바삭 can be used to describe hard food. It encapsulates the satisfying crunch of crackers or particularly crispy KFC (Korean Fried Chicken, of course). It can also be used to depict other sensory crunches, like walking on dry leaves or loose gravel.

15. 두근두근 (pronounced “du-geun-du-geun”)

Fans of K-drama will have seen or heard this ideophone many times: It’s used to represent the sound of a heartbeat, often linked to heightened nervousness or excitement. It can be translated to “pit-a-pat,” but the pronunciation in Korean definitely mimics a sense of thudding or pounding a lot more effectively.

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