Friday, November 11, 2005

The difference between 자기, 자신, & 자기 자신?

This week I am talking about "reflexive pronouns" in some of my English classes. In the process, I started thinking about how much easier English reflexive pronouns are than Korean.

The following words can act as reflexive pronouns in Korean:

  • 자기
    자기 생각만 한다.
    You think only of yourself.
  • 자신
    네 자신이 생각하라.
    Think for yourself.
  • 자기 자신
    (너) 자기 자신도 돌보지 못 한다.
    (You) cannot look after yourself.

  • 그 놈은 저밖에 모른다.
    He thinks only of himself.
  • 당신
    대통령께선 당신을 돌보지 않고 나라 걱정만 하십니다.
    The president neglects himself and only worries about the country.
  • 스스로
    문이 스스로 열렸다.
    The door opened by itself.
  • 서로
    (그들이) 서로 욕하다.
    (They) call each other names.
  • 자체
    목적 자체는 훌륭했다.
    The motive itself was admirable.

The Differences Between the Different Pronouns

자신 and 자기 are both reflexive pronouns, but 자신 has two functions that 자기 does not. 자신 can be used redundantly to emphasis the preceding noun or pronoun, but 자기 cannot. See the following example:

  • 나 자신은 이 그림이 좋다.
    I, myself, like this picture.

자신 can also be used to mean "alone" or "on one's own," but 자기 cannot. 스스로 can also be used in this way. See the following the examples:

  • 네 자신이 생각하라.
    Think for yourself.
  • 그는 스스로 결정했다.
    He decided for himself.

저 and 당신 are first person and second person pronouns, respectively, but they can also be used as reflexive pronouns, which can be very confusing. When used as reflexive pronouns, they function the same as 자기 and 자신, but 저 seems to be less respectful, and 당신 is more. Consider these examples:

  • 그 놈은 제가 하지 않았다고 주장한다.
    That guy claims he did not do it.
  • 대통령께선 당신을 돌보지 않고 나라 걱정만 하십니다.
    The president neglects himself and only worries about the country.

Notice how the reflexive pronoun, 저, just like the first person pronoun 저, changes form when the subject marker 가 is attached. By the way, in the past, 저 and 당신 were used only as reflexive pronouns, but now they seem to be used more as first and second person pronouns than as reflexive pronouns.

자기 자신 is treated as an independent reflexive pronoun, and can replace 자신 and 자기 in many situations, but in complex sentences, there is a big difference in meaning. Consider the following examples:

  1. 갑수는 을수에게 병수가 자기를 때렸다고 말했다.
  2. 갑수는 을수에게 병수가 자기 자신를 때렸다고 말했다.

In Sentence 1, is 갑수 saying that 병수 hit him (갑수) or that 병수 hit himself? In the case of Sentence 1, 자기 usually refers to the subject of the main clause, but not always, which makes it somewhat confusing. However, 자기 자신 is used only to refer to the subject of the clause it is in. Here are the translations:

  1. 갑수는 을수에게 병수가 자기를 때렸다고 말했다.
    Kap-su told Eul-su that Byeong-su hit him (Kap-su).
  2. 갑수는 을수에게 병수가 자기 자신 때렸다고 말했다.
    Kap-su told Eul-su that Byeong-su hit himself.

자체 is used as a reflexive pronoun for things or concepts. Consider the following example:

  • 덕을 행한다는 것, 그 자체가 보상이다.
    Virtue is its own reward.

Why did Koreans make reflexive pronouns so confusing?


  1. Korean grammar is usually simpler than English grammar, so it is surprising that Korean has so many reflexive pronouns. I did notice that many English translations included a preposition + pronoun combination, making English reflexive pronouns a little more complicated than they initally appear.

    BTW, great Korean language learning links.

    You've probably answered this question before, but how many years did it take for you to become fluent? Do you have any specific suggestions for a high intermediate speaker wishing to progress eventually to native-like proficiency, at least in the receptive skills of listening and reading? I brought back a stack of Korean DVDs with bilingual subtitles, Korean novels, and advanced textbooks back to the US, and I check out headlines and YTN and sometimes listen to newscasts. Is there a good website with a message board or other public communication forum where I can pick up slang and informal Korean?

  2. Hi Sonagi,

    I am not sure which is harder, Korean grammar or English. My comments like "Why do Koreans make this so hard?" usually just mean, "This is harder or more complicated than I thought it was."

    I have been studying Korean for almost thirty years, but not in a very systematic way. Also, when I started, there was no Internet, no personal computers, and few Korean language sources for foreign learners. In March 1977, when I first came to Korea in the navy, the best Korean language source for foreign learners were two books called "Myongdo Korean I & II." Later, a third and forth book came out, but they were not as good as the first two. These days there is almost too much out there.

    I consider myself fluent, but there are different levels of fluency. For example, I can watch Korean soap operas, follow TV news, and discuss a range of subjects with taxi drivers and others, but I still have trouble following certain discussions on TV and understanding groups of Koreans when they start talking in their abbreviated style of chatter, which is often filled with slang and idiomatic expressions. They also have background information on the topics that I do not, which makes it hard to follow them.


    First, I would get the 6-book series from the Yonsei Korean Language Institute and read through them about five or six times. Those books are filled with good stuff, and you will learn something new everytime you read them.

    Second, while going through the Yonsei books, start with the first grade textbook on the Korean Lab Web site and start working your way up. That will help make sure you learn the cultural items and language expressions that every Korean knows, instead of things that only a few super-educated Koreans know.

    Third, get yourself a Korean chat friend because that will help you get plenty of exposure to the slang. By the way, here is a link to Korean Chat Expressions.

    Fourth, stay curious and do not pretend to be more fluent than what you are. Read newspapers and college level material, but also read children's stories, which teach those little verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that foreign learners of Korean seem to have a lot of trouble with.

    Fifth, learn the Korean idioms because they are used all the time. Here is a good Idiom Dictionary.

    Sixth, learn Korean proverbs because if they come up in conversation and you do not know them, you will get lost. Korean proverbs are fun. Just read them at your leisure. Here is a Proverb Dictionary.

    Seventh, learn Chinese characters and Chinese character idioms. Knowing Chinese characters will help you better understand and remember a lot of confusing Korean words. Naver has the best Chinese Character Dictionary I have seen.

    Eighth, I listen to the KBS 9 O'clock News to develop my listening skills. After listening to the news on TV, I can go on the Internet an hour later and listen to it again while following a transcript the site provides. That allows me to see and hear the portions of the news that I did not hear the first time around.

    Ninth, keep an online diary or write a blog in Korean. I do not do it, but I should. I do have this blog, however, and the reason I have it is that when I write about something dealing with the Korean language, it helps me to learn and remember what I am writing about.

    Tenth, do not get frustrated. When you are nearing the top of one hill, expect to see another one on the other side. Enjoy the journey and do not worry about reaching your destination because there will always be another hill.

    Well, that is my 10-Step Plan for learning Korean. I do not read many Korean novels or watch many Korean movies because both are a little difficult for me to understand and enjoy.

    I prefer TV soap operas to movies because the dialog is not usually mixed in with background noise and special effects, making it hard to hear. Also, a soap opera is a story that continues over several months instead of just two hours, so with soap operas, you have time to follow the story, understand the characters, learn their style of speech and favorite expressions.

    I prefer reading Korean history and language books and Korean children's stories to novels because they usually provide more explanation that novels do. Novels also tend to mix in a lot of dialect, which I am not really interested in learning right now. There are too many things to learn, and novels seem to take up too much time.

    I do not usually visit Korean message boards, so I cannot really make any suggestions.

    I hope that answered your questions.

  3. Hi, I'm Korean. I find your blog and this message today. This is very interesting. See you again.

  4. Wow. Wow. Wow. I just found your blog and I am so impressed! THANK YOU for posting all this! I will definitely go here regularly *-*! I have been studying korean for 4 years on my own, but had a lot of trouble the first 2 years.
    Now I have been having issues with memorizing and actually sitting down to read through and translate (look up) korean scripts (I started attending a korean church and the pastor offered giving me scripts to the sermon. so grateful!)...
    Reading your posts, and replies to comments really motivates me and triggers me to keep fighting!!
    Thank you!

  5. You are not is confusing. I have read about reflexive pronouns in numerous places, as well as talked to a few natives about them and am still confused and (of course!!!) have found some conflicting information on them too. I'm trying to summarize this topic for my book but ...hard stuff. One question: what about 저희 for the plural form of 저? It seems like 저 has three meanings that actually are not directly related: 1. first person pronoun (I) and 2. "a person being talked about" (see: and 3. kind of short for '저 사람' (that person over there)...awful.


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