What is the Difference Between 니가 (neega), 네가 (nega), and 네가 (nega)?

As many people know, people send me questions on the internet, and I answer them. This evening, someone sent me a questions asking me if they should used 니가(nee ga) or 네가 (ne ga) in a text message. My initial response was, “Don’t use either one” because Koreans don’t use their subject pronouns on a regular basis. Korean is a very complicated language, and after I explain the use of “you” and “I” as subject pronouns, you might see part of it.

Two of these guys are brother in laws, and the other is a very good friend. They all go to church together and hang out together. They could use 니가, 네가, or even 너는 on one another for “you.” However, they can only do that because they know one another very well. None of it would be an insult to any of them, but they probably wouldn’t bother with pronouns. I met the guy on the left several years ago in America, and he has taken on the American way and actually calls me by my first name, but that is not usually done in Korea. He and I have been good friends for so long we are almost like family, and he speaks English like an American. He has never used Korean on me.

You see, 니가 *nee ga) means “you” as the subject, and does 네가 (ne ga). I asked my Korean son in law about it. He said that people can use 니가 (nee ga) in a happy situation jokingly, but it is usually something to emphasize “you” when you are angry, and he never uses it in a text message. If he uses one of these words, it would be 네가 (ne ga) for clarification. However, he probably wouldn’t. Korean is very vague.

This is a very formal situation between the foreign minister of Japan and the Korean ambassador. If they were speaking Korean, they would be using 재가 for “i” and using one another’s names or 선생님 for “you.”

Now, we get to 내가 (ne ga). 내가 actually means “i” even though it is said the same way. This is one of those really confusing things in Korean. I have often heard people say 네가 (ne ga) or 내가 (ne ga) and been completely confused about who they were talking about because they are said the same. It is one of those things that you have to figure out from context.

Students are expected to address teachers as 선생 님 to be respectful. However, I was not just a teacher, but a professor, so people, not just my students, but everyone, 교수님 (kyosuneem) meaning “professor.” They talk to me with a lot of respect even now that I retired. Even other teachers call me 교수님.

To avoid confusion, I usually use, 나는 (na nun) for “I.” However, “재가 (je ga) can also be used for “I,” and I don’t even know if I spelled it right in Korea because I have never seen it written, only spoken. It isn’t even in my dictionary, but they say it is a more respectful way of saying “I.” The best way is just to leave the pronouns out.

This is my good friend, Hanul. If I said 너는 to her for “you,” she would feel like I am putting myself above her. If I say 당신 은 to her for “you,” she would feel good like we have a warm, close friendship. She calls me 교수님 (kyosoonim) which means ‘professor.’

Instead of using 니가 or 네가 for “you,” there are much better ways I have learned to express myself. One thing you can do is just never use the word “you” in Korea and make them guess because often that is what they will do to you. However, to clarify things, there are ways. If you don’t mind talking down to someone, you can use “너는 (no nun) for you, but I don’t like to talk down to anyone. They may also use 너는 if they know the person very, very well. If you want, you can use 당신은 (tangsheen un) for “you.” However, there are problems with that too. To begin with, you can’t use it with strangers or people you don’t know well. When I first came to Korea, I used it while I was standing in line to buy groceries talking to the woman next to me, and she looked at me like I was crazy. If you use it, the person must be very close to you. In fact, it could be interpreted as “sweetheart” or “honey” in the right context, so you have to be careful with it. I used it today with a friend who is several years younger than I am that I have known for several years who is almost like family, and that was acceptable.

The pronouns can really be a problem in Korean. A really good way is to learn the person’s name and use it all the time rather than a pronoun even though it would sound strange in English. It doesn’t sound strange in Korean. Another way, if you don’t know their name or just want to keep it on a formal basis is to say선생 님 (sonseng nim) for “you.” 선생 님 literally means “teacher.” However, it is also a very respectful way to say “you.”

Good luck trying to sort Korean out. It is one of the most complicated languages I have ever tried to learn to speak.

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