Counting Numbers in Korean

This article explains how to count numbers and money in Korean.

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Two Counting Systems

When we learn a foreign language, one thing we want to master at an early stage is counting numbers in that language. Numbers, however, may well be the most complicated part of Korean.

Koreans use two different numbering systems, depending on the object being counted (e.g. money, phone numbers, people, hours, or simply how many there are).

Imagine you are talking to a clerk at a gift shop in Korea:

"How much are these?"

"They're 10 Won [Korean currency] each."

"Can I get 10 of these?"


In this short conversation, number "10" is mentioned twice, but two completely different words are spoken. For "10 Won" (for counting money), one counting system is used, and for "10 of these", another system is involved. The two systems are summarized in Tables 1 & 2 and explained in detail below.

Table 1 : Brief Overview of the Two Counting Systems

System 1 System 2
Origin Related to the Chinese language, this system was introduced into Korean probably around the 2nd century B.C. — thus it is the "new" system. Used by Koreans since time immemorial, this system represents the "ancient" system. The linguistic origin is obscure.
Usage Preferred system for counting money and large numbers
— See Table 2 for details
Preferred system for counting a manageable number (fewer than 100) of objects other than currency
— See Table 2 for details

Table 2 : Correct System to Use

Korean Counting Systems

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Component Words and Grand Units

The following 16 words are all you need to know to count from zero to a trillion and beyond.

Table 3: Component Words of System 1

Component Words of System 1

Table 4 shows some round numbers in this system.

Table 4: Round Numbers in System 1

Round Numbers in System 1

The numbers in the table above are divided into groups according to the Korean logic. You might have noticed that the English words that serve as grand units (million, billion, etc) appear out of register with the groups. As can be seen in Table 5 below, there is a major difference between the Korean and English number systems. In English, the word "thousand" is a grand unit. Numbers larger than a thousand are expressed as multiples of a thousand (one thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand...). Then, at 1,000,000 (which is one thousand-fold greater than 1,000), another grand unit, "million", is introduced. The word "million" remains as the grand unit until the number hits one billion. In short, in English, the grand unit for large numbers changes at every thousand-fold interval.

There is nothing unusual about the Korean word "chun", which means 1,000 – it is a direct counterpart of the English word "thousand". The situation, however, soon diverges. In Korean, a new word ("mahn", meaning 10,000) is introduced at 10,000. From 10,000 and up, the grand unit changes at every 10,000-fold interval (not 1,000-fold). Thus, in Korean, there is no specific word for "million"; one million is simply referred to as "hundred mahn" (100 times 10,000), and ten million is "thousand mahn" (1,000 times 10,000), and so on. At 100,000,000, another grand unit "uck" begins to be used. The difference is illustrated in Table 5. (This issue concerns System 1 only, for System 2 is not used for large numbers.)

Table 5: Progression of Grand Units

Progression of Grand Units

At this point, a word about thousand separators (commas inserted in Arabic numerals) may be in order. Koreans consider the use of such commas a strictly Western practice, and they put the commas in the Western way. In other words, the commas have no correlation with the Korean language in meaning or pronunciation.

Suppose you are looking at a Korean business contract, where the price (a large number) is written once in words and once in numerals. In the verbal part, the grand units would be as shown in the left side of Figure 5 (changing at every ten-thousand fold interval), but the numerals would have commas placed at every thousand fold interval as in English.

Composition Practice

0 - 100 Range

Now, let's practice mixing and matching the numbers in this system. For your convenience, the component words (1 - 10) are shown again in Table 6.

Table 6: Component Words (Shown Again)

Table 6

Click here for Self-Test Quiz: Numbers 0 - 10

Table 7: Numbers in the 11 - 99 Range

Table 7

Click here for a Self-Test Quiz

You now know all the components and rules to count from 0 - 99 in System 1.

100 - 1,000 Range

It's time to tackle the 100 - 1,000 range. Recall that, for numbers 100 and up, System 1 is the only system in use, so you don't need to worry about the other system.

First, let's consider numbers rounded at the hundreds. For the number "100", there are two ways to write and pronounce it (as in English) – "hundred" and "one hundred". Both are used in Korean, although the simpler form "hundred" is preferred, and the form "one hundred" may sound unnatural in some contexts. For first-time learners, it's safe to use "hundred" all the time, as it is perfectly acceptable in all contexts. The same is true for 1,000, etc.

Table 8: Hundreds

Table 8

Once we know the hundreds, we can add tens (as explained with Table 7) to compose other detailed numbers. Some examples are shown in Table 9.

Table 9: Numbers in the 100 -999 Range

Table 9

Click here for a Self-Test Quiz

1,000 - 10,000 Range

We can now explore larger numbers, which are particularly important for understanding Korean business documents. Since the exchange rate for the Korean currency, Won, fluctuates around 1,000 Won to 1 U.S. Dollar, monetary amounts mentioned in Korean documents tend to be large (a car may cost thirty million Won and the Korean government's annual budget is usually in the tune of several hundred trillion Won).

But there are no new rules to learn to count very large numbers. If you understood the underlying patterns in the above examples, you can easily compose numbers in the 1,000 - trillion range.

As a first step, let's consider numbers from 1,000 to 10,000. Recall that the Korean language has a special, single-syllable word for 10,000.

Table 10: Korean Word for 10,000

10,000 Korean word for 10000 mahn

Let's compose numbers rounded at the thousands, which progress with the same basic pattern as seen earlier.

Table 11: Thousands

Table 11

To compose detailed numbers in this range, simply add hundreds, tens and ones as we have learned with Tables 1 - 9.

Table 12: Detailed Numbers up to 10,000

Table 12

Click here for a Self-Test Quiz

10,000 - Hundred Million Range

Let's now explore numbers beyond 10,000 up to one hundred million. For this range, it's important to keep in mind that there is no specific word for "million" in Korean. Millions are referred to as some multiples of "mahn" (10,000), until another word is introduced at 100,000,000. Also recall that the grand unit jumps at every ten-thousand fold interval (as opposed to thousand-fold). To see these points yourself, pay special attention to the words that qualify (precede) "mahn" in Table 13 – those are multipliers of "mahn". (In this and the following tables, the word "mahn" is written in red to make it conspicuous to first-time learners.)

Table 13: Numbers Rounded at the Ten-Thousands (in the 10,000 - 99,000,000 Range)

Table 13

We can make detailed numbers in this range by adding thousand, hundreds, etc, as we have seen earlier.

At this point, one minor rule of the Korean typographical convention should be mentioned. When writing a large number in Korean, a space should be placed after the word "mahn". This gives the reader a pause, in a manner consistent with the underlying logic (grand unit progression) of the Korean number system. This doesn't necessarily mean that a particular Korean business document you receive will have such spaces in large numbers. The reason is that, while newspapers editors and book publishers follow this rule, ordinary business people may not be aware of it.

Table 14: Numbers Rounded at the Thousands (in the 10,000 - 99,000,000 Range)

Table 14

Click here for a Self-Test Quiz

Table 15: Detailed Numbers in the Tens of Millions Range

We will begin this practice by picking one of the numbers in the table above (83,752,000) and add hundreds, tens and ones to it. Other examples are also included in the table.

Table 15

Hundred Million to Trillion Range

When the number reaches 100,000,000, a new grand unit ("uck") is introduced.

Table 16: Korean Word for 100,000,000

100,000,000 Korean word for 10000 uck

Large, round numbers in this rage are shown in the next table. Note that a space should be placed after the word "uck".

Table 17: Numbers Rounded at the Hundreds of Millions

Table 17

More detailed numbers can be constructed as shown in Table 18.

Table 18: Detailed Numbers in the Tens - Hundreds of Millions Range

Table 18

Numbers Beyond One Trillion

As the grand unit jumps at every ten-thousand fold interval in Korean, the next unit is introduced at 1,000,000,000,000 which is 10,000 fold greater than an "uck". This number (1,000,000,000,000) is called "jo". By coincidence, this word "jo" is a direct counterpart of the English word "trillion".

Table 19: Korean Word for "Trillion"

1,000,000,000,000 Korean word Trillion jo This is the Korean word for "trillion".

Numbers in this range are shown in Table 20.

Table 20: Numbers Beyond One Trillion

Table 20


Composition Practice

The component words of this System are shown in Table 21. Being the more ancient system, System 2 is deeply integrated with the Korean language, and some numbers in this System change the ending depending on the context.

A number can be said in two different ways in this System. Suppose you spotted a group of geese while driving by a farm and start counting them, "One! Two! Three!.... " Here, you are treating the numbers simply as integers because each number is not followed by any unit. (True - you are whispering the word "geese" to yourself, but the number you actually uttered are without a unit, and they are like mathematical concepts.) In System 2 in Korean, such numbers are said in the noun form (stand-alone form). A moment later, you realize that the total number of geese in sight is 4 and shouted, "4 mahree!" ("mahree" is a Korean unit for counting animals). In this phrase, you must use the adjective form, because the number "4" modifies the word that immediately follows ("mahree").

On the other hand, in System 1 (which we have learned above), there is no noun form / adjective form distinction.

Table 21: Component Words of System 2

Table 21

(* In addition to these, there are other, rarely used adjective forms, which become the preferred forms in some contexts. The rare forms are not included in the table, since the forms shown here are perfectly adequate for all contexts, especially when spoken by a first-time learner.)

To compose a number in this system, you can simply mix and match the words shown above. Table 22 has some examples. Note that the noun/ adjective choice concerns the last syllable only, and all other syllables remain in the "noun form" both in the noun usage and adjective usage.

Table 22: Detailed Numbers of System 2

Table 22

Click here to see numbers from 1 to 99 written out in full.

Click here for a Self-Test Quiz

System 1 + System 2 Composite

Composition Practice

For numbers 100 and up, System 1 is the form most often used in modern times. In conversational Korean, however, some people perceive System 1 as tinged with foreign colors and not sufficiently "Korean". Korean linguists and teachers of the "purist" type recommend that, in conversational Korean at least, numbers should be fully vernacularized, that is, smoothened out for Korean ears. This can be achieved by saying at least the tens and ones of a large number using System 2, as shown in Table 23. In the table, the numbers are composites made in this manner, having a System 1 portion (black) and a System 2 portion (green). The composite forms are often used in scripts meant to be listener-friendly – for example, most Korean news anchors take the effort to say all numbers in the vernacularized (composite) form. Ordinary people, however, nowadays prefer to use straight System 1, because it's cumbersome to make composites and they don't see foreignness in System 1 any longer.

Table 23: Large Numbers Vernacularized

Table 23


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