English compound words are clear in the sense that one can understand their constituents:

  • notebook
  • dinner table
  • long-term

As you can see, there are at least three types of compound words in English: closed, open, hyphenated

However, Korean compound words are all closed and shortened. The irrelevant hanja's or morphemes are cut out and it is hard to 'reverse engineer' the original constituents even looking at the hanja dictionary.

An example: 전항 (이전 항목).

So, where can I find original constituents of compound words?

  • 1
    You need to know the Hanja equivalents for most such constituents
    – user17915
    Oct 23, 2019 at 5:09
  • yes, I know that. but the problem is as you can see, the original words are concatenated and without the original words, it is hard to "reverse engineer" the constituents.
    – eugen
    Oct 23, 2019 at 5:17
  • 1
    If you are good at Korean, 고려대학교 한국어대사전(available at naver dictionary) would be good choice. I found '전항', and it gave me 형태(shape) : [前項].
    – LegenDUST
    Oct 23, 2019 at 6:41
  • 1
    Well, English does have many difficult compounds: NASA, FBI, Brexit, albeit, awry, infrared, de facto, et cetera. Not many English speakers would know that helicopter is made of helico- + -pter "spiral wings".
    – jick
    Oct 23, 2019 at 16:27
  • 1
    "Korean compound words are all closed and shortened," you mentioned, but it is not true. Think about 손가방 (a handbag, handbags; 손 (hand, hands) + 가방 (bag)), 눈물 (tears; 눈 (eye, eyes) + 물 (water)), 비옷 (a raincoat, raincoats; 비 (rain) + 옷 (clothes)), etc. These are easy to understand and do not have Hanja. 북반구 (北半球; 북 (north, northern) + 반구 (hemisphere)) and 대포알 (대포 (cannon(s), artillery) + 알 (egg(s), ball(s))) have Hanja but there is no shortening.
    – Klmo
    Oct 28, 2019 at 11:51

1 Answer 1


I think you have a bad grasp on the concept.

전항 is not composed of 이전 + 항목. It is simply a compound word of two words 전(前) and 항(項). 전 means roughly the same thing as 이전, and 항 means roughly the same thing as 항목.

이전 "before now" is also a compound word made out of 이(以) "boundary in time or space" and 전(前) "front, before". 항목 is also a compound word made out of 항(項) "item" and 목(目) "item".

  • I think 전항 was not a good example. How about 만기 (만료 기간, expiry, maturity (day)), does it qualify for a compound word?
    – eugen
    Oct 27, 2019 at 8:35
  • @eugen 만기(滿期) is composed of 만(滿) "to complete" and 기(期) "period". It is not comprised of 만료 and 기한, they just share the same chinese character so their meanings are similar.
    – MujjinGun
    Oct 27, 2019 at 9:23
  • I see. I will try to find a better example then
    – eugen
    Oct 27, 2019 at 9:52
  • 4
    @eugen maybe, let's rethink this problem. I suggest treating single syllables of hanjaeo as bound morphemes. To give an English example, the word antecedent is not made up of the words anterior and succeed; instead their Latin roots are ante and cēdō, which are also part of the English words anterior and succeed.
    – dROOOze
    Oct 27, 2019 at 12:58

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