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So if I read/heard a sentence like 소피가 웃어요., how do I know if Sophie (소피) is laughing (out loud) or smiling? Do I have to rely on other words in the sentence? If no context is provided, which definition is 웃다 closer to? If I want a word to mean '(to) smile', is there a difference between 웃다 and 미소 짓다 when written vs. when spoken (as implied in here)?

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  • Koreans don't care that much about the difference between laughing and smiling, which is the reason why we use 웃다 rather than 미소 짓다 in most conversations. If you want to make clear that you are meaning 'laugh' and not 'smile', you can say 웃음을 터트리다 or 소리내어 웃다. There are other words, like 박장대소 (clapping and laughing out loud) and 폭소 (explosive laughter). However, they are also usually written and not spoken. We also have some slangs for conversations (don't use them in formal situations): (실실) 쪼개다 (to laugh without making sound; often negative) and (빵) 터지다 (to laugh explosively).
    – Absol
    Sep 22 '20 at 12:34
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    It might be helpful to consider a reverse situation: a Korean speaker learning English may also ask, "when I see the word young, how do I know if the speaker meant 어리다 (young as a child) or 젊다 (adult but not old)?" The correct answer is: the distinction is important in Korean but not so much in English - to English speakers, young is a broader concept covering the whole range of two Korean words, so stop worrying about "well, which way is it?" - if the distinction was really important then the sentence should have more context anyway.
    – jick
    Sep 22 '20 at 16:30
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웃다 is positioned right in the middle of smiling and laughing when it’s not provided with some context. It suggests that someone is probably laughing or otherwise smiling at least.


"소피가 웃어요."

  • Sophie's face is smiling for sure, but we don’t know if she’s laughing or not. She’s probably laughing but the sentence doesn’t provide any clear evidence on whether she’s making sounds (laugh out loud) or not.

"소피가 깔깔 웃어요."

  • Sophie is (hysterically) laughing. We know that because of the sound(깔깔).

웃다 vs 미소 짓다


  • 미소 짓다: This is the kind of phrase that’s found more in novels or poems than casual conversations because it feels a little formal. Examples would be:

행운의 여신이 미소 짓다.

미소 짓는 그의 모습이 아름답다.


  • 웃다 sounds much more casual than 미소 짓다 in spoken languages. It can also replace the other when used in the form of 웃는 표정/얼굴/낯.

실실 웃었다.

웃는 낯에 침 뱉으랴.


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The primary definition of 웃다 is to smile big or make a sound when one is happy or satisfied. Without its context, there is no way to tell whether it means to smile or to laugh. It could be difficult to translate this verb into English; I would use to express happiness. In a sense, it is natural to think that laughs accompany smiles because the verb laugh is defined as to make sounds with your voice, usually while you are smiling.

As for the context, there are adverbs and adverbials that can come before the verb 웃다. They include numerous onomatopoeic and mimetic words that describe how one smiles or laughs (For smiling only, the standard dictionary have approximately 250 mimetic words). How do you know if a word is onomatopoeic or mimetic? The answer is simple: The definition of an onomatopoeic word ends with 소리 or 소리를 나타내는 말; that of a mimetic word ends with 모양 or 모양을 나타내는 말.

  1. 철수가 방긋 웃는다. (방긋: 입을 예쁘게 약간 벌리며 소리 없이 가볍게 한 번 웃는 모양.)
  2. 영희가 빙그레 웃는다. (빙그레: 입을 약간 벌리고 소리 없이 부드럽게 웃는 모양.)
  3. 민지가 깔깔 웃었다. (깔깔: 되바라진 목소리로 못 참을 듯이 웃는 소리.)
  4. 대호가 킥킥 웃었다. (킥킥: 나오려는 웃음을 참을 수 없어 잇따라 터뜨리는 웃음소리.)
  5. 그 농담에 모두 하하 웃었다. (하하: 입을 벌리고 거리낌 없이 크게 웃는 소리. 또는 그 모양.)
  6. 걔는 나를 보고 호호 웃었다. (호호: 입을 동그랗고 작게 오므리고 간드러지게 웃는 소리. 또는 그 모양. 주로 여자의 웃음소리를 나타낸다.)
  7. 나는 크게 웃었다.
  8. 나는 소리 없이 웃었다.

소리 없이 means without (making) a sound; that is, 소리 없이... 웃는 모양 and 소리 없이 웃다 relate to smiling. 웃음소리 or 웃는 소리 means the sound you make when you laugh. As you may have noticed, 하하 and 호호 are onomatopoeic and also mimetic, so it refers to both laughing and smiling. 크게 is an adverbial that is neither onomatopoeic nor mimetic; it means loudly before 웃다, so 크게 웃다 relates to laughing.

An interesting point is that you can verbalize simple onomatopoeic and mimetic adverbs by attaching -하다, -거리다, or -대다. For 방긋, you can have the verbs 방긋하다, 방긋거리다, and 방긋대다. They are used as follows:

  1. 철수가 방긋한다. (= 철수가 방긋하며 웃는다.)
  2. 철수가 방긋거린다. (= 철수가 방긋거리며 웃는다.)
  3. 철수가 방긋댄다. (= 철수가 방긋대며 웃는다.)

The difference between 방긋하다 and 방긋거리다 is that the suffix -거리다 indicates that one does the action repeatedly whereas the suffix -하다 indicates that one does it once unless there is a word, such as 자꾸, meaning repeatedly. The suffix -대다 is the synonym of the suffix -거리다.

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