For many new to the world of KPop and Korean entertainment the following words are often misheard and misunderstood. When trying to understand a language that is not native to you, it’s easy to mistake a word or two for something else. I know when I first heard these words a few years ago it caught me off guard. Being the nerd that I am, I did my research first before over reacting. Now, I’m hoping to educate some newbies out there.
Nega, Naega, Niga….
Whoa, these words when sang or rapped in KPop or KHipHop are often mistaken for THE N-word. Now, for the few that may not know what THE N-word is, it a highly offensive word used to insult, belittle or degrade someone who is black. It is often used by individuals as a racial slur to express hatred and bigotry. It is a word that for the most part, only used in the English language and originated in North America more than 150 years ago. It is often used in popular rap and hip hop music by black American artist. Yet, to most, it is still an inflammatory word not to be used, especially by someone that is not black and of the culture.
This is where those 3 Korean words come in. When pronounced, especially quickly in a song, they can sound very similar to THE N-word. In actuality those 3 words are very common and used in everyday conversation. The following is a detailed explanation of Nega, Naega, Niga and it’s use.
Ne-ga (네가) means ‘You’ and Ni-ga (니가) is very informal version with same meaning. Nae-ga (내가), which means ‘I’, sounds almost same as ‘Ne-ga (You). That is why people (usually among friends) use ‘Ni-ga’ for speaking. Here is another explanation:
Niga – An informal way of saying “you~ (did, said, ate, etc)” usually used between very close friends or siblings and it has kind of nuance of complaining or fighting.
Not a complete sentence and to make it complete you will need to put a past particle or past tense of some sort that you are referring to behind niga.
Nurga (Neoga) is much more smoother than Niga. Usually used when you are talking to younger ones to referring you for something that he/she did or said, etc
Nega – I, me. Similar to above and it is used if you are older one to younger one. (e.g. I ate it, I did it, I had it, etc)
Here is an example of the use of the above words in one of the most iconic songs in KPop. The song is Sorry, Sorry by OG mega group Super Junior. In the chorus alone naega, nega is used approximately 7 times, not counting the rest of the verses. Just imagine hearing this song for the first time with no context.
Do Koreans know what THE N-Word means
Some believe that due to THE N-words use in popular American hip hop music, that a number of Korean artist and song writers use the word not understanding what it truly means. Let’s be honest for just a moment. The over use of the word in some aspects of black culture and music cause a number of people to be desensitized to the words original meaning. In addition, as stated previously, THE N-word is not used by any other culture in any other country like it is in the United States. There are actual parts of the world that have never heard it, use it or know it’s meaning outside of popular hip hop music.
There have been cases of idols (ex: GOT 7’s Bam Bam, BTS’s RM), using the word when singing hip hop lyrics or using what they believe to be black American slang. They and many others have since apologized for using the word and say they fully understand the words meaning to the black community and never intended it as harmful or to be derogatory. They understand that even though they only said it as part of a song or language, that they realize the word hurts others.
A number of younger Korean millennials are aware of THE N-words meaning and use, for the most part. Of course, again, since it is often used in popular hip hop music some see no harm in the word or saying it. Who’s at fault for people seeing the word as passive instead of aggressive? Well, that’s too big of a debate to get into in this post.
Is there an N-word equivalent in Korean
Well, kinda. As I try and learn Korean, I realize that a lot of the Korean language is about how the word is used and not necessarily the word itself. Let’s take a commonly used and heard word such as Oppa. For those that don’t know, Oppa means older brother when spoken from a younger female to an older male. Now how that word is used and said can have many meanings. It’s used from a younger female to an older male that is her actual brother or brotherly figure. It is also used by young girls towards there older boyfriends or older males they like. Usually said in a cute and adorable way. Yeah, I know kinda cringe, but not in the Korean language and culture cause it’s all about use and context.
So here we go. There is an almost equivalent to THE N-word in Korean and that word is Geomdungi. Geomdungi from my understanding is used negatively to describe someone who is very dark skinned. About the equivalence of calling someone “Blackie”. Now for my people of color reading this, you know that someone calling you “Blackie” will get your teeth knocked out just as quick as calling someone THE N-WORD. The reason, because any negative reference to a black persons skin tone was always used to show inferiority as compared to being white. At least it was in America in the early 1900’s and unfortunately still today. It was just another way to say THE N-word without actually saying THE N-Word.
I heard of a specific instance of where Geomdungi was used towards someone black in Korea. Actual this is where I first heard of the word and it was unknown to that person until it was explained to them. It was used by children to describe their English language teacher who was a dark skinned black woman. It’s still not known if the children used it derogatorily or if they were just pointing out the obvious. Either way, it is a negative word used towards “dark skinned/very tanned” Koreans, therefore, they were not being loving by using the word.
What Can We Learn
I’m a big believer that there is almost always a lesson to be learned from everything. In this instance, I think the number one thing to be learned is that cultural exchange is very important. Without an opportunity to have conversations with people from all different races, cultures and countries it’s hard to understand the experiences of others. When you look at a situation from your perspective only, a lot can be misinterpreted and taken the wrong way. The wonderful thing about cultures interacting is in the understanding, that in many ways, we share common experiences just in different ways. Until we take the time to learn and be sensitive to different cultures and experiences we will constantly find ourselves misunderstanding each other.
Until next time….