Korean Counters, Or, Nouns Who Need Help

The Korean language, like libraries, rainforests, rocketships, and destinies, is principally an assembly of uncanny notions, and while hacking my way through the tangled morass of ferns and ivy that constitute the components of this great syntactical ecosystem I was able to pry a new treasure out of the gloom, and have subsequently torn it apart, and sewn it back together again, in a form comprehensible to your English eyes.

Foreigners who attempt even the barest understanding of this impenetrable fortress are frequently able to make use of a limited number of counters, or nouns who need help, and probably most often do so while dining out. It is not enough, for example, to say that there are four people coming to eat at your restaurant; you must say there are four myeong people. Similarly, if you want to order two plates of the same dish, daenjong stew, say, then you can’t just demand two daejong stews please, you have to say gimme two gae daenjong stews. You can’t just write 2011, you have to write 2011 nyeon, the counter for year.

The Korean words I have italicized have no equivalents in English; you are essentially saying four people people are coming, or that you want two things of daenjong stew, but you are using a different word for people or things from the normal word, a word which is only used when you are counting, and cannot be used otherwise, which is why it needs help.

This may be related to the bizarre presence in Korean of two sets of numbers—those from China, and those that are more homegrown. In Korea, there are two words for “one”, an idiosyncrasy that cannot be present in any other language. There are also cardinal numbers as well, so don’t think I’m mixed up about that, ’cause I’m not.

English has hacked this idea of counters from itself, from the original ursprach of grunts and squeals that sprang from the babblings of the first human beings to climb out of the wombs of our simian ancestors; or, perhaps, it is Korean that has added this innovation on to that prototype. I wonder when one language started using these counters and when the other ceased to bother, what occasioned that revolution in impenetrability, why the primitive whiteclad fishermen we always see in Korean museum dioramas suddenly decided to further systemize their world, and why the hirsute Saxons wandering the gloomy fens and amber-scattered beaches of the Baltic North ever stopped.

What most foreigners in Korea probably don’t know is that there are far more counters than the two I have enumerated thus far, and in a sense they almost constitute a separate language or organization for the universe, as arbitrary as any periodic table or binomial nomenclature. There are counters, or nouns who need help, for books, pages of books or slices of fruit, cuts (usually in fish but sometimes wounded or murdered people), the degree of generational difference between those related to each other by blood, things made of rice, sips of alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, socks and shoes, times you win a game, writing utensils, flowerbeds, plastic bottles, glass cups, trees, measurements of land, nuts or things that resemble nuts, bowls of noodles, romantic couples, luggage, visible divisions in physical objects, situations, eggs, heads of lettuce, bowls of rice, and animals.

It is not enough to say five plastic bottles. One must say five [plastic bottle counter] plastic bottles. It is not enough to say eight glass bottles. One must say eight [glass bottle counter] glass bottles. And woebe tide he who muddles the two; though Koreans are apparently almost as bewildered by this system as we are (or would be, if we were actually aware that such monstrosities could coexist with the numb everyday commonplace), anyone who flubs up in regular conversation or an academic paper or newspaper article or scribble of poetry is thought of as an uncouth boor.

This piece would have been impossible without the help of my wife. The Korean term for this part of speech is 의존 명사, oweejone myeongsa, or dependent nouns.

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