Korean’s A Bitch

There are at least two different kinds of ands in Korean—I say at least because with this language the rabbit hole is truly infinite—one and for verbs, hago, and one for nouns, gwa. An incredibly expensive cafe just five minutes away from us (where they have the nerve to charge eight dollars for a cup of exceedingly normal coffee) is called Schumann gwa Clara; and a very common word you’ll run into in Korean sentences is mok-go, meaning ate-and, because mok is the verb stem of mokda, eat, while da is just a basic form of is, which you have to change to go, and, if you want to take a trip down conjunction junction.

Now I see I’m losing you with all this grammar. Baby sign language is the easiest language to learn of all, because there’s no grammar, just vocabulary.

Even though I’ve written this enormous post on Korean, both my wife and father in law consider me to be 하급, ha-gup, an underling, or low-class, Korean student.

Korean does have a lot of articles, which you use all the time (or only sometimes), and, again, there are at least three of them. You use one article for objects (는, neun) and one article for subjects (를, leul). I eat apples. In Korean, I(the1) apples(the2) eat—you’ve also got to switch your syntax around from English’s subject verb object (I eat apples) to Korean’s subject object verb (I apples eat). And as Saruman says, this is just the beginning!

These first two articles are the easy ones. The third, 가, ga, is absolutely impossible, and I honestly have only the barest understanding of how it functions; I’m sure any advanced speakers will correct my explanation here if they run across this blog. Supposedly ga’s purpose is to emphasize the most important part of a sentence. I know that I hear it most in the word chay-ga, or nay-ga, both of which apparently mean my—the first is a polite conjugation, the second is more intimate. But there are several other words which also mean my, and I basically use them all at random, sometimes correctly, sometimes not, which is one of many reasons I’m so nervous about speaking to other people—if you don’t strike the correct note of politeness, you risk alienating them.

These cultural mores are reflected in, or perhaps even come from, the language, and although it would seem like you are either the master or the servant in Korea, with no gray areas in between, there are actually all kinds of variations on these two unchanging themes in the language.

I believe I know of one verb conjugation specifically used in the case of old people gently admonishing young children—I think it’s just verb stem + ha-gay. For a teacher to do the same thing, you would take your verb stem, such as gong-boo (study), and tack on a hay-bo-say-yo to the end, in order to politely suggest that a student study. The first conjugation I ever heard was the infamous im-nee-da ending (im-nay-da in North Korean), which appears to be used almost entirely in official contexts—news reporters and anchors, automatic machines, announcements on subways and trains, and women in short skirts dancing out in front of electronics stores and supermarkets. In English I think you would throw the magic word onto the end of most of your sentences in order to express roughly the same feeling, maybe with a would or a could mixed in for good measure.

When I asked my wife to list all the different levels of politeness for me, she said there were too many to count; in the days of the bone rank system there was a different verb conjugation for every different kind of noble and official you could ask for. Think of your highness, my lord, my liege, in English.

As for talking to themselves, or to their friends, Koreans use the intimate banmal, or half-speech, a word most foreigners here probably know, since most foreigners work with children, and most children seem to look down upon anyone who has not mastered their language—which means that they talk down to you. Korean can occasionally sound good, or even pretty, when more polite levels are employed, but in banmal the language is reduced to harsh, guttural Orcish, and this is unfortunately the most common way of speaking, since people usually speak to their friends if they speak at all. Mokda, eat, can be a euphonious mogo ha-say-yo (please eat!), or a very rough gruff mogo-la (eat it!). The tones usually shift along with the conjugation, as well. You’re not really supposed to speak this way to strangers but older men will sometimes use banmal to order things from waitresses if they speak, or use a verb, at all; for them, a grunt and a finger are enough to get the point across.

Speaking of banmal, there’s another word I ran into just two days ago, in the most unlikely place—Indiana Jones 4, also known as Indiana Jones Meh, wherein a scholar of some sort goes crazy and writes the word “return” in all kinds of different languages on his prison cell walls. The only word I recognized was Korean, 반환, ban-hwan, although I had to pause the movie to look it up; the fact that a scholar could write this word from memory in so many different languages is just as improbable and superhuman as translating an ancient language very quickly, and basically on sight, which happens in this movie as well as others; think of how many times people can read ancient Egyptian like it’s the Queen’s English in The Mummy.

Anyway, this Korean word is, like at least seventy or perhaps even eighty or ninety percent of Korean, mispronounced Chinese. You could summarize the Korean language by calling it Chinese, without the tones, and with such an inscrutable grammatical framework that no one can figure out where it comes from. I used to think that Chinese occupied roughly the same register as Latin and Greek does in English—a word like return is obviously a lot fancier than go back, because the Romans used it, and the Romans are, like, way up there—but actually even the most basic Korean words, like man, woman, hand, dog, house, car, are all derived from Chinese, to such an extent that it can actually be fairly difficult to find Korean words that are not Chinese. Salang, love; Nala, country or shore; sadali, ladder; sheebal, fuck.

But in some ways I think Chinese might be easier to understand because there are different tones you use to distinguish different words. In Chinese the syllable ma has five different meanings (at least!), and you can tell them apart by listening for the tone, but Korean is not a tonal language, and so the only way can to tell the different Chinese syllables apart is by context and memorization. In Chinese, the five ma’s sound noticeably different; in Korean, they all sound the same. This only adds to the difficulty of learning the vocabulary. Koreans also don’t really use Chinese to write anymore, since the Japanese forced them to use their own homegrown alphabet a century ago, and as a result newspapers and other publications sometimes have to employ the occasional Chinese character to help confused readers when context isn’t enough. Shee, 시, for instance, can mean poetry (詩, Shī) or city (市, Shì), in addition to god knows what else, and I remember that at my university, above one of many urinals, there’s a Robert Frost quote translated into Korean, and the quote says something like, poetry is the way to joy. Whoever chose to translate the quote also chose to employ the Chinese character to make sure that readers understand that Lo-butt-uh Puh-los-tuh is a poet rather than just some city slicker.

I started this post by talking about two different kinds of ands because I thought that would really freak out anyone who was used to learning French or Spanish—how could it even be possible for a language to have more than one and?—but because the syntax in Korean is so ungodly and out-of-control, you have to really fool around a lot and ratchet the level of insanity up a few notches when you decide to use a sentence with more than one verb. This vexed me a year ago when I started taking the language a little more seriously and it still vexes me now and there’s absolutely no way I can explain it beyond saying that everything is backwards and that if you want to read a complex sentence you have to start at the beginning and the end—at the same time—and then work your way toward the middle. It’s almost more like solving some kind of bizarre equation, and if you want to have any chance of speaking correctly you’ve really got to fit the different pieces together in your head before you open your mouth.

There’s a conjugation you use when you’re coming to the end of a sentence clause with the intention of continuing further (verb stem + day, 데), and then another conjugation for when you’re stating a fact that you’re going to explain later (verb stem + guh-dun, 거든). There’s at least three different whens (onjay, 언제; verb stem + sultay which I cannot spell in Korean; and then day, 때, which I have probably misspelled), and all of them have different grammatical functions.

In short, Korean is a bitch.

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6 thoughts on “Korean’s A Bitch

  1. choronghi says:

    Um u have the history completely wrong. Koreans stopped using Hanna bc they wdnted to. If anything Japanese outlawed use of hangul and forced Korean people to learn Japanese and take on Japanese names. Just so you know bc its really offensive with what you wrote

    As far as nun and ga is concerned read this


    It’s the same thing in Japanese and this explanation is good. Im not sure if you’re interested in getting good at Korean or if you don’t have time or enough interest but if you do you should look into ajatt

  2. choronghi says:

    Hmm I googled in and it says what you said Abt them teaching hangul but anyways that’s still not the reason the got rid of it.

  3. First of all, Korean is etymologically close to Japanese, not Chinese and both are Altaic languages. They also both derived from when the Turks invaded the Korean/Japanese lands. Koreans absolutely know where their language comes from. In fact, Koreans are more literate and more knowledgeable about their language than virtually any other country in the world.

    The reason that Korean has a lot of Chinese characters is because of the proximity of China – Korean also has a lot of English words due to the fact that English is the dominant language of the business and technological world.

    Hangul was engineered in the 1400’s by King Sejong, and not a century ago. The Japanese didn’t force Koreans to use Hangul; if anything, they forced them to read and write Japanese.

    You are probably considered a 하급 because you haven’t bothered to learn why Korean is Korean, and you seem to want to just say bad things about it. It might not help your learning but it would definitely help your attitude.

  4. A non-native English-speaking Asian who can differentiate between "a" and "the" says:

    “I used to think that Asian languages didn’t have any articles because it seemed like I had never met an Asian who had mastered the difference between a and the”

    “Speaking very generally, I think Koreans are either incredibly polite and subservient or unbearably rude and boorish.”

    Haha, are you serious? Your bigotry just shines through in this blog post, doesn’t it? Speaking very generally, I could also say that white people are either extremely ignorant, or try to seem cultured, cosmopolitan, and well-adjusted.

    Please, get off your high horse! And while you’re at it, at least look up some basic facts before you publish a blogpost like this…

    One last thing — Korean is in no way “Chinese, without the tones, and with such an inscrutable grammatical framework that no one can figure out where it comes from.” Languages are fluid, dynamic, and constantly evolving. Saying that close to 90% of Korean words are just mispronounced Chinese is akin to saying that English is just mispronounced Italian. Sure, a large chunk of English words are derived from Latin, but present-day Italian is similarly removed from thousands-of-years-old Latin.

    In short, please, please, please do your homework.

  5. hiddenconnections says:

    Whoa, corrections appended. You’re right about the bigotry. I can’t believe I wrote those things, and they have now been deleted (although they remain in your comment).

    However you’re wrong about the history of the language. English is made of German, French, Latin, and Greek, and this mixture reflects its history: Germanic barbarians emigrating from northern Germany to England, settling down and getting conquered by the French, then using Latin and Greek (learned mostly from the French nobles and the Church (and then later the Renaissance)) to express advanced ideas.

    Korean has a few native words leftover from its distant past, but aside from its (still maddening) grammatical framework, which seems to have a few things in common with Japanese, a vast portion of the vocabulary–at least seventy percent, probably more–comes from Chinese. This also reflects its history. Much of Korea was probably conquered by China in the distant past (the so-called “commanderies”), the country was sending its best scholars to China for their education until the 19th century, the country used Chinese characters to write its own language almost exclusively until the mid-20th century, the country imported numerous forms of Chinese culture (including Confucianism and Buddhism, which, while originating in India, was transmitted through China), the country was a vassal of the Qing and the Yuan…the influence is extremely deep, and the language reflects this. You’re right that Korean is continuing to evolve. Thanks to half a century of Japanese and then American colonization, there are maybe a few hundred Konglish and Japanese words scattered into Korean now–my wife tells me that they used to call their lunchboxes “bento”–but the vocabulary is still overwhelmingly Chinese, including the word for hello, anyang. I have done my homework, and I’m sorry again for writing such racist things. You’re welcome to pick through the rest of my blog for more, if you have the stomach for it, as I was angrier about living in Korea in the past and may have lashed out in ways that embarrass me now.

    “They also both derived from when the Turks invaded the Korean/Japanese lands.”

    When did this happen exactly?

    I know when Hangul was invented, but I also know that it wasn’t really commonly used in Korea until the Japanese, in attempting to distance their colonial subjects from the Chinese, forced them to use Hangul instead of Chinese characters to write the Korean language. This is where I’m getting this information. If you have any sources to counter it, you’re welcome to use them (as I’m aware that it comes from a shaky source):

    “In the initial phase of Japanese rule, students were taught in Korean languages in public schools established by ethnic Korean officials who worked for the colonial government. During this time Korean was written in a mixed Hanja-Hangul script, where most lexical roots were written in Hanja and grammatical forms in Hangul. For the majority of Koreans during this time, this was their first time learning Hangul.”

    • Sissy says:

      Ugh,I’m confused.(I’m sorry to say that the post is difficult to understand.But will be better if you added some meaning to those ‘leul’ and ‘eul’ words.

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