After class, I go home

On Monday, in the last lesson of the semester, to talk about the differences between English and Korean, I wrote on the board:

After class, I go home
후 수업, 나 가다 집 [hu su-eob na ga-da jib]

The (very bad) Korean is a word-by-word translation of the English. I asked the students ‘Do you understand this?’, and they said ‘Y-e-s’ (rather hesitantly). I asked ‘Is it good Korean?’, and they said ‘No!’ (rather quickly).

English and Korean and very different languages, of course. Three of the differences are word order, the use of particles or markers, and the conjugation of verbs. Korean has the basic word order of SOV and uses postpositions rather than prepositions (these two grammatical features often occur together in languages). So the first change is:

수업 후, 나 집 가다 [su-eob hu, na jib ga-da]
Class after, I home go

Korean uses particles or markers (different textbooks call them different things and explain them differently) to provide a range of grammatical information, some of which correspond to words in English, and some of which don’t.

에 (e) is the ‘time when’ particle, so the second change is:

수업 후에, 나 집 가다 [su-eob hu-e, na jib ga-da]
Class after(-time when), I home go

In this sentence, 에 doesn’t correspond to anything in English, but in other sentences, might correspond to at, in or on.

에 is also the ‘destination/source’ particle, used with verbs like 가다 (ga-da, go) and 오다 (o-da, come), so the third change is:

수업 후에, 나 집에 가다 [su-eob hu-e, na jib-e ga-da]
Class after(-time when), I home(-destination) go

In this sentence, 에 doesn’t correspond to anything in English, but in other sentences might correspond to to.

Korean has subject, object and topic marking particles. Oh dear. Objects are the easiest to understand (except there isn’t one in this sentence). Subjects and topics overlap. The (grammatical) subject of a sentence is always the subject of that sentence. The (pragmatic) topic of a sentence could be, and usually is, the subject of that sentence, but could also be some other part of it.

The subject marking particle(s) are 이 (i) and 가 (ga) (이 is added if the preceding word ends with a consonant, and 가 after a vowel). It/they is/are* added ‘to designate the subject of the sentence’, ‘to particularly emphasize the preceding subject’ and ‘to express new information in a sentence, that is, the introduction of a new topic’. There is no equivalent to this in English. Followed by 가, 나 changes to 내 (nae), so the subject of our sentence would be 내가.**

수업 후에, 내가 집에 가다 [su-eob hu-e, nae-ga jib-e ga-da]
Class after(-time when), I(-subject) home(-destination) go

The topic particle(s) 은 (eun) and 는 (neun), is/are used ‘to designate the main idea, topic, or issue of discussion’, ‘when referring to something mentioned earlier or when talking about something already known by both sides in the conversation’ and ‘when comparing or contrasting two things’. Got that? So the topic of our sentence could be 나는 (na-neun) (beginner textbooks for Korean learners use 나는 far more often than 내가).

수업 후에, 나는 집에 가다 [su-eob hu-e, na-neun jib-e ga-da]
Class after(-time when), I(-topic) home(-destination) go

Topic particles can, in some cases, be translated as ‘as for N’, in this sentence ‘As for me, after class, I go home’, which is obviously a very different structure.***

Lastly, there is verb conjugation. Lots of verb conjugation – past, present, future, declarative, interrogative, imperative, propositive, polite, familiar, formal and informal, and covering all the things which modal verbs cover in English.**** The simplest verb conjugation is 요 (yo), which is the present simple informal polite form. Textbooks generally introduce this first, and foreigners speaking Korean will probably get away with using this form when native speakers might be expected to switch to formal or honorific forms. So:

수업 후에, 나는 집에 가요 [su-eob hu-e, na-neun jib-e ga-yo]
Class after(-time when), I(-topic) home(-destination) go(-present simple, informal polite)

(That may still not be perfect, but it’s a darn sight better than I started with.)

Perhaps I should have started with verb conjugation, because that is almost always obligatory, while the other particles are generally optional (and, indeed, in some cases usually omitted).

One more difference is that in English, the adverbial phrase can go on the end (indeed, that is its default position): ‘After class, I go home’ v ‘I go home after class’. In Korean, the adverbial phrase must go at the beginning, or at the very least, after the subject: 수업 후에, 나는 집에 가요 v 나는 수업 후에 집에 가요 v *나는 집에 가요 수업 후에

PS I didn’t explain all that to them. They don’t need me to tell them how to change bad Korean into good Korean. I just mentioned word order, markers and verb endings. I finished by saying ‘The big words are easy. The small words are hard.’ I couldn’t help thinking about this. Writing Romanes eunt domus is easy. Remembering the relevant Latin grammatical rules under pressure is hard.

* That’s awkward. To the extent that they have different spellings and pronunciations, they are ‘different words’. To the extent that they mean exactly the same thing, they are ‘the same word’. The nearest analogy in English is a and an – are they different words or the same word?

**Slightly spooky: I switched to hangeul font to type 내, typed the comma, thought for a moment in English and continued typing without switching to the English font. It so happens that ‘so’ and 내 use the same two keys on the keyboard; typing ‘so’ with the Korean font selected produces 내.

*** It gets worse in two ways. There is also 저 (jeo), the ‘humble’ form of ‘I’ used when talking to seniors. This combines to form 제가 (je-ga) or 저는 (jeo-neun). And one form of ‘you’ is 니 (ni), which combines to form 니가 (ni-ga), which sounds uncomfortably like ‘nigger’. My first boss in Korea said that when he was studying in Texas, he had a few fraught moments in a record shop after calling to his friend across the room.

**** And then some. ‘Can’ for ability (I can play the piano) and ‘can’ for permission (Can I play the piano, please?) are two different conjugations.

Ref: Ahn, Lee and Han, Korean grammar in use, Beginning, Seoul, Darakwon, 2010


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