I live, therefore I buy

A few months ago I downloaded a mobile phone app for studying Korean. The app shows a sentence, question or phrase in Korean, with the option of hearing it. (I generally use this on the train, which means I turn the sound down.) The user mentally or audibly translates it into English, then clicks ‘Show answer’. After checking the answer and any notes the app programmer has provided the user then can then select a period of time after which the sentence will re-appear.

Last night I read the question 어디에서 삽니까? (eo-di-e-seo sam-ni-kka?). 사 is most immediately the root of the verb 사다 (sa–da, to buy), making 어디에서 삽니까? the formal polite question ‘Where do you buy (it)?’ (The ㅂ is part of the verb inflection.) But the answer given was ‘Where do you live?’. ‘Live’ is 살다 (sal-da). Most inflections of 사다 and 살다  are distinct. For example, the standard polite statement form of 사다 is 사요 (sa-yo, I buy) and that of 살다 is 살아요 (sal-a-yo > sa-la-yo, I live). Just occasionally, though, the ㄹ of  살다 disappears, leaving 사. One of these circumstances is when it is followed by ㅂ (usually /b/ but in this case /m/ because is it followed by ㄴ /n/). This is approximately analogous to the silent ‘l’ in ‘calm’ etc. In English, the sound disappears but the spelling remains. In Korean, the sound and the spelling both disappear.

When my wife picked me up at the station, I said ‘I’ve been studying Korean. The question was “어디에서 삽니까?”’. She immediately said ‘“Where do you live?”’. I asked ‘Could it be “Where do you buy it?”?’. She said ‘Yes’. She said that, without context, the two questions are identical.

Perhaps the fact that ‘buy’ is usually transitive (it usually requires a direct object – we usually buy something) and ‘live’ is usually intransitive (it does not usually require a direct object – we don’t usually live something) might prefer the interpretation of ‘buy’. In English, direct objects are obligatory, but they can be omitted in Korean (‘Where do you buy?’ is a valid question if we know what ‘it’ is). Also, ‘Where did you buy it?’ might be a more natural question than ‘Where do you buy it’, whereas ‘Where do you live?’ might be a more natural question than ‘Where did you live?’. Thus there are two reasons for preferring ‘Where do you live?’.

The app is meant to help me learn vocabulary, but it doesn’t really. One question which crops up at intervals is ‘My major is economics’. I can recognise the question when I read it, but I can’t even begin to remember the words ‘major’ and ‘economics’.

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