Monday, June 08, 2015

Is the past perfect tense alien to Korean?


According to Lee Su-yeol (이수열), a native Korean who taught in Korean primary and secondary schools for forty-seven years, the past perfect tense (대과거) is not native to the Korean language; it was created to imitate the past perfect tense in English. Instead, Korean uses adverbs with the past tense to convey the meaning of past perfect. Therefore, the invented Korean versions of past perfect, such as -ㅆ던, -았(었)던, - 였던, -ㅆ었다, -았(었)었다, and -였었다, are all unnecessary.

I am going to use examples from a page on the "Korean Language Nerd" Web site, which promotes the Korean past perfect tense, to show that past perfect tense is not needed in Korean.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
작년 한국에 왔어요 (past tense)
오다 (here as 왔어요) to come, implies to come to the place you are currently at, therefore the speaker came last year, probably stayed the whole time and is (still) in Korea. This translates to:
Last year (I) came to Korea.

작년 한국에 왔었어요 (past perfect tense)
Here 오다 (as past prefect tense 왔었어요) is a completed action, but since 오다 is used to express “to come here” the speaker must be at the moment in Korea, therefore it is implied the speaker came last year to Korea and left Korea again. This best translates to:
Last year (I) have visited Korea.
The Korean Language Nerd claims that 왔었어요 means that the speaker came to Korea, but is no longer in Korea. However, the way Koreans would normally express that meaning is "왔다 갔어요" or "갔다 왔어요," which is the way Korean was meant to be spoken and is much more easily understood.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
추웠다. (past tense) It was cold and might be still.
추웠었다. (past perfect tense) It was cold but it isn’t any more. 
 This is silly. Do some Koreans really say 추웠었다? I cannot remember hearing it. You simply say 아침 추웠다; 어제 추웠다; 지난 겨울은 추웠다.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
한국어를 공부 했다. (past tense) He studied Korean, and might be still studying.
한국어를 공부했었다. (past perfect tense) He studied Korean but he isn’t any more.
Why not 한국어를 공부한 적 있다 or 전에 한국어를 공부했다?

See! Why make Korean more difficult than it already is?

Finally, in my Dong-A 국어사전, the word "대과거," which is the Korean word for "past perfect," is defined as follows:
"(인도 유럽어 등에서) 과거에 있어서의 완료 (完了) 또는 계속을 나타내는 시제 (時制)"
The definition says "in Indo-European languages" (인도 유럽어 등에서); it does not say anything about the Korean language.

If you still do not believe me, read this 2003 중앙일보 article:

우리말 바루기 181 - 영어식 표현의 남용

Sunday, February 15, 2015

What does 人人親其親, 長其長, 而天下平 mean?

Literary Chinese has a basic sentence structure of Subject-Verb or Subject-Verb-Object, so a character's position in a sentence usually determines rather it is the subject, verb, or object of that sentence. The following sentence is a clever example of how it works.


()()()()(), ()()(), ()()()().
  • 人人 -- everyone
  • 親 -- parents; to love
  • 其 -- his, her, its, their
  • 長 -- elders; to respect elders
  • 而 -- then
  • 天下 -- the world
  • 平 -- level; peaceful

[If] everyone (人人) loved (親) his (其) parents (親) [and] respected (長) his (其) elders (長), then (而) the world (天下) would be peaceful (平).


The average Chinese character has multiple meanings, and many can function as a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb depending on its position in a sentence, even though it is the same character. In the above sentence 人 means "person," but two together means "everyone." When 親 is used as a noun, it means "parents," but when it is used as a verb, it means "to love." When 長 is used as a noun, it means "elder," but when used as a verb, it means "to respect elders." When you see 而 (then), you can usually assume it is an "if...then" sentence and, therefore, add the "if" to the front of the sentence when you translate it, if it is not already there. 天下 literally translates as "heaven's (天) under (下), but means "the world [under Heaven]."

Monday, February 09, 2015

How do you translate 其不善者 into English?

Here is a passage from the book I am writing on Literary Chinese. It is from a later chapter, so I consider it somewhat advanced.


(1) ()()()(), ()()()()(), ()(). (2) ()(), ()()(). (3) ()()()()(), ()(). (4) ()(), ()()(), (5) ()()()()()()()()(), ()()()()()().


(1) A certain () person () asked (), saying (), “[If] the villagers (鄕人) all () love () him (), what about that (何如)?” (2) The Master () replied (), “That is not enough (未可也).” (3) “[If] the villagers (鄕人) all () hate () him (), what about that (何如)?” (4) The Master () replied (), “That is not enough (未可也). (5) [It is] not as good as (不如) those of the villagers who are virtuous (鄕人之善者) loving () him (), [and] those of them who are not virtuous (其不善者) hating () him ().”


This passage is saying that it is better to be loved by those who are virtuous and hated by those who are not virtuous rather than to be loved by everyone. The reason, I assume, is that if those who are not virtuous love you, it may be because they think you are similar to them in some way.

某人 means “a certain () person ()” or “someone” and is used when you do not know a person’s name or when you don’t need to mention the person’s name. means “like,” and means “what,” so 如何 means “is like (如) what (何)."  Here, however, 如何 seems to be an abbreviation of 如之何, which literally translates as "if (如) this/that (之), what (何)" since 如 can also mean "if." And "if this/that, what" can be rewritten as "what about this/that?" 如何 can also be written as 何如, which is how it was written here. In Korean, 何如 would be translated simply as "[이러면] 어떻습니까?" (2) Here 未可也 literally means “[That is] not yet () right (可也)” or “not yet suitable.” (3) When is used to mean “evil” or “bad,” it is pronounced in Korean; but when it is used to mean “to dislike” or “to hate,” it is pronounced . (5) 不如 literally means “not () the same as (),” but implies “not as good as.”

鄕人之善者 is a phrase that uses a common pattern expressed as “Noun + + Verbal Phrase + 者,” which is used to specify a subgroup of a larger group. The noun before 之 is the larger group, and the "verbal phrase + 者" that comes after 之 is the smaller subgroup. This sentence can be explained in English, but it is easier to understand if explained in Korean. First, however, I will try to explain it from an English perspective.

善者 in the phrase can be translated as “virtuous () people ()” or “those who are virtuous.” 鄕人 means “the village () people ()” or “the villagers.” To understand in English the in the pattern, you must think of it as being an apostrophe or an apostrophe + s (‘s), which is used to show possession, so 鄕人之善者 would literally translate in English as “the villagers’ (鄕人之) virtuous () people (),” which sounds awkward enough that you would probably want to change it to something like “those [of the] villagers who are virtuous,” essentially translating as “of.” That means that 鄕人之 would translate as “of the villagers,” but the problem with that is that you would be translating out of sequence, meaning that you would have to move the meaning of to the front of the translated phrase. In other words, it does not flow smoothly.

Now here is the Korean perspective. If you translate
鄕人之善者 into Korean, it flows smoothly. In Korean, think of the as meaning “중에” in this situation, which would mean 鄕人之善者 would translate into Korean as “마을 () 사람 () 중에 () 착한 () 사람들 (), which doesn’t seem awkward at all and flows quite smoothly. Therefore, when you see the pattern “Noun + + Verbal Phrase + ,” it might be easier for you to understand the phrase if you first translate it into Korean, with  translated as 중에.

不善 means “[are] not virtuous,” so 不善者 can be translated as “those who are not virtuous” since essentially translates as “those who.” Notice here that instead of writing 鄕人之 in front of 不善者, the 鄕人之 phrase was replaced with its possessive pronoun to form 其不善者, so instead of “of the villagers" (鄕人之), we now have “of them.” That means 其不善者 translates as “those of them () who are not virtuous (不善者).” Remember that in this sentence translates as “those...who.”