Monday, July 13, 2009

Is 살다 a verb or an adjective?

살다 means "to live," in both the sense of "to be alive" and in the sense of "to reside (somewhere)." It is an intransitive verb (자동사), not an adjective, so why do Koreans seem to use it as if it were an adjective (형용사)? Even my dictionary does it. What is the deal?

My dictionary gives the following example for the verb 살다 (to be alive).
산 짐승을 함부로 죽이면 안 된다.
You should not indiscriminately kill live animals
In the sentence, 산 짐승 is used to mean "live animals," but this is not following the rules for using verbs to modify nouns.

In Korean, there are 동작동사 (action verbs) and 상태동사 (static verbs). Even though both names use the word "verb," 상태동사 (static verbs) are referring to what we would generally call "adjectives" in English. Therefore, 가다 (to go) would be a 동작동사, and 예쁘다 (pretty) would be a 상태동사.

In Korean, 동작동사 (action verbs) and 상태동사 (static verbs) can both be used to modify nouns, but the forms are different. The forms for action verbs are more complicated, so let's start with the forms for static verbs, which are simpler.

To modify a noun with a 상태동사 (static verb), just add ㄴ or 은 to the static verb stem. If the verb ends in a vowel, add ㄴ; and if it ends in a consonant, add 은:

  • 예쁜 여자
    pretty girl
  • 작은 집
    small house
Static verbs (상태동사) generally do not change with time. Though a pretty girl may age, in the short term, her beauty does not change. For example, if she was pretty yesterday, she will be pretty now, and she will be pretty tomorrow. Also, if a house was small yesterday, it will be small now, and it will be small tomorrow. Therefore, when using static verbs, there is usually no need to use different forms to distinguish verb tense. However, when using action verbs to modify nouns, there is a time distinction.

When using action verbs (동작동사) to modify nouns, Koreans add 는 to the verb stem when the action is ongoing, ㄴ/은 when the action is completed, and ㄹ/을 when the action is in the future.
  • 가는 사람
    the man that is going
  • 간 사람
    the man that went
  • 갈 사람
    the man that will go
Now, since 살다 (to live) is an action verb, it should follow the same rules as 가다 (to go) and distinguish verb tenses. Therefore, 살다 examples should be as follows:
  • 사는 동물
    an animal that is living
  • 산 동물
    an animal that lived (in the past)
  • 살 동물
    an animal that will live (in the future)

Now, let's look again at my dictionary's example sentence for 살다:

산 짐승을 함부로 죽이면 안 된다.
You should not indiscriminately kill live animals

If we consider the rules for using action verbs to modify nouns, then wouldn't 산 동물 be referring to animals that used to live but are no longer alive? How can someone kill an animal that is no longer living?

Why are Korean dictionaries using 살다 as an adjective when it is listed as a verb?

Likewise, why do Koreans say "산오징어" instead of "사는 오징어" to refer to "live squid"?


  1. Gerry,

    First, let me thank you for your blog - it's helping me reawaken my interest in learning Korean.

    Second, the 'live' that your speak of, as in 'live animals', is an adjective because it describes a quality specific to the animal, and therefore using an adjective is correct. I think that this is true both in English and Korean, so that's why it's used the way it is in your example. That's my guess, anyway.

  2. Thank you, Cactus.

    Yes, the English word "live" can be used as an adjective and a verb, but the Korean verb 살다 is listed only as a "동사" (verb), not as an adjective (형용사).

    Also, when Koreans want to say a person is living or is alive, they usually say 살아 있는 사람, rather than 산 사람. Why?

    I think Koreans use 살아 있는 because 산 사람 sounds as if it is referring to a person who lived in the past. For example, if you wanted to translate "a person who lived in Joseon Korea," wouldn't you write 조선에서 산 사람? Since Joseon Korea ended more than a hundred years ago, people who lived during that time are no longer alive.

    산오징어 (live squid) is confusing even for Koreans. Many think it means "mountain squid." That suggests that using 산오징어 for "live squid" is something that sounds somewhat unnatural to Koreans. Maybe the reason it sounds unnatural is because it is?

  3. It seems like the usual way of describing someone who lived at a place (previously) is something like:

    이 집에 살던 (or 살았던) 사람...

  4. You should probably think of the adjective 산 as a distinct word, rather than a derived form of 살다 (even though historically it is of course ultimately derived from the verb). If I were compiling a Korean dictionary, I would have a separate entry for 산. The difference between 산 and 사는 (or 살아 있는) is very similar to the difference in English between the adjective "live" (as in "live octopus") and the participle "living" (as in "living octopus"). The adjective 산 is used to mark categories of creatures as food types, whereas 살아 있는 is used to indicate the state of a particular animal. I would guess that 산 사람 may be humorous because it makes it sound like the human is being treated as a type of food. Perhaps lions or sharks would enjoy eating 산 사람.

    As for the historical question of how the form 산 came into existence, that would require some research. But I would guess an adjectival form developed because the semantics of the verb are inherently stative. Alternatively, it could just be a contracted form of 사는 that became lexicalized through frequency of usage.