Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Does "생전 처음 봤다" make sense?

There are many Korean expressions that seem odd to me, and the following expression is near the top of the list.

생전 처음 봤다
"It is the first time in my life to see that."

For some reason, in Korean, 생전 (生前) means "during [one's] life," which seems strange since 生 means "life" and 前 means "in front of" or "before." Why doesn't is mean "before one is born"?

If I were in charge of the Korean language, I would change 생전 처음 봤다 to 생후 처음 봤다 since "생후" (生後) means "after birth" or "since birth." Doesn't it make more sense?
  • 生 (생) - life; birth
  • 前 (전) - in front of; before
  • 後 (후) - behind; after


  1. Hello Gerry,

    I found an answer to a very similar question on NHK web site. (NHK is a Japanese public broadcasting company comparable to KBS in Korea)

    気になることば / 마음에 걸리는 말 (in Japanese)

    An NHK announcer says that there are several explanations to origin of the word "生前", and he introduces two of them in the commentary.

    Explanation 1: 生前←→後生
    If you were a person who has been dead... 生前 can be read "the life before you appear in heaven", and 後生 be "afterlife (you enjoy) in heaven)".

    Explanation 2: 前(過去/과거)←→後(未來/미래)
    Both 前 and 後 are relative expressions. So, if you apply these ideas to "lapse of time", 前 should be "the past" and 後 be "the future". Then, you set the start point to "the day of a person's death". 生前 would mean "past days (you've spent) in the real world", and you are knocking on the door of 死後 (사후) world.

    Anyway, both of the two explanations tell that 生前 and 生後 should not be treated as antonyms, interestingly.


  2. Thank you, Yosuo, but I am still confused.

    The Buddhist concept of reincarnation (再生) talks about three kinds of lives:

    * 前生 (전생) - previous life
    * 現生 (현생) - present life
    * 後生 (후생) - afterlife

    However, even though 前生 (전생) and 生前 (생전) look similar, they have different meanings, according to my dictionary:

    * 前生 (전생) - previous life
    * 生前 (생전) - during one's lifetime

    Anyway, I still like "生後(생후),or maybe, "현생(現生) 처음 봤다."

  3. I know it's might sound strange but I heard it so much it's natural ... just get used to it because it's really hard for just one person to change a language unless they're famous. There are lots of weird expression that still sound funny to me English.

  4. You know, I thought about this a bit more and think of it this way ... it sort of like double emphasis ... 생전 처음 봣다 ... something like, "First time in my life prior to this, I've seen." Does that make a bit more sense? Because your suggestions sound weird to me.

    - Chocopie

  5. Ooops, darn, I'm misspelling in both English and Korean ... how depressing. At least I can spell better in Italian (as long I know the words.)

    - Chocopie

  6. Thanks, Chocopie.

    I am not trying to change Korean; I am just thinking and writing about certain phrases to help me understand them better and to remember them. In other words, it is just a memory aid for me, so do not take my suggestions too seriously.


  7. I agree with Anonymous because it sounds so natural to say 생전 and think of is as "up until now in my life" or perhaps as "my life before now". And then again, it seems to me that there is quite a bit of value to think of it in Korean without translating it at all, but then we are left with nothing to talk about in an English language blog. ( lol )

    And of course, if we were approaching this thought purely in English, 생전 처음 봤다 would be redundant because we would only be thinking this is the first time and the "in our life" would be understood.

    And I also agree with you that it is a very good idea to find odd thoughts or idiosyncrasies about anything we want to remember.

    Gerry, I really like the fact that you go to the 한자 roots of the language. I never had the patience to learn that, but I admire everyone who learns the other languages like you and Yasuo show here.


  8. Gerry님에 대한 궁금증, 혹시 한국에서 한국어 관련 전공하시나요? 일본어를 공부하다가 한국어와 다른 맥락에 가끔 혼란스러울 때가 있습니다. 관용어는 특히 그렇더라고요. 모국어인 한국어의 경우도 마찬가지이겠지요. 이방인에게 질문을 받으면 어 이상하게 느껴지는구나 하고 자각하게 되는 일도 있고요.

  9. Hello. Thanks for your interest to learn Korean. Let's think it in a simple way. 생 of 생전 is not noun.
    It works as adjective for 전.
    So, 생전, it means a lifetime, 살아있던 이전. Hope it'd be helpful to you. And please open your mind to learn something without any bias.

  10. I think you got wrong meaning of "생" in a word, 생전.

    "생" means not a life(noun) but living(adjective),
    for example, "생선" which means living fish.

    And the opposite expression of "생전" is "사전(死前)"

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  12. Why do those who obviously don't completely understand their own language reply so condescendingly when another attempts to learn it?

    Good work Gerry. Your Hanja work is admirable, too.

  13. Hi,
    I know I'm stirring the pot on this old string...who will care...right?
    I think it means you're "now living" and before "you die", not before you were living.... ergo a "lifetime". "The first I've seen this since I was born and before I will die", if you will, "the first time in my life". And, if I'm right, then the expression actually makes sense now.

  14. when i say '前', i know that it doesn't always mean 'previous' or 'before' and there is something else.
    I [guess] that, people also use 前 to say something is 'up'(what's up) right now because it is in 'front' of you(or your life-生) so you can 'see' it.

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  16. Hi.
    I saw your blog by accident and it was really impressive to me korean.
    And I was surprised at your way to study Korean.
    Chinese letters play an important role in korean but many foreigners think it's hard to learn.
    But I think learning korean with chinese letters are really effective way to learn Korean.
    I'd like to give some advice to foreigners learning korean as possible as I can.

    I think you don't have to have much thought for this.
    Because this expression is very idiomatic expression and even native korean don't know why this means like that. Actually I also thought why that means like that after reading your writing.
    But I also had a same curiosity like you.
    So I thought on my own why it works like that.
    Generally speaking we use that expression both of the situations for 'during one's life time' and 'before being dead'.
    I think the origin is the second one 'before being dead' because like you said it's apparent from the chinese words it is made up of.
    Think like this
    I want to have an emphasis for this sentence
    "I haven't seen that yet or before'
    By putting myself to the future after being dead we can have more time that we haven't seen.

    1.I haven't seen that before (now).
    2.I haven't seen that before being dead.

    The period of the time that I haven't seen on 2 sentence is longer than 1 sentence.
    And so it can be possible to put a more emphasis on that with longer time.
    But we all never think we put ourselves on after dead although we use that expression.
    So it has been idiomatic.

    I hope it could help you.
    It seems that you don't have many days for becoming being very fluent in korean.
    (This could be a bit awakard to you because I roughly translated one korean sentence)
    You're already really cool.


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