Wednesday, July 15, 2009

값없다 -- Priceless or worthless?

"Priceless" refers to something that is so rare or unique that people would not sell it for any price. "Worthless," on the other hand, refers to something so common or something of so poor quality that people would not pay anything for it. Therefore, priceless and worthless have completely opposite meanings. However, in Korean, the adjective 값없다 is used for both words, so to figure out which meaning is being used, you have to look at the rest of the sentence.

  • 너무 귀해서 값없다.
    It is so rare that it is priceless.
  • 너무 흔해서 값없다.
    It is so common that it is worthless.

Also, 값없다 is an adjective, not a verb, so when you use it in front of a noun, shouldn't it be written as 값없은 instead of 값없는? If you do a Google search on 값없은 and 값없는, you will find that both forms are being used. Which is the correct form? The example sentence in my Korean dictionary is 값없는 물건 (a worthless object), but shouldn't it be 값없은 물건 since 값없다 is an adjective?

The opposite of 없다 (to not exist) is 있다 (to exist), but 있다 is a verb while 없다 is an adjective. Why? Even though 없다 is an adjective, my dictionary and many Koreans write 없는 instead of 없은. Again, why?

Why? Why? Why? Why is Korean so inscrutable, sometimes?

By the way, 값없다 is pronounced as /갑업따/, which is actually pronounced as /가법따/.


  1. I am surprised that you say that 없다 is an adjective. What is the reason for this claim? Its morphological behavior is verbal (as you point out, the attributive form is 없는, not 없은) and semantically it is the opposite of the verb 있다.

    As for 값없다, it is entirely possible for words to be syntactically verbal while being semantically adjectival. 맛있다 "delicious", for example, is adjectival in meaning but is derived from a verb phrase. Syntactically it functions like a verb.

    I would guess that the reason you see variation between attributive forms 값없는 and 값없은 is that the word was originally a verb phrase 겂 + 없다, and so acted as a verb syntactically. As the phrase became lexicalized into an adjective, some speakers began applying adjectival morphology to it by analogy. As a result both 값없는 and 값없은 are in free variation. That's just a guess, though.

  2. Lance,

    I said that 없다 was an adjective (형용사) because that is what the Korean dictionary says: 없다 (형용사). On the other hand, the dictionary says 있다 is a verb: 있다 (동사)

    값없다 is also listed as an adjective (형용사), as is 맛있다.

    I am on vacation without my Korean grammar books, so I cannot tell you why 없다 does not act like an adjective, but it is listed as one.

  3. I'm not a professional linguist, so I can't explain this using expert terminology, but as a student of several Asian languages I have found that many of them distinguish between "describing words" (ie adjectives) and "action words" (ie verbs), but many of the "adjectives" function semantically as verbs (particularly in Chinese, as you (maybe?) know). So it's not really unusual that in Korean, 있다 and 없다 function like verbs despite being "adjectives". From what I recall from my Korean learning, 없은 is not "correct" by textbook standards. I would guess the same thing that Lance did, that perhaps 값없는 and 값없은 are in free variation, while only one is technically "correct".
    In any case, 있다 can also be classified as an "action verb" because of its other meaning that *isn't* opposite of 없다--"to be at (somewhere)". So perhaps that's the meaning that was classified as a verb?

  4. Gerry, I think in this case the Naver dictionary part of speech classifications are not to be trusted. There is no doubt that whether they are classified as verbs or as adjectives, both 있다 and 없다 are irregular. But I know of no justification for treating them differently from each other.

    In "A Reference Grammar of Korean" by Samuel E. Martin, p. 219, Martin classifies them both as verbs (or, in his terminology, "processive verbs"), but notes that they are irregular in lacking the processive assertive form, or what we would call the plain form: -ㄴ다/는다. (Thus the plain form of 없다 is 없다 and the reported speech form is 없다고 + 하다, rather than the expected 없는다 and 앖는다고 + 하다. In this respect 없다 behaves more like an adjective than like a verb.)

    The situation is actually a bit more complex than this. Martin points out that there are really three verbs 있다, and they all behave a bit differently. The three verbs mean "to stay", "to be located at", and "to have". Martin lays out the paradigms for all three on page 319. As an example of the differences, note these negative forms:

    1) 있다 "to stay": 안 있는다, 안 있다
    2) 있다 "to be (at)": 안 있다, 없다
    3) 있다 "to have": 없다

    This is the sort of grammatical information you can't get out of a dictionary. And because the verbs are irregular, a quick-and-dirty dictionary specification of part of speech could be wrong or misleading.

    Lorelei is quite correct in pointing out that most linguists avoid the term "adjective" when analyzing languages like Chinese and Korean, preferring to treat these words as a subtype of verb. Terms used for what you and the dictionaries have been referring to as verbs include "action verbs", "processive verbs", "dynamic verbs", etc., while terms used for what you have been referring to as adjectives include "stative verbs", "descriptive verbs", etc. But I don't think there's any strong evidence for treating the three different 있다s as belonging to different parts of speech.

  5. By the way, the full reference for Martin's grammar is:

    Martin, Samuel E. 1992. A Reference Grammar of Korean (한국어문법총람)한국어문법총람. Tokyo, Rutland VT, Singapore: Tuttle. 1044 pages.

    Note that many people find the grammar difficult to use, largely because there is no Hangeul. All Korean forms are given in Yale romanization, the romanization preferred by linguists.

    As an example, the negative forms I gave in my earlier comment appear in Martin's grammar as:

    1) anq iss.nunta, anq iss.ta
    2) anq iss.ta, ēps.ta
    3) ēps.ta

    Despite this (for some) shortcoming, it is an excellent resource.

  6. Lance,

    Naver is not the only dictionary that classifies 없다 as an adjective.

    Yes, 있다 and 없다 are both irregular, but 있다 supposedly has characteristics that make it more similar to a verb, while 없다 has characteristics that make it more similar to an adjective, as Martin suggested. I am not exactly sure what all the characteristics are, so I would like to research it more.

    Dictionaries may not give all information, but they do give a lot. For example, my dictionary describes several meanings and uses of 있다, including the three Martin mentioned: "to be located" (위치하다), "to exist" (존재하다), and "to have" (소유하다). Sometimes, you have to look at Korean-Korean dictionaries to get full explanations.

    Yes, Korean adjectives have some qualities similar to verbs, such as being able to stand alone as the predicate (without a 'be' verb), but they are also different from verbs, which is why they are still customarily classified separately from verbs.

    Yeah, I don't like that Yale Romanization, either.