Saturday, August 29, 2009

Doesn't 선생님한테 꾸지람을 들었다 seem strange?

선생님한테 꾸지람을 들었다 means "I was scolded by my teacher." The sentence is composed of the following parts:

  • 선생님께 -- by my teacher
  • 꾸지람을 -- a scolding
  • 들었다 (past participle of 듣다) -- heard

I used to think the above sentence was strange, and still do, because I had learned that 한테 meant "to," not "by." I had always thought that instead of saying 선생님한테, people should say 선생님한테서, which would mean "from my teacher." If you "hear" something, shouldn't you hear it "from someone" instead of "to someone"? I have often wondered if it was not originally 선생님한테서.

Anyway, if you look up 한테 or 에게 in the dictionary, you will find that it has, at least, two meanings. One meaning is "to," and the other is "by." Here are the examples from my dictionary with the meaning of "by."

  • 나는 그에게 속았다.
    I was fooled by him.
  • 범에게 물려 가도 정신만 차리면 산다고 했다.
    It is said that even if you are being carried off in the mouth of a tiger, you can survive if you keep your presence of mind.
  • 그것을 누구에게 들었습니까?
    From whom did you hear that?

Actually, I can understand and accept the first two examples because you are fooled "by someone," not "from someone," and you are carried off "by a tiger," not "from a tiger," but there is something about the verb "hear" (듣다) that makes me want to say 한테서 or 에게서 instead of 한테 or 에게. For example, notice that the second example was translated with "from," not "by." So, is it wrong to say 그것을 누구에게서 들었습니까? I don't know, but Koreans say it.

Here are some other examples:

  • 어린이에게도 배울 것이 있다.
    We can also learn from children.
  • 친구에게 돈을 빌렸다.
    I borrowed money from my friend.
  • 스승께 글을 배운다.
    I was taught to write by my teacher.
  • 강도에게 돈을 빼앗았다.
    I was robbed of my money by a thief.

Supposedly, 에게 or 한테 are attached to an animate object when the object causes the action. In the case of 그것을 누구에게 들었습니까, the object 누구 apparently causes you to hear 그것을, so 에게, not 에게서, should be used. If that is true, then it should also apply to the following sentence.

I received a letter from my friend?
친구한테 편지를 받았다.

You would not have received the letter if your friend had not sent it, so I guess that would mean that 한테 is used instead of 한테서, right? However, how would the following sentence be translated?

A letter came from my friend.

a) 친구한테 편지가 왔다.
b) 친구한테서 편지가 왔다.

The letter came because my friend sent it, so why doesn't the 에게 and 한테 "by" rule also apply? Does the "to" meaning override the "by" meaning in the about example? In English, we use "by" a lot in passive sentences, but I have still not worked it all out.

Many Koreans are confused by 에게 and 에게서, so I think I have a right to be confused, too.


  1. Okay. This morning I decided to look up 에게 in my grammar book, instead of my dictionary, and found it is much more complicated than I had realized because the meaning changes depending on which verb is used with it. I have to get ready for school now, but I may try to sumarize it in a post tonight.

    I cannot believe I did not bother to learn this before. Have a nice day.

  2. With 선생님 they usually use the honorific 께 or 께서 no?

  3. Hi Chris,

    You are right. 께 is used when 님 is attached to 선생. I have made the correction.

  4. There is a natural semantic connection between receiving something FROM someone and directing one's attention TO someone. For example, in order to learn something FROM someone, you have to listen TO that person. In order to borrow something FROM someone, you have to make a request TO that person. Because actions that involve a transfer (of information or objects) between people are inherently bi-directional, it is natural in languages for prepositions (or their equivalents) meaning either "from" or "to" to be used with such verbs.

    In Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, words that are usually translated as "to" in English are sometimes used in verbal constructions where the English translation would be "from". But as far as I know, this is found only for actions in which the recipient directs attention to the source of the transferred object or information.

    (In English, we say "hear from" but "listen to"!)


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