Sunday, August 02, 2009

What does 눈이 보이지 않다 mean?

보다 means "to see," and its passive is, 보이다, which means "to be visible." The negative form of 보이다 is 보이지 않다, which means "is not visible." If you wanted to say, "The mountain is not visible," you would say, 산이 보이지 않다." Therefore, wouldn't 눈이 보이지 않다 mean "(Someone's) eyes are not visible"?

My dictionary says that 눈이 보이지 않다 means "to be blind," but if that is the case, then how do you say, "(Someone's) eyes are not visible" because of long hair, a veil, sunglasses or whatever? What's the deal?

My theory is as follows:

눈이 보이지 않다" can mean both "eyes are not visible" and "blind," depending on which 보이다 is used.

There are actually two 보이다s. One is the passive 보이다, which means "to be visible," and the other is the causative 보이다, which means "to show." The passive 보이다 is used when you want to say someone's "eyes are not visible," and the causative 보이다 is used when you want to say someone "is blind."

The causative 보이다 is a transitive verb. That means it can be used with an object. When Koreans say 눈이 보이지 않다 to mean "blind," however, they have omitted the object and are literally just saying, "Eyes do not show." However, the implied meaning is, "The eyes do not show anything," which would be "눈이 아무것도 보이지 않다." A blind person's eyes do not show anything.

Since the sentences for "eyes are not visible" and "blind" are written the same, the only way to distinguish between them would be to look at the surrounding sentences. However, since 눈이 멀다 also means "to be blind," why not use it to mean "blind," and save 눈이 보이지 않다 to mean "eyes are not visible"?

Words and expressions related to "eyesight"


  1. Hi Gerry,

    I'm wondering whether object markers 을/를 are needed. It would seem when translating "[I] cannot see their eyes" and "their eyes cannot see" a direct object marker would help clarify when the eyes are doing the verb rather than being the object of the verb. Is this incorrect thinking?

    Thanks for breaking this down very systematically so novice learners like me can participate. I'm all little behind on your RSS feed but I appreciate your postings.

  2. Hi Bryan,

    You bring up an interesting difference between English and Korean. How would you translate the following sentence?

    눈을 안 봐요.

    If you translate it as "I don't see the eyes," you would be wrong. It should be translated as "I don't look at the eyes."

    I do not have time to answer this in detail tonight because it is late here. However, I will try to answer it in a regular post because many English speakers seem to have trouble with 보다 and 보이다, similar to how many Koreans have trouble with "to see" and "to look at."

    I do not know when I will post it, but it is on my to-do list.

    Take care.


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