Monday, August 24, 2009

What's the difference between 먹냐 and 먹느냐?

Korean dictionaries and grammar books say that 냐/으냐 and 느냐 are "low form" question endings that are usually used among close friends. 냐/으냐 attach to adjectives and to 이다. If the adjective ends in a vowel, 냐 is attached; if it ends in a consonant, 으냐 is attached. 느냐 attaches to verbs, including 있다 and 없다, and to 었/았 and 겠. (없다 is actually an adjective.) The "느" in 느냐 supposedly signals "present tense" when it occurs without other tense markers. See the following examples:
  • 먹느냐? -- Do you eat? / Are you eating?
  • 먹었느냐? -- Did you eat?
  • 먹겠느냐? -- Are you going to eat?
  • 연필이 있느냐? -- Do you have a pencil?
  • 연필이 없느냐? -- Don't you have a pencil?
  • 크냐? -- Is it big?
  • 작으냐? -- Is it small?
  • 책이냐? -- Is it a book?
  • 모자냐? -- Is it a hat?
Notice that in the case of 이냐, the 이 is dropped when the preceding noun ends in a vowel (e.g. 모자냐).

There is also the reflective past tense ending 더냐, which is used when the listener is asked about a personal experience or observation he had in the past . It can be used with both adjectives and verbs. See the following examples:
  • 잘 있더냐? -- Have you been well?
  • 그 어떻더냐? -- How was it?
  • 둥글더냐? -- Was it round?
  • 모나더냐? -- Was it angular?
  • 무엇이더냐? -- What was it?

I think it used to be possible to abbreviate 더냐 to 냐, but that no longer seems to be the case.

Today, many younger Koreans are using 냐 as an abbreviation for 느냐, but such an abbreviation is not recognized by Korean dictionaries. Therefore, 먹냐 and 먹느냐 are both being used to mean, "Are you eating" or "Do you eat," but 먹냐 is considered an incorrect form since 냐 is supposed to be attached only to adjectives.


HERE is more on 느냐/냐 from 남영신, who is another guy I respect and enjoy reading. He mentions that the 느냐/냐 ending is used a lot in the Jeolla region while the 나 ending is used in the Gyeongsang region. However, according to 이수열, the 느냐/냐 ending and the 나 ending are not really equivalent since 느냐/냐 is considered 낮춤 말 while 나 is considered 반말. In other words, you cannot make the 느냐/냐 ending polite by adding anything, but you can make the 나 ending polite by simply adding "요" (e.g. 벌써 집에 가나요?). 반말 (half speech) is just polite speech with the polite half (i.e. "요") removed. 남영신 also says the 니 ending is used in the Seoul/Gyeonggi region and that it is one of the first things about the Seoul dialect that Koreans learn when they migrate to Seoul.


  1. this post makes me wonder if this has anything to do with the 느 in 하느라 바빴어 .. atleast they have the 느 in common, indicating in both the cases of 먹느냐 and 먹느라 시간이 없었어.

  2. I'm a Korean who happened to saw your post which is very interesting and helpful understanding my own language.
    I did't quite understand what you wrote. So I just tried to put 느냐 next to whatever possible to see how the meaning changes.

    먹냐? Do you eat? / Are you eating?
    먹느냐? Do you eat? / Are you eating?
    먹었느냐? Did you eat?
    먹겠느냐? Are you going to eat?
    크느냐? Is it getting bigger?
    크냐? Is it big? / Is it getting bigger?
    애는 잘 크냐? (between friends, or to the inferior) Are your kids growing well?

    작느냐? Is it small?
    * 책이느냐?
    * 모자느냐?

    I hear -느냐 only from TV shows such as historic dramas which are set in Chosun dynasty or something.

    I don't remember if I ever heard -느냐 in real life.

    I live in Seoul and have never been out of Korea.

    Maybe I don't have enough knowledge of my own language. Really. But I have statistic confidence as I write this.

  3. A different -느냐 I hear and use.

    To be or not to be, that is the question.
    사느냐 죽느냐 그것이 문제로다.

    나의 미래는 내가 이 직장을 얻느냐에 따라 달려있다.
    My future depends on whether or not I secure this job.

    Please excuse my bad English grammar.

    I love your blog. Language is an amazing thing.

  4. Thank you, Daesung.

    The grammar books say to add 느냐 to all verbs, 으냐 to adjectives that end in a consonant, and 냐 to adjectives that end in a vowel. In the case of 이다, you write 이냐 if the preceding noun ends in a consonant (e.g. 책이냐?), but when the preceding noun ends in a vowel, you drop 이 and just add 냐 (e.g. 모자냐).

    However, I see two problems with the above rules. First, why was there originally both 먹냐 and 먹느냐? Second, 느 indicates present continuous, so why would it be added to 먹었 and 먹겠? For example, if you added it to 먹었 (e.g. 먹었느냐), wouldn't you actually be saying, "Were you eating," instead of "Did you eat"?

    These days grammar books say that it is wrong to say 먹냐, but it did not used to be, which makes me wonder if 먹냐 and 먹느냐 originally had different meanings.

    Actually, I am not sure what 먹냐 means. I wrote my post hoping to stimulate discussion by having people say, "Hey, wait a minute...." My post was just a theory, which was why I warned people not to be surprised if Koreans and grammar books said something different.

    As for its use, I hear it being used even among young people.

  5. Daesung,

    I meant to write that I hear Koreans saying 먹느냐, usually older Koreans, but younger Koreans usually just say 먹냐.

  6. Daesung,

    I just looked in 최현배's "우리말본" and found that the 냐 attached to verbs is actually an abbreiviation of (더)냐, which suggests that 먹(더)냐 means, "Did you eat?" Therefore, I have ammended my post.

  7. I was under the impression that the old grammatical structure was that verbs took 느냐 and adjectives took (으)냐, but that this pattern had long ago partially collapsed, so that now verbs take only 냐, never 느냐, at least in ordinary speech. When I was studying Korean at SeoulDae, our teachers and textbooks all disagreed about this. The older version of the textbook prescribed 느냐 after verbs, but the younger teachers said they'd never heard that, and made us cross it out. Some of the older teachers said that both 느냐 and 냐 were acceptable, but the former was more "formal", the latter more "colloquial".

    What I never heard before, but which is quite interesting, is the idea that 느냐 and 냐 were originally used with distinct meanings. Gerry, where did you read that one had "present continuous" meaning? Is this how the Korean grammars that you are consulting describe things?

    I wonder if this is a case where grammarians, trying to account for a distinction of form, have created an artificial distinction of meaning, like the distinction between "that" and "which" in English (which was basically invented by Fowler).

    Does anybody know the Middle Korean origin of the 느냐 and 냐 endings?

    Incidentally, I think the 느냐 we are discussing must be related to the "whether or not" 느냐 that Kim Daesung described in the Hamlet translation.

  8. Lance,

    If you look up 느냐 in the dictionary, it will tell you how it is used. Here is how Yahoo Dictioary defines 느냐:

    -어미- (동사나 ‘있다’·‘없다’의 어간, 또는 ‘-았-/-었-/-겠-’ 따위에 붙어) 해라할 자리에 물음을 나타내는 종결어미. ¶ 누가 있~? 돈이 없~? 열매가 익었~? 그렇게 하겠~? -참고- 냐. -으냐.

    Grammar books also say that "느냐" is used for verbs and "으냐/냐" is used for adjectives. If the younger teachers at Seoul National University said they had never heard of that, then I think that shows a big flaw in their education.

    Actually, I asked a Korean Language professor at my school about 느냐 yesterday and he said something very similar to what your "younger teachers" said. He told me that I should not worry about 느냐 since "younger people" these days are not using it and he avoided explaining it to me. This man is also relatively young, and is now working on his Ph.D. at Koryo University. He also had supposedly taught the Korean language in high school for some years, so I was disappointed with his answer. Personally, I hate that kind of attitude. Just because a bunch of "Starcraft" generation kids do not know how to use 느냐 is not a good reason for not teaching it or learning the correct usage.

    I have noticed over the years that Koreans tend to show little interest in learning about their own language. They are so focused on learning English grammar that they have become ignorant of their own grammar, yet seem quite satisfied with their Korean langauge ability. Of course, when you start asking them pointed questions about their language, they get confused.

    I remember often being frustrated with my Korean language teachers who often seemed to have trouble giving a straight answer to Korean grammar questions. Korean students have probably felt the same way about the answers they get from their foreign English teachers in Korea, many of whom have not majored in English and do not know English grammar as well as they should.

    Anyway, I think Koreans need to start paying more attention to maintaining their language rather than allowing Korean comedians to decide what is grammatical and what is not.

    I read that 느 is the "present continuous tense" (현재 진행형) in 이수열's book, "우리말 바로 쓰리."

    I love reading 이수열's books, which are critical of how the Korean language is being polluted by foreign languages and how Koreans are forgetting how to use their language correctly. He uses a lot of examples from the Korean media to show how silly Koreans can get with their language. It is really quite interesting.

    Korean traditionally has past and present tenses, so I do not think it is a case of grammarians articially trying to distinguish between 냐 and 느냐. I think it is a case of Koreans forgetting how to use their own language.

  9. Correction: 이수열's book is "우리말 바로 쓰기."

  10. Gerry,

    Thank you for the extensive answer to my question.

    I think by now you are familiar with my general view toward language change, which is a bit different from yours. The reaction you received from the Korean language professor was clearly very disappointing to you. But I suspect this is very similar to the answer I would give to a foreign learner of English who asked me to help explain the difference between "will" and "shall". Perhaps this hypothetical student had read in a usage book that "will" and "shall" should always be clearly distinguished because they have different meanings and usages. (Perhaps this advice was dispensed by someone bemoaning the sorry state of today's English language!) Yet my advice to the student would be that in America (I can't speak for England), no one uses "shall" anymore except in mock-formal situations, and it would be a waste of time to learn to use it. (To be clear, I would be happy to investigate with this student the historical situation involving "will" and "shall" as an academic exercise.) I think it would be a disservice to encourage the student to use "shall", which would simply make him sound silly or old-fashioned when speaking with others.

  11. Lance,

    Korean dictionaries and grammar books clearly say that 냐 is used with adjectives, and 느냐 is used with verbs. I have seen no usage note in any dictionary saying that 냐 can substitute for 느냐.

    From what I have read, 냐 was originally an abbreviation for 더냐, not for 느냐. These days younger Koreans are using 냐 as an abbreviation for 느냐, but that abbreviation is not recognized in Korean dictionaries. Until Korean dictionaries start recognizing the usage, your "will/shall" analogy will not really apply.

    I do not mind language change, but until it is recognized by legitimate authorities, I think the correct usage should be taught and used.

    Based on what you wrote, it sounds like younger Korean langauge teachers do not even know the difference between 냐 and 느냐. Therefore, it is similar to a Texas English teacher teaching his students to use "ain't" without knowing the correct form is "am not."

    Instead of "hate," I guess I should have said that I am bothered by people who are too quick to accept change.

  12. Wow, you work on your blog so diligently that it's hard for me to keep up! I'm dropping by for the first time since my last comment.

    Well, I think young Korean people like fancy things and cares much about it looks or sounds. Those who coin Korean words should think about this. I mean, if it sounds modern and suits for their taste, I'm sure they will use it instead of foreign words.

    And, I kind of lost my faith in Korean grammar books when they said 짜장면 is wrong, not to mention the Korean 맞춤법 is outdated. Language should serve its user, not the other way around. If the majority of Koreans say 짜장면, then 짜장면 should a standard word.

    Among other examples is 바람. I want to hear your opinion on this. Korean grammar books say that without exception, it must ends with 바람 not 바램. For example, 그것은 우리의 바람이다. But, no one says 나는 네가 성공하길 바라 because it sounds so stupid and unnatural. Rather, all people say 나는 네가 성공하길 바래 although Korean grammar books say this is incorrect.

    Also, what do you think of 습니다? Consider 했음 vs 했습니다. '음' in 했음 and '슴' in 했습니다 sound the same and why do we have to spell them differently? They used to spell 했읍니다. But they changed it when I was young. Don't you think Korean grammar lacks consistency? Do you know the first Korean grammar book was published by Japanese? Since then we didn't have grammar rules. And we lived comfortably that way.

    You can't blame Korean teachers just because they couldn't answer about small details. As for Korean language, I don't think syntax is a big deal. For example, Although Chomsky has the idea of Universal Grammar, his famous transformational generative grammar hardly applies to Korean language.

    The Korean teachers have done their job. We used to enjoy the lease illiteracy rate in the world.

    Also, it's not fair to blame Korean students spending more time to study English grammar than their own language. It's an economical choice. An American who are under pressure to acquire Japanese wouldn't spend much more time on their own language than on Japanese.

    As for young Korean's misuse of their own language, I agree that it's a problem. But it's a matter of effective writing rather than lack of knowledge itself. In other words, policymakers would want to promote more Korean writing classes than classes on the knowledge in their language to solve the problem.

    I think you are in a better position to define a Korean language than the old Korean grammarians who are stubborn and stick to academical cliques.

    You said yourself that you see language from a descriptive viewpoint. Please continue to do so. Please doubt our prescriptive grammar books. I believe you can suggest a better Korean grammar for us.

  13. Oh the anonymous was me.

  14. One more thing, the fact that -냐 is an appreviation of -느냐 doesn't change the fact that they mean the diffrent things much as 'Let's' is an abbreviation of 'Let us' although you are not going to say 'Let us go shopping.'

    I still don't think I have heard '-느냐' in everyday use. Nor do I think I lack education.

    But I could be wrong. I often am.
    Could you give me an example when you have one?

  15. And I want to take something back. I think the first Korean grammar book was made by a missionary. I don't have a reference to prove it right now. I just heard it in a Korean syntax class a few years ago.

  16. Correction in the first comment: since then -> before then

    I'm sorry I have cluttered your blog with trifle corrections. I will create my account, which I believe will let me modify my comment.

  17. Hi Daesung,

    바람 and 바래 both come from 바라다, but 바람 is a noun meaning "hope" or "desire," while 바래 is a verb meaning "to want" or "to desire."

    You can make a noun out of a verb by adding an ㅁ/음 to the root of a verb, so by adding ㅁ to the root of 바라다, you get 바람. The reason it does not change to 바래 is that 이다 is added to nouns, not -어요.

    바래, on the other hand, is the 반말 of 바래요, so when you drop the 요 to get 바래. 바래요 is made by adding 어요 to the 바라 of 바라다. The 어 changes the 라 to 래.

    Here are examples of the different uses:

    1) 당신이랑 결혼하는 게 내 바람이야.
    2) 당신이랑 결혼하기를 바래(요).

    When I first started studying Korean, there were two ending: 읍니다 and 습니다. The 읍니다 ending was used when the previous syllable ended in a ㅅ, such as 했읍니다. Of course, now there is only one ending (습니다), and I think that was a good decision.

    I think it is mistake for Koreans to ignore their language because it leads to miscommunication and maybe even disaster. I used to work as a Korean-to-English translater and had to translate garbage Korean all the time. Sometimes the writing was so bad that even the original Korean writer could read it and not remember what he had been trying to say. They often wrote as if they were writing to themselves rather than to someone who did not have all the background information needed to understand the writing.

    By ignoring their language, I think Koreans are building their own Tower of Babel, which may someday come tumbling down.

  18. "냐" can be made polite if "고요" is attached.
    I'm also a foreigner who happened to visit you blog while I was searching some resources for TOPIK.

    And as one of the commenters "Kim Daesung" has commented I've also not heard the use of "느냐" except on the korean churches. When I asked koreans about the differences between two they quite replied they are same.


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