Saturday, September 19, 2009

Is it really correct to say 몇 학년이냐?

몇 essentially means "how many," "how much," or "how long," so if you say, 몇 학년이냐, you are really asking "how many grades." If you want to ask someone "which grade" they are in, it would make more sense to say, "어느 학년," rather than "몇 학년." Consider the following examples:
  1. 너는 어느 학년이냐?
    Which grade are you in?
  2. 이 학교는 몇 학년 있어요?
    How many grades are there in this school?
  3. 그 학교에서 몇 학년 다녔어요?
    How many grades did you attend at that school?

Nevertheless, Koreans probably say 몇 학년이냐 more than they say 어느 학년이냐. I also say 몇 학년, but I may start using 어느 학년.


  1. Have you ever heard someone say 어느 학년이세요? I've been asked that question a million times and I've always heard 몇 학년. I'm just curious to see if anyone has any real-life experiences hearing 어느 학년.

  2. Hi Matt,

    I usually hear 몇 학년, but I am pretty sure I have also heard 어느 학년. Anyway, 어느 학년 is used.

    Mr. Lee Su-yeol (이수열) also recommends 어느 학년 in his book, and if you look at item #33 on the following Web page, you will find that the writer makes the same argument for 어느 학년이냐.

    요즘 국어 모습에 대한 내 생각

  3. 저는 한국사람인데도 "어느 학년이세요?"라고 들어본 적이 없습니다. 한번도 "몇 학년" 이라는 말이 틀리다고 생각을 해본적도 없구요. 문법에 맞추어 표현하다보면 어색한 표현이 많더군요, 실생활에 잘 사용되지 않아서요.저는 거꾸로 영어를 공부하는데 문법으로 봐서는 전혀 이해 안되는 영어 표현들이 있더군요.

  4. The use of 몇 학년 meaning "what/which grade (of school)" in Korean may seem incorrect or odd to an English speaker. But consider these other question phrases using 몇:

    1) 몇 시 "what time / which hour"

    2) 며칠 (from 몇 일) "what/which day"

    Clearly there is a pattern here that cannot be accidental.

    What this shows is that the English translation "how many?" for Korean 몇 is not a precise translation; rather, it is a close but not identical functional equivalent.

    To fully understand the meaning and usage of 몇, we cannot rely entirely on English, but must examine the full range of Korean usage.

    A useful way to think about how 몇 functions is to view it as being like a placeholder, an algebraic "X" if you will, that stands for an unknown numeral in a question. 몇 stands for :

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 개 "how many" (1개? 2개? 3개?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 시 "what time" (1시? 2시? 3시?);

    - the unknown numeral in 며칠 "what day (of the month)" (21일? 8일?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 학년 "what grade" (3학년? 6학년?).

    (There are other examples as well.)

    This may seem odd from the English perspective, in which "how many?" and "what/which?" are distinctive. But it is in fact not strange at all; we see the exact same usage in Chinese with the question word 幾 jǐ. Chinese-English dictionaries translate this as "how many?", but it really functions as a placeholder for a numeric value. The parallels with Korean are striking:

    幾點(鐘) jǐ diǎn(zhōng) "what time?"
    幾月幾日 jǐ yuè jǐ rì "what date?"
    幾年級 jǐ niánjí "what grade (in school)?"

    as well as

    幾個 jǐ gè "how many?"

    As language learners, we always have to remember that English translations are never completely accurate, even good translations inevitably are sometimes no more than approximate equivalents.

  5. Hi Lance,

    It is not just me who thinks 몇 학년 is incorrect. Mr. Lee Su-yeol (이수열) also considers 몇 학년 to be incorrect. In fact, I wrote about it after reading what he wrote.

    Mr. Lee did not go into a lot of detail, but he did point out that the Japanese say the equivalent of 어느 학년 (なに[何]學年), not 몇 학년 (いく[幾]學年). 何(하) is the Chinese for 어느, and 幾(기) is the Chinese for 몇.

    As for 몇 시, 幾點(기점) does not appear in Naver's Sino-Korean character dictionary, but 何時頃(하시경), which means "What is the approximate time," does. 何 means "which" (어느) or "what" (무엇), not "how many" (몇).

    The Chinese for for 며칠 is 幾時(기시), but that could mean "How many days," not "What day (of the month)". 何日(하일), on the other hand, means 무슨 날 (What day), which is the pure Korean that Koreans also use to ask the day of the month (e.g. 오늘 무슨 날이에요?)

    The problem is not the English translations.


    The Chinese for for 며칠 is 幾日(기일), but that could mean "How many days," not "What day (of the month)".

  7. Lance,

    I was pretty tired last night when I answered your post and did not write all I wanted to write. Here are a couple of other things I wanted to say.

    When I was studying at the Univ. of Hawaii in 1981, my Korean professor told me that some older Korean immigrants to Hawaii referred to the time as 한 점, 두 점, and so on, which means they were using the same 점(點) from your Chinese expression, 幾點(기점). He spectulated that they were probably preserving the Korean that Korean immigrants brought to Hawaii in the early 1900s. Therefore, I found your Chinese phrase for "What time is it" interesting.

    As for your 몇 개 example, I think you are mixing apples and oranges because you actually want to know "how many" when you use 몇 개, not "which."

    If you were asking someone "how many years" they had attended a particular school, then 이 학교에서 몇 학년 다녔느냐 would be appropriate, but when asking someone "which grade" they are currently in, then I think 이 학교에서 어느 학년 다니느냐 or 어느 학년이냐 is more appropriate than 몇 학년이냐.

  8. Gerry,

    The Chinese examples that I gave in my earlier comment were modern Mandarin Chinese, not Sino-Korean. That is why many of them are not found in a Sino-Korean dictionary. In modern Mandarin, jǐrì 幾日 means only 'what day (of the month)'. The way to say 'how many days?' in Mandarin is jǐ tiān 幾天.

    The reason I provided these examples from Chinese is simply to show that languages other than Korean have a question word that functions to stand for a numeral. This is a completely normal thing for a language to do. This question word will get translated into English sometimes as "how many" and sometimes as "which/what", but within Chinese, or within Korean, it has a single logically consistent meaning. I'll give you another example from modern Mandarin. These are the words for days of the week:

    Monday xīngqīyī 星期一
    Tuesday xīngqīèr 星期二
    Wednesday xīngqīsān 星期三
    Thursday xīngqīsì 星期四
    Friday xīngqīwǔ 星期五

    They literally mean "week(day) 1", "week(day) 2", etc.

    So how do you ask "what day (of the week)?" in Mandarin? Simple: xīngqījǐ 星期幾. What could be more logical?

    The fact is that, as I indicated in my previous post, the usage of the question word 몇 in Korean is simple and straight-forward. It is a question word that stands for a numerical value. I was not mixing apples and oranges. The four examples I gave are identical in structure and meaning, in that 몇 always stands for a numeric value:

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 개 "how many" (1개? 2개? 3개?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 시 "what time" (1시? 2시? 3시?);

    - the unknown numeral in 며칠 "what day (of the month)" (21일? 8일?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 학년 "what grade" (3학년? 6학년?).

    We might as well add:

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 월 "what month" (3월? 8월?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 명 "how many people" (1명? 5명?)

    Note that these six examples are completely parallel in their syntactic behavior. They appear not to be parallel only if you take the English translation -- which is simply an indication of the equivalent English question -- as the standard by which to judge them. But why should an English translation be our standard? English is just one language among thousands. In fact, the Korean grammar rule illustrated here is completely consistent.

    The problem, in other words, is precisely the English translations. Or, to be more accurate, there is no problem here at all. Mr. Lee Su-yeol has invented one. And the logical consequences of his argument are ridiculous. It is not just that the position that Mr. Lee is advocating is simply incorrect on the facts, as your other commentors have shown: Koreans always say "몇 학년" to mean "what grade (of school)", they never say "어느 학년". No, it's not just that he is wrong on the facts. He is illogical and inconsistent in his reasoning for objecting to the facts.

    For suppose that we accepted Mr. Lee's argument, and conceded that "몇 학년" could only mean "how many grades/years". Then we would have to conclude that "2 학년" would have to mean "two grades" and never "Grade 2". And furthermore, Mr. Lee would be forced to claim that 몇 월 should mean "how many months" and never "what month", and 몇 급 must mean "how many levels" and never "what level". Would he then go on to argue that "8월" means "8 months" and not "August", and "3급" means "3 levels" and not "Level 3"?

    You see where this is going -- toward the utterly ludicrous. The explanation I gave above, and in my earlier comment, for the function and meaning of 몇 is logically consistent and explains all the facts of Korean usage. I stand by it.

  9. Lance,

    Chinese is mixed in with Korean, but Korean is not Chinese. You seem to be so focused on the Chinese usage of 몇(幾) that you are ignoring the Korean usages of 어느 and 무슨. It seems that Korean may have more grammar options than Chinese does.

    Lance wrote:

    So how do you ask "what day (of the week)?" in Mandarin? Simple: xīngqījǐ 星期幾. What could be more logical?

    Saying "How many star periods" (星期幾) for "What day of the week is it" may be logical in Mandarin Chinese, but it is not logical in Korean. Koreans use "what," not "how many," to ask the day of the week:

    오늘 무슨 요일입니까?
    What day (of the week) is today?

    By the way, Lance, why does 幾 come after 星期 (星期幾) instead of before it?

    Lance wrote:

    I was not mixing apples and oranges. The four examples I gave are identical in structure and meaning, in that 몇 always stands for a numeric value:

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 개 "how many" (1개? 2개? 3개?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 시 "what time" (1시? 2시? 3시?);

    - the unknown numeral in 며칠 "what day (of the month)" (21일? 8일?);

    - the unknown numeral in 몇 학년 "what grade" (3학년? 6학년?).

    Apple: 몇 개 (How many...?)
    Apple: 몇 명 (How many...?)
    Apple: 몇 시 (What time...?)
    Orange: 며칠 (What day...?)
    Orange: 몇 월 (What month...?)
    Orange: 몇 (학)년 (What year...?)

    The apples are asking for a count, and the oranges are asking for a distinction. You can separate the apples from the oranges by substituting pure Korean nouns for the Sino-Korean nouns. If the 몇 changes to a 무슨 or 어느 while keeping the same meaning, then it is an orange. If 몇 does not or cannot change to 무슨 or 어느, then it is an apple.

    Let's look at the oranges, first.

    1) 며칠(日): The pure Korean for 일(日) is 날.

    - 오늘 무슨 날이에요?
    What's the date today?

    Notice that 며칠 changes to 무슨 날, so it is an orange. 몇 날 means "how many days."

    2) 몇 월(月): The pure Korea for 월(月) is 달.

    - 지금 무슨 달이에요?
    What month is it (now)?

    Notice that 몇 월 changes to 무슨 달, so it is an orange. 몇 달 means "how many months."

    3) 몇 년(年): The pure Korea for 년(年) is 해.

    - 올해는 무슨 해이에요?
    What year is this?

    Notice that 몇 년 changes to 무슨 해, so it is an orange.

    With the appples, there is either no pure Korean equivalent or the meaning changes when used with 무슨.

    I know of no pure Korean equivalent for 학년(學年), but we can assume 학년 (school year) would act the same as 해(year) since 학(school) is just modifying "year," so let's just imagine the pure Korean equivalent would be 배움해. Anyway, based on the 무슨 해 example I gave above, Koreans should also say 네가 무슨 배움해냐 or 네가 어느 배움해냐 for "What school year are you in." If Koreans said 몇 배움해냐, they would be asking "How many school years," not "which school year."

    Lance, from what I understand, Mr. Lee Su-yeol (이수열) is a respected authority on the Korean language. Maybe you should read some of his books before you pass judgement on him.

    Again, why does 幾 come after 星期 (星期幾) instead of before it? I'm curious to know.

  10. Lance,

    The fact that Koreans use 며칠 to ask both "what day of the month" (幾日) and "how many days" (幾天) suggests there is a problem. However, the problem would be solved by just using 무슨 날 (幾日) for "what day" and 몇 날 (幾天) for "how many days."

  11. Gerry,

    I've been enjoying this discussion, but I think to some degree we have been talking past each other. I regret raising the Chinese examples, which I think have ended up being a confusion and a distraction to you. Let's set them aside. (I will answer your questions about the Chinese examples in a follow-up comment.) I will try to make one more attempt to explain why I think 몇 학년 for "what/which grade (of school)?" is perfectly correct in Korean.

    In Korean, "number + noun" can mean two different things.

    I. The number can serve to express a quantity, telling you how many, as in these examples:
    1a) 3 사람 "three people"
    2a) 4 나무 "four trees"
    3a) 2 개 "two (things)"
    4a) 7 학생 "seven students"
    5a) 3 권 "three (books)"
    6a) 1 분 "one (person) (honorific)"
    (Let us ignore the distinction between nouns and measure words, for our purposes they are functioning the same way here.)

    II. The number can serve as a label, identifying one noun in a sequenced set, as in these examples:
    7a) 3 월 "month three = third month (of the year)"
    8a) 12 일 "day twelve = twelfth day (of the month)"
    9a) 2 급 "level two = second level (e.g. of 어학당 classes)"

    Semantically (i.e. in terms of meaning), these two usages have a clear distinction: the first is telling you "how many", the second is telling you "which one of a sequence". (These are your "apples and oranges".) But we don't say that type II is "incorrect". The fact is that numbers in front of nouns have these two different possible usages in Korean. Structurally they are indistinguishable.

    Now we are ready to consider the function of the question word 몇. 몇 is an interrogative number: it asks "what number?" Grammatically it behaves just like any other number in Korean. Just as "3 + Noun" can, depending on the noun, mean "three nouns" (quantity) or "noun three" (label), "몇 + Noun" can, depending on the noun, mean "how many nouns?" (quantity) or "noun number what?" (label).

    Therefore, the English translation of 몇 will depend on the noun. It will sometimes be translated as "how many?" and sometimes as "which?". But neither translation alone accurately captures the basic function of 몇, which is something like "what numeric value?" Thus we can replace all the numbers in the nine examples above with 몇 to ask questions.

    1b) 몇 사람 "how many people?"
    2b) 몇 나무 "how many trees?"
    3b) 몇 개 "how many (things)?"
    4b) 몇 학생 "how many students?"
    5b) 몇 권 "how many (books)?"
    6b) 몇 분 "how many (people)? (honorific)"

    7b) 몇 월 "month number what = which month (of the year)?"
    8b) 며칠 "day number what = which day (of the month)?"
    9b) 몇 급 "level number what = which level (e.g. of 어학당 classes)?"

    Assuming that you agree with this analysis of how numbers function in Korea, and agree that 몇 is grammatically a number too, then there is nothing at all wrong or incorrect about asking 몇 학년 to mean "which grade (of school)?" It is part of a general pattern, or rule, about how numbers work in Korean.

  12. Having laid out the argument above, I can now respond to some of the specific points in your recent comments:

    You are certainly right to point out that it is irresponsible to pass judgment on Mr. Lee Su-yeol without reading his work. If you have accurately represented his position on 몇 학년, however, then I do feel quite comfortable saying that he is wrong in this respect.

    The examples you gave with 무슨 in your last comment illustrate the semantic difference between what I labeled Type I and Type II above. I have no quarrel with them. But that doesn't change the fact of how 몇 is used in Korean: the way you ask "which month (of the year)?" in Korean is 몇 월. Unless you are going to campaign against the uses in 7a, 8a, 9a, 7b, 8b, 9b above -- which seems pointless to me -- you don't really have a case against 몇 학년.

    Ambiguity between Types I and II is possible in Korean. For example, a phrase like 3일 is ambiguous: it could be of Type I, meaning "three days", or it could be of Type II, meaning "day three = third day (of the month)". (In real life, context almost always resolves the ambiguity, so it presents no problem to clear communication.) This is the reason that 며칠 has two possible meanings as well.

    I don't think I can make my case any more clearly than I have above, so I won't be posting more on this thread.

  13. Gerry,

    You asked the following question about Chinese: "By the way, Lance, why does 幾 come after 星期 (星期幾) instead of before it?"

    The reason is this: jǐ 幾 is an interrogative number. It appears only and exactly where a number can appear in Chinese, and means "what numeric value?". In the names of the days of the week, the number comes after 星期:

    Monday xīngqīyī 星期一
    Tuesday xīngqīèr 星期二
    Wednesday xīngqīsān 星期三
    Thursday xīngqīsì 星期四
    Friday xīngqīwǔ 星期五

    You can think of 幾 as a question mark, or an "X", standing for an unknown quantity. It stands exactly in the position in which that quantity is normally expressed. If you want to ask about the day of the week, you are actually asking about which numeric value occurs in the weekday name:

    "What day of the week?" xīngqījǐ 星期幾

    Although the particulars differ notably from Chinese to Korean, jǐ 幾 and 몇 are equivalent in that they are both interrogative numbers. They both ask questions by appearing in the same location where the numerical value of the answer will appear.

    I raised Chinese examples not because I think Korean has to be like Chinese, or because I think Sino-Korean has to be like Chinese. Korean must be analyzed and understood on its own merits. I did it simply to demonstrate that the function and usage of 몇, which you have suggested is illogical or incorrect, has equivalences in other languages. So it is not a priori illogical or incorrect.

  14. Lance,

    I do not mind distractions when they involve Chinese characters because I am always interested in learning more about them. By the way, thank you for explaining 星期幾 so well. That kind of thing is very interesting to me.

    I do not want to misrepresent Mr. Lee Su-yeol (이수열), so I will write exactly what he wrote about 몇 and 어는. The English is my translation:

    몇 – 어느

    김 일등병의 소속을 물을 때는 ‘몇 사단, 몇 연대, 몇 대대’가 아니라 ‘어느 사단, 어느 연대, 어느 대대가 옳고 박 선생의 주소를 물을 때도 ‘어느 군, 어느 면, 어느 동, 어느 번지, 어느 통, 어느 반’이냐고 해야 한다.

    우리 말을 일본어투나 영어투로 표현하는 것은 경계하고 배격해야 하지만, 일본인들이 ‘いく[幾]學年(몇 학년)’이라고 하지 않고 ‘なに[何]學年(어느 학년)’라고 하는 것은, 우리가 ‘몇’과 ‘어느’를 구별해 쓸 이유를 일깨우는 데 도움이 된다.

    “너는 몇 학년, 몇 반, 몇 번 학생이냐?”

    위 물음에 대한 대답이 ‘3학년 5반 7번 학생’이라고 할 때, 숫자 ‘3, 5, 7’은 ‘학년, 반, 번호’의 수효가 아니라 학년과 반, 번호에 차례로 붙인 명칭이다. 그러므로 “너는 어느 학년 어느 반, 어느 번 학생이냐?”고 햐야 한다.

    [English Translation]

    몇 (How many) – 어느 (Which)

    When asking where Private Kim is assigned, “Which division (어느 사단), which regiment (어느 연대), which battalion (어는 대대),” is correct, not “How many divisions (몇 사단), how many regiments (몇 연대), how many battalions (몇 대대). Also, when asking Mr. Bak’s address, it should be “Which county (어느 군), which subcounty (어느 면), which village (어느 동), which subdivision (어느 번지), which block (어느 통), which house (어느 반)?”

    We must guard against and denounce the use of Japanese and English styles in our language, but the fact that the Japanese say “Which grade (‘なに[何]學年[어느 학년]’)” instead of “How many grades (‘いく[幾]學年[몇 학년]’) helps us to see the reason we should distinguish between the use of ‘몇’ and ‘어느.'

    “너는 몇 학년, 몇 반, 몇 번 학생이냐?”
    “How many grades, classes, and rankings are you?”

    When answering the above question with ‘3rd year, 5th class, 7th ranking,” the numbers ‘3, 5, and 7’ are not the number of years, classes, and rankings, but titles attached to grade, class, and rank to show the standing of the student. Therefore, we should say “Which grade, class, and ranking are you” (너는 어느 학년 어느 반, 어느 번 학생이냐?).

    The above is all that Mr. Lee wrote about the subject, but I think it is more than enough to explain that 몇 학년 goes against the traditional “Korean way” of asking such questions. 몇 학년 seems to be a Chinese style that has sneaked its way into the Korean language. That may not bother some people, but why confuse the Korean language with styles from other languages, especially when the traditional "Korean way" of asking the question makes the meaning clearer?

  15. Gerry,

    Thank you for providing Mr. Lee's original text. It seems that he is essentially arguing that when a number is used as a label rather than to indicate a quantity, it is more logical to use a different question word to ask about that number. I can understand the logical appeal of that approach.

    I don't think it is clear at all that current usage of 몇 in Korean is a Chinese style that has snuck into the Korean language. It is also possible that the current usage of 몇 is the traditional Korean usage.

    One can speculate, but it is an empirical question whether usages like 몇 월 and 몇 학년 are new or old, and there is plenty of documentary evidence over the last 500 years to determine the answer. Unfortunately I do not have the expertise in order to consult the dictionaries and grammars of Middle Korean to find out the necessary.

  16. Hmm, that last sentence got a bit garbled. It should have said "I do not have the expertise necessary to consult the dictionaries and grammars of Middle Korean in order to find out the answer."

  17. I'm Korean.
    In Korea, we say, "너 몇 학년이니?"
    It's correct, but "너 어느 학년이니?" isn't correct. We don't use that kind of expression customarily.

  18. Generally, we use languages according to our customs, and in Korea, when we ask about the numbers, we customarily use '몇' for it, not '어느'.

    This is like this case.
    For example, "세상" and "세계" are the same meaning, but when we say for "Oh, my God!", we only say "원 세상에!" not "원 세계에!"

    I think you know what I mean.


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