Saturday, October 10, 2009

What's the problem with "뭐가 불만이냐"

뭐가 불만이냐 means "What's your problem" or "What's your complaint." It is a low form that is usually used among friends. If you use it with someone who is not your friend, you are asking for a fight. The problem with the expression is that 뭐가, strickly speaking, is an incorrect construction since 뭐 is a contraction of 무엇, so it would be like saying 무엇가, which is incorrect. The correct contraction for 무엇이 is 뭬. However, since few Koreans say "뭬 불만이냐," you could just drop the subject marker and say, "뭐 불만이냐." I think I will try to use 뭬.

The following are the correct 1-syllable contractions for 무엇 and its subject and object markers:
  • 무엇 = 무어 = 뭐
  • 무엇 = 뭣
  • 무엇이 = 뭬
  • 무엇을 = 뭘

Unfortunately, it is probably too late to save the 뭬 contraction because 뭐가 and 머가 have become so ingrained in the Korean language that it would be difficult to get rid of them now. I think I remember reading that sometime in the past 가 used to be the only subject marker in Korean, which may help explain why 뭐가 is so ingrained.

By the way, if you do use 뭬, do not add the subject marker 가 to it since its meaning already includes the subject marker. Some Koreans even add the object marker 를 to 뭬, which, of course, is also wrong since it would be like saying 무엇이를.


  1. I bet you speak Korean better than I do, even tho I'm Korean^-^;
    There are lots of interesting Postings really. Especially For me. That's because I wanna be Korean Teacher for Foreigners. I added yr blog as my Fav. Keep posting! Thanx.

  2. How much do you want to bet, Sonnie? :)

    I read a lot about the Korean language and like looking for patterns and ways to make it easier to learn because I believe there is an easier way, but I do not get much practice speaking and listening to it, so my speaking and listening skills are not as good as people may think.

    The reason I do not get much practice speaking and listening, even though I live in Korea, is that I am an English teacher here and, therefore, spend most of my time speaking English and trying to encourage my students to speak English. Also, if other Koreans speak to me in English, I speak back to them in English because I know that most are trying to practice their English. I have a lot of sympathy for them because I remember how hard it was to find someone to practice Korean with me when I was studying in Hawaii.

    Sonnie, if you are Sun Hyunwoo, then you are already a super teacher and linguist, based on what I have seen in your MANY BLOGS.

    I do not know where you find the time and energy, but you have some made some great language videos and seem to have more than enough patience, understanding, and imagination to call yourself a Korean language teacher. I do not care what academic creditials you may or may not have, you are already a Korean language teacher. The Korean language needs more teachers like you.

  3. Gerry,

    Whether you think 뭐가 is incorrect depends on what you think the ordering of the "contraction" and "subject-marker selection" rules are for Korean.

    If contraction precedes marker selection, then the form is correct.

    I. Contraction precedes Marker Selection
    1. Start with 무엇
    2. Contract to 뭐
    3. Select the appropriate marker for a word ending in a vowel: 뭐가

    If, on the other hand, you think the marker is selected based on the uncontracted form, which is then contracted, then 뭐가 would be incorrect:

    II. Marker Selection precedes Contraction
    1. Start with 무엇
    2. Select the appropriate marker for a word ending in a consonant: 무엇이
    3. Contrast 무엇 to 뭐: 뭐이=뭬 (not 뭐가)

    I believe that Contraction normally precedes Marker Selection. It is the word itself that is contracted, regardless of its role in the sentence. Then when the contracted form is used in a sentence, an appropriate marker (subject, object, topic, etc.) is chosen. That explains why we have 뭘 and 뭔 instead of 뭐를 and 뭐는.

    Although 뭬 may be used in formal writing as a visual or spelling contraction, is it part of the spoken language? Have you ever heard anyone say [mwe]?

  4. Lance,

    뭬 and 뭘 are the abbreviations of 무엇이 and 무엇을, respectively, which means the subject and object markers were attached before the abbreviation. The 뭬 is clear evidence of that fact.

    뭐 is an abbreviation of 무어, which is an abbreviation of 무엇. That means that 뭐 is an abbreviation of an abbreviation. If you are going to abbreviate a word twice, why would you then make it longer by adding a 가 or 를 marker to it? In other words, why say 뭐가 or 뭐를 when you can simply say 뭬 and 뭘, respectively? It kind of defeats the purpose of abbreviation. 뭐 should be used without makers.

    뭔 is a colloquial abbreviation for 무슨, not 무엇은. I am not even sure if or how 무엇은 would be used.

    I do not remember hearing Koreans say 뭬, but then I have not really been listening for it. However, from now on, I will be listening for it.

  5. a postpositional word is 조사 in korean.

    no problem words's order in korean language but 조사(a postpositional word) such as "을" "를","은" "는" "이" "가" is very important.

    학교가 or 학교는 무너졌다.(School collapsed)
    = correct
    무너졌다. 학교가 = so awkward, but "grammatically correct"
    무너졌다. 학교를 = incorrect because of "를".

    In korean grammer system, words will have to combine with "조사" to make it the subject or an object or other constituents of a sentence.

    a noun or a pronoun + 은,는,이,가
    => the subject

    a noun or a pronoun + 을,를
    => an object

    학교는~ 사자는~ 우산은~,
    학교가~ 사람이~,
    사자가~ 사람이~
    => the subject

    학교를~ 사람을~
    => an object

    (학교=a school, 사자=a lion, 우산=an umbrella, 사람=man)

    * To decide using 은 or 는, 이 or 가, 을 or 를 depend on a final consonant on the end of a Korean orthographic syllable.

    학"교"는~ 사"자"는~ 우"산"은~,
    학"교"가~ 사"자"가~ 우"산"이~, (keep an eye on "ㄴ" of산)
    => the subject

    학"교"를~ 사"람"을~ 사"자"를~ 우"산"을~ (like the preceding, watch "ㄴ"of 산, "ㅁ"of 람)
    => an object

    * 무엇 = 무어 = 뭐 (o)
    * 무엇 = 뭣 (o)
    * 무엇이 = 뭬 (x) ("이" is only "a postpositional word")
    * 무엇을 = 뭘 (o)

    뭬 is old type of 뭐 or 무어, not used today.

    뭐"가" 불만이나 (correct)
    뭐"를" 불만이냐 (incorrect)

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  7. I mistook.

    my brother (who teaching korean language in academy) said "뭬 is abbreviation of 무엇이." ;;

  8. Gerry,

    I agree with Lance. I think contraction comes first ahead of selecting a subject-marker.

    Forget "뭬" at the moment. I don't remember I have heard someone say that in an ordinary conversational setting. I, however, have heard that several times in TV dramas.

    I think "뭬" is the stronger form of 뭐(not "무엇이". Please be advised that there is no subject marker attached). My first impression for "뭬" is its being quite old fashioned, surprise, complaints, and disappointment, as in the following examples(all from google search results);

    이건 또 뭬야???
    "뭬야, 세자를 죽이려 뼛가루를 먹여?"
    뭬야!!! 또 과속벌금을 냈다구????

    It is used in writing and on the internet, which is also a form of writing, to exaggerate the complaints and embarrassment.

  9. Wow you really knows Korean as well as I do! It's interesting that Foreigners like you are so interested in learning Korean !
    Thanks for learning and keep posting! :D


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