Monday, June 08, 2015

Is the past perfect tense alien to Korean?


According to Lee Su-yeol (이수열), a native Korean who taught in Korean primary and secondary schools for forty-seven years, the past perfect tense (대과거) is not native to the Korean language; it was created to imitate the past perfect tense in English. Instead, Korean uses adverbs with the past tense to convey the meaning of past perfect. Therefore, the invented Korean versions of past perfect, such as -ㅆ던, -았(었)던, - 였던, -ㅆ었다, -았(었)었다, and -였었다, are all unnecessary.

I am going to use examples from a page on the "Korean Language Nerd" Web site, which promotes the Korean past perfect tense, to show that past perfect tense is not needed in Korean.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
작년 한국에 왔어요 (past tense)
오다 (here as 왔어요) to come, implies to come to the place you are currently at, therefore the speaker came last year, probably stayed the whole time and is (still) in Korea. This translates to:
Last year (I) came to Korea.

작년 한국에 왔었어요 (past perfect tense)
Here 오다 (as past prefect tense 왔었어요) is a completed action, but since 오다 is used to express “to come here” the speaker must be at the moment in Korea, therefore it is implied the speaker came last year to Korea and left Korea again. This best translates to:
Last year (I) have visited Korea.
The Korean Language Nerd claims that 왔었어요 means that the speaker came to Korea, but is no longer in Korea. However, the way Koreans would normally express that meaning is "왔다 갔어요" or "갔다 왔어요," which is the way Korean was meant to be spoken and is much more easily understood.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
추웠다. (past tense) It was cold and might be still.
추웠었다. (past perfect tense) It was cold but it isn’t any more. 
 This is silly. Do some Koreans really say 추웠었다? I cannot remember hearing it. You simply say 아침 추웠다; 어제 추웠다; 지난 겨울은 추웠다.

Korean Language Nerd wrote the following:
한국어를 공부 했다. (past tense) He studied Korean, and might be still studying.
한국어를 공부했었다. (past perfect tense) He studied Korean but he isn’t any more.
Why not 한국어를 공부한 적 있다 or 전에 한국어를 공부했다?

See! Why make Korean more difficult than it already is?

Finally, in my Dong-A 국어사전, the word "대과거," which is the Korean word for "past perfect," is defined as follows:
"(인도 유럽어 등에서) 과거에 있어서의 완료 (完了) 또는 계속을 나타내는 시제 (時制)"
The definition says "in Indo-European languages" (인도 유럽어 등에서); it does not say anything about the Korean language.

If you still do not believe me, read this 2003 중앙일보 article:

우리말 바루기 181 - 영어식 표현의 남용


  1. Hi Gerry,

    You wrote: "This is silly. Do some Koreans really say 추웠었다? I cannot remember hearing it. You simply say 아침 추웠다; 어제 추웠다; 지난 겨울은 추웠다."

    To answer your question, and despite your confidence, there are some valid uses for 추웠었다. Would you consider any of the following results permissible?

    You are not wrong in that you could simply say "아침 추웠다; 어제 추웠다; 지난 겨울은 추웠다," but for that matter, you could also simply say "추웠었다" :) They each have their own flavor, don't they? Or are you arguing that they essentially mean the same thing?

    If yes, then I agree that they can serve a similar semantic function. Your claim though, that one is more silly than the others, comes from an interesting perspective, which is saying that 추웠었다 is simply "not needed." It seems you are interested in trying to understand Korean as a rational system that is maximally efficient; that it is a tool that should be distilled into its logical components and rid of its inconsistencies, otherwise it doesn't make sense to you.

    An alternative way to understand Korean is that it, as a living language, has license to create and break its own rules; it can also be considered an art form when understanding its usage as a vernacular or as a vehicle for literature.

    One possible analogy is to examine the tension between standardized Mandarin and Cantonese. As you have studied classic Chinese, you probably have encountered the grammatically simplistic system that Mandarin is evolving into. The governmental policy is to unify the provinces of China to better improve communications and elevate modern Chinese into a monolithic, universal language for their global economy. Yet there are those native Cantonese speakers who are resisting the effects of standardization on their dialect. Cantonese is a more complex language, that has longer history of borrowing from other languages and allowing for redundancy for the sake of variety of expression. A HK friend once wrote, 'For example, “I’m taller than you” can be stated in Cantonese by “我比你高” (noun–noun–comparison) or “我高過你” (noun–comparison–noun), while the latter is generally not used in Mandarin.'

    Is 추웠었다 as silly as you say? An alternative perspective is to accept linguistic pluralism over standardization. This would be to respect that redundancies or synonyms, and the ambiguity that accompany them, may feel unnecessary to the scientific linguist, the Chinese government, or the foreign learner seeking to gain mastery over a language... but can used by native speakers with subtlety and even artistry. Or maybe this set of semantically identical expressions is used arbitrarily, but then we should question who exactly would that affect negatively? It certainly wouldn't be the native-speaker.

    I don't have a particularly strong feeling about the pluralism vs. standardization (or indigenous vs. modernist) debate, but I'm sure your readers would love to hear what you have to say about it, given all your experience in learning Korea and access to authoritative sources on it.


  2. Hi, Brian.

    Your comment is very nicely written, but your link to possible "valid uses" of 추웠었다 did not give me a specific link. Could you give me just one valid use for 추웠었다?

    The problem with saying both 어제 추웠다 and 어제 추었었다 is that when asked to explain the difference, many Koreans feel the need to try to explain a difference when there is no difference.

    You wrote that one could simply say 추웠었다 as a substitute for 아침 추웠다, but you could also 추웠다 as a substitute for 아침 추웠다, so why say a more complicated 추웠었다? Flavor? Because 추웠었다 somehow makes it feel more in the past? No! Because 추웠다 means it was cold and might still be cold, but 추웠었다 means it was cold, but is not longer cold? No! That is silliness. That is just people trying to explain a reason for having 추웠었다 when there is no reason.

    If 추웠었다 really meant that it was cold, but is no longer cold, then the following dialog would be possible:

    A: 밖이 아직 추워?
    B: 아니. 추웠었다.

    Can you find me a Korean who would respond with "아니. 추웠었다"?

    Okay, here is a possible use for the 았었 form, but I don't like it.

    One of the great things about the Korean language is that it can be easily abbreviated. Koreans seem to love abbreviating their language, trying to say as much as possible with as few words as possible, but some abbreviations are not worth it. Here is an example:


    A: Did you see your friend?
    B: No, when I arrived, he had already left.


    A: 친구를 봤어?
    B: 아니. 도작했을 때 벌써 갔어.

    Instead of saying 벌써 갔어, some Koreans seem to think it is cooler to say 갔었어 because it is one syllable shorter.

  3. Correction: 도착했을 때, not 도작했을 때

  4. I'm not entirely sure how to take your response, but I respect you taking a very hard line with your opinions. I don't want to engage in an argument, but you seem very dismissive of the possibility that language can have semantic nuance. I enjoy dialogues where both parties seek to understand each other, and I feel frustrated that you didn't try to seek out ways in which we can understand each other, because your justification seems to rest on your own intuition (and the inarticulateness of your sampling on Koreans, as if they might have representative power) that this is all seems like "silliness" to you. Talk about the West trying to tell the East about its own self.

    You may allow yourself the authority to as a linguist to dismiss what I called "flavor" and its necessity in works of literature. You put it quite nicely, and I happen to believe in the opposite, but I hope you don't consider me silly:

    'Because 추웠었다 somehow makes it feel more in the past? No! Because 추웠다 means it was cold and might still be cold, but 추웠었다 means it was cold, but is not longer cold? No! '

    Here's one example from the first page of results I shared with you:
    본격적인 추위는 아직이라는 일기예보가 무색하게 그 날은 몹 시 추웠었다.

    This form is really indispensable when it comes to the narrating of events. It does indeed emphasize that the event occurred in the past. Why doesn't this literary nuance, or "flavor" as you fixated on, deserve a place in the vernacular of a people? And why should your opinion matter to indigenous speakers of a language? These are not questions about linguistics but they are essential questions for linguists, because we need to highlight and address the ideological baggage you bring to your posts.

  5. I think I understand you, Brian, and I think you understand me. Did I misinterpret something you wrote?

    You wrote that 추웠었다 could substitute for 아침 추웠다, and I wrote that 추웠다 could also substitute for 아침 추웠다. What "flavor" difference is there? Isn't it really just an imaginary flavor? Because it has an extra past-tense suffix on it? Does 추웠었다 seem colder than 추웠다? No one has been able to explain the flavor to me in anyway that makes sense. You did not bother to explain it to me; you just suggested there was a flavor difference.

    "The West trying to tell the East about its own self"? No, as I wrote above, I learned about this from books written by Lee Su-yeol (이수열), a native Korean who taught in Korean primary and secondary schools for forty-seven years. Also, did you not read the "Joongang Ilbo" article I posted above? If not, you can read it HERE. Here is a quote from the article:

    "그러나 영어식 과거완료나 진행형이 우리말에 파고들어 남용되면서 어색한 문장을 만들어 내고 있다."

    "However, English-style past-perfect and continuous tenses have penetrated our language and are creating improper and awkward sentences."

    I did not write the above; Joongang Newspaper Report Bae Sang-bok (배상복) wrote it. The problem is not the West trying to tell the East about its own self; the problem is the East trying to change itself into the West.

    Here is your example sentence:

    본격적인 추위는 아직이라는 일기예보가 무색하게 그 날은 몹시 추웠었다.

    Wow! That's a humdinger. I would have loved to see your translation of your confusing example. Why is 본격적인 추위 the topic of the sentence? Is 일기예보가 supposed to be the subject of the sentence? Why is 무색하게 in there? What does 추웠었다 mean? Shouldn't it be 추웠더라, not 추웠었다? How would you translate it?

    Here is my rewrite of the sentence. Please tell me if you think I got it wrong because I am not 100 percent sure of what your sentence was trying to say:

    "일기예보가 본격적인 추위는 아직이라면서도 그 날은 몹시 추웠더라."

    "Even though the weather forecast had said the real cold had not yet started, I remember that day being really cold."

    Instead of 몹시 추웠었다, I think the writer meant 몹시 추웠더라, which means he "remembered" (더) it being very cold. It could be that the writer was confusing the "reflective" 더 with the past-tense 더 and just thought he could replace 더 with 었, which he cannot.

    Also, the sentence was confusing because the writer wrote 본격적인 추위는 아직이라는 일기예보가, which means "the weather forecast" (일기예보가) is the subject of the sentence, but he didn't say what the forecast did. Did the weather forecast say it was very cold that day? Is so, then the sentence should have been written as 그 날은 몹시 추웠다고 했다 since you would be reporting what the weather forecast said.

    Therefore, your example sentence is not a good example of a past-perfect sentence; it is a good example of a poorly written sentence.

    When you wrote that I seemed to be "interested in trying to understand Korean as a rational system that is maximally efficient," you were right. Isn't that something that should be strived for? To write as rationally and efficiently as possible? Are you suggesting that cannot be done in Korean? If so, I disagree.

    I consider myself to be a practical person who likes straight talk, so sometimes I may seem a little blunt with my answers. I think you might feel frustrated because I did not accept you invitation to engage in a nebulous debate on linguistic pluralism vs. standardization. If your example sentence was an example of "linguistic pluralism," than I will simply say I choose standardization, if standardization is what I am accused of promoting.

  6. ㅋㅋㅋ 그냥 우리는 past로 통일해서 씁니다
    지금 대학교에서 present perfect랑 past perfect배우는데 뭐가뭔지 모르겠음