Forms of the Korean verb 그렇다 – “to be so”

(This text is also available as a doc file here.)

In the first year alone of my learning Korean I collected the following clearly related but also unclearly related words:

그래서 – so

그래요 – that’s right; OK

그러면 – in that case

그러니까 – therefore

그러지요 – OK, I’ll do so

그런데 – by the way

그럼 – then

그리고 – and

그렇지만 – however

그렇다 – to be so

I tried to look up these words in Jungbum Seo’s “Korean Etymological Dictionary”, only to find that it mentions none of them (out of 1500 words). But it turns out that by simply using Naver one can already create considerable order in the above chaos.

It is reasonable to assume that all these words derive from or at least are connected to the verb “그렇다–to be so”, which can be found in any elementary text book. Naver gives us its original form, 그러하다; its stem is 그러하-, which over time reduced to 그랗-, which yields the present-day verb 그렇다.

This stem is used before some endings, for example –, and –지만“but”. This immediately gives us

그렇지만 ← 그렇-+-지만 (stem + –지만) = that is so but → however,

where the ← means “is derived from”, and → means “leads in meaning to”.

Other endings use the infinitive, the form that is usually obtained by adding –-/-– to the stem, as in 먹어요 from 먹다. In this case we start with the old stem 그러하-. All verbs in – change their – to – in the infinitive, so 그러하– yields 그러해-. Over time this infinitive reduced to 그래-, the present-day infinitive. This 그래– gives us

그래요 ← 그래-+-(inf. + –요“polite”) = that is so → that’s right; OK

and

그래서 ← 그래-+-(inf. + –서“because”) = because that is so → so.

The endings –으면 and –으니까 follow the stem, and keep the when the stem ends in a consonant:

그러면 ← 그렇-+-으면 (stem + –으면“if”) = if that is so → in that case,

with reduction of 렇으 to ; or with even more reduction, both in form and in meaning:

그럼 ← 그럼연 ← 그러면 = in that case → then.

The same reduction of 렇으 to applies to the ending –으니까:

그러니까 ← 그렇-+-으니까 (stem + –으니까“because I know”) =

because I know it is so → therefore.

The stem-following ending –has several meanings; one of them (in affirmative sentences) is that of reassuring the listener, for example: 했지요– I assure you, I’ve done it. This meaning is found in

그러지요 ← 그렇-+--+-(stem + –– “reassuring” + –요“polite”) =

I assure you that it is so → OK, I’ll do so,

with loss of the . Remarkably, Naver shows that the most usual meaning of –, “asking for confirmation”, also occurs in the same construction:

그렇지요? ← 그렇-+--+-? (stem + –– “seeking confirmation” + –요“polite”) =

don’t you agree that that is so? → isn’t it?

but now without the loss of the .

The old form of the stem is required to explain 그런데:

그런데 ← 그러하-+-는데 (stem + –는데 “against the background of”) =

against the background that that is so → that being so → by the way,

with reduction of –하는– to a single .

These explanations find support in the fact that some forms exist in which – is replaced by – or -:

이래서 – for this reason

저래요 – it just is like that,

but none of these has as wide a collection of forms as -.

This leaves the form 그리고–“and”. The ending –means “and” after the stem of a verb but no applicable verb stem 그리– seems available, so for a while I puzzled over it. But Sohn, “The Korean Language” (1999), pg. 261, has the answer: 그리고 derives from the old noun 리 – direction, which is still used in “이리 앉으세요” – “please take this seat”. So we have

그리고 ← 그 리 하고 = this/that way doing and → and,

and 그리고 is not related to 그렇다 (unless of course if and 그렇다 are related, but that is lost in the mists of time).

A Remarkable Phonetic Correspondence in the Chinese Numerals in Korean and Japanese

Both Korean and Japanese have two sets of numerals (words for numbers) for the numbers from 1 to 10: a native set and a set borrowed from forms of Early Middle Chinese (2nd to 12th century). The native sets are unrelated to each other but those borrowed from Chinese of course are, and the relationship is fairly obvious:

Korean

Japanese

1

il

ichi

2

i

ni

3

sam

san

4

sa

shi

5

o

go

6

[r]yug

roku

7

chil

shichi

8

phal

hachi

9

ku

kyu, ku

10

shib

ju

Especially 2, 3, 4, 5, and 9 are almost or completely the same, when we take into account that initial `n-‘ followed by an i-sound tends to disappear in Korean. Japanese words cannot end in a consonant except `-n’, and if such a word is imported into Japanese it is extended with a vowel, usually -u or -i. So the -u in the word for 6, `roku’, does not belong to the word en can be ignored, which makes it a good match for `[r]yug’.

The words for 1, 7, and 8 look similar too when we remember that initial `p-‘ in Japanese turns into `h-‘. But there is something funny here with the final consonants: where Korean has `-l’ Japanese has `-chi’, or actually `-ch’, since the `-i’ is just stuffing. With three occurrences in such a small sample this can hardly be coincidence. Now this is an unusual correspondence, and requires a sound in the original language that can appear as `l’ in one language and as `ch’ (as in `church’) in another.

When we pull in the numerals from Middle Chinese and from three present-day Chinese languages from the Wikipedia the mystery clears somewhat but new questions pop up:

Korean

Japanese

Mandarin

Cantonese

Meixian

Mid.Chin.

1

il

ichi

yaat

yit

ʔyit

Kor. -l ~ Jap. -chi ~ MC -t

2

i

ni, ji

èr

yee

nyi

nyiy

3

sam

san

sān

saam

sam

sam

4

sa

shi

sei

si

shi

5

o

go

ng

ng

ngu

6

[r]yug

roku

liù

loogh

liuk

lyuwk

r = l

7

chil

shichi

tsaat

tshit

tshit

Kor. -l ~ Jap. -chi ~ MC -t

8

phal

hachi

baat

pat

peat

Kor. -l ~ Jap. -chi ~ MC -t

9

ku

kyu, ku

jiǔ

gau

kiu

kyuw

10

shib

ju

shí

sap

sĕp

dzyip

We see first of all that the Korean and Japanese numerals are very similar to Meixian and Middle Chinese, and less to Cantonese. Mandarin is even more distant, in spite of the fact that Beijing, where Mandarin originates, is much closer geographically to Korea and Japan than the Guangdong region which is where Cantonese and Meixian are spoken now. Apparently Mandarin and Cantonese changed much more over time than Meixian, Korean and Japanese did, at least as far as numerals are concerned.

Next we see that our Korean `-l’ / Japanese `-ch’ correspond to a `-t’ in Middle Chinese, and again the correspondence is systematic. And it is striking that in all three cases a long `aa’ precedes the `-t’ in Cantonese. Still the path from Middle Chinese `-t’ to Korean `-l’ is not obvious.

A fair lot is known about Middle Chinese pronunciation, but most of it concerns initial consonants and vowels; much less is known about final consonants. But the Wikipedia page “Historical Chinese phonology”, section “From Old Chinese to Early Middle Chinese / Medials and finals” mentions that some Old Chinese vowels ended in `r’, and that in Early Middle Chinese this `r’ turned a following `t’ into a retroflex `t’, somewhat like the last consonant in the American pronunciation of `Burt’.

This retroflex `t’ seems a good candidate for the origin of our -l/-ch/-t trio. Its retroflex nature would make it easy for it to turn into a Korean `l’; its sound is less clear and more hissing than a normal `t’, so it could easily turn into -ch[i] rather than into -ts[u] in Japanese; and it can of course easily lose its retroflexness and become a normal `t’ in present-day Meixian and Cantonese. And the disappeared `r’ may help explain the long `aa’ in Cantonese.

The Korean irregular verbs

Summary: Please look at my The Korean (Ir)regular Verbs.

Almost all languages that have conjugations (verb modifications) also have irregular verbs (Turkish being the only exception I’m aware of). English has verbs like “to write – wrote – written”; French has “écrire – j’écris – j’écrivais – écrit” and there is no shortage of examples from other languages.

Irregular verbs are a burden on language learners, but often there is help. Any self-respecting English dictionary has a list of the 300+ irregular verbs in the back, and for French there is a useful little booklet “Bescherelle La conjugaison pour tous” (“Conjugation for Everybody”), which for less than 7 euro’s explains everything there is to know about the French verb.

No such list or booklet seems to exists for Korean. There may be one in Korean, but with my present level of Korean (just passed my Beginners 2 test), it would be pretty useless to me anyway. There is the Web site Dongsa, which will conjugate any Korean verb for you, but it does not distinguish between regular and irregular, nor does it give any rules. And the rest of my learning material, from the simplest 50-page leaflets to the most solid and extensive 500-page works are all sketchy at best on the subject. I suppose if you’re a person who reads the 50-page leaflets you’re too junior to be interested in irregular verbs, and if you read the 500-page works you’re too senior to worry about them. Me, I’m in between, and confused.

In my The Korean (Ir)regular Verbs I’ve tried  to cover the Korean verb with the same thoroughness as the Bescherelle does for French. I have collected material from all sources available to me, cross-checked and tested in Internet searches. I think it is over 95% complete, but that’s just a guess.

A bit about the irregularity of Korean irregular verbs:

Usually the irregular verbs of a language are a jumble; it’s more or less every verb for itself. English “to write – wrote – written” does not lead to “to bite – bote – bitten”; it may be related to “to ride – rode – ridden” but that is already running  thin.

Not so in Korean. All irregular Korean verbs fall neatly in 6 groups, depending on the last consonant of the stem. So where is the irregularity? Answer: not all verbs that seem to fall into these groups are actually irregular. For example, all irregular verbs in -ㅂ (-p) are irregular in the same way, but not all verbs in -ㅂ are irregular. So when you see a verb in -ㅂ you know it might be irregular, and if it is irregular you know how to conjugate it, but you still don’t now whether it’s irregular or not. This means that for the language learner each group should come with a list of verbs that belong to it and a list of verbs that look as if they belong but don’t. In all learning material I have these lists are sketchy and by example only. I try to provide the complete lists.

Korean Language Learning Aids on the Internet

There are zillions of Korean language learning aids on the Internet, but there are two that I especially like: KWOW (Korean Word Of the Week) and Korean Word of the Day. In spite of their similar names they are unrelated, both in origin and in method.

KWOW is an ever-growing list of weekly video clips by Professor Oh, aka Ramona Champion, each 3 to 10 minutes long. Each covers a couple of related words, first in an explanation and then in a short sketch. The explanation is simple, but the sketch is real-world Korean, subtitled in 한글 and in English. For language learners the first 60 episodes are the most relevant.

Korean Word of the Day is a page that refreshes itself every day, redacted by koreanclass101. It takes the word of the day, and uses it in one or two sentences and a few constructions, shown both in 한글 and in transcription. A click on a button gets you the text pronounced by a very clear and very pleasant female voice. There is a calendar allowing you to visit earlier pages.

There are tens of other excellent teaching sites, for example those by BusyAtom. I wish I had the time to do more of them. Ah, well, language learning is a slow process, certainly of a totally alien language like Korean.

Why Korean?

When I had finished my last computer science book (Modern Compiler Design, 2nd Edition (2012)) I had only one project left, a computer project named Teckel. Not wanting to spend all my time programming, I thought I might learn yet another language, in addition to the ones I speak well: Dutch (from birth), German (from growing up in Enschede, on the German border), English (from school and life), and Hebrew (from having lived in Israel). So the question was, what language.

Having seen and partly studied quite a number of languages apart from the above (see f.e. my language summaries) , I thought a good criterion would be “the most exotic language that one can still reasonably learn to proficiency”.

That immediately eliminated languages like Russian and Hindi (Indo-European, so not exotic),Yoruba or Navaho (no way to reach proficiency), and Klingon or Loglan (not reasonable). I don’t think that at my age I’d still be able to learn a tone language, which again eliminated another bunch. Next went languages like Indonesian (too easy), Hungarian (I learned some from a colleague 30 years ago), and Arabic (I know Hebrew (closely related) already).

So in the end I was left with three contenders: Georgian, Korean, and Japanese. Georgian was attractive: it is a well-studied ancient language with a complicated and very interesting synatctic structure, Georgia is an upcoming nation, and the president is married to a Dutch woman (Sandra Roelofs). But it isn’t half as exotic as the other two. The choice between Korean and Japanese was easy: Japanese writing is clumsy and a huge and definitely no fun obstacle, whereas the Koreans have taken the logical step and designed an alphabet that “a clever man can learn in a morning and a stupid man in a week”.

There was another reason. When we visited Israel over the last ten years, we saw that visitors stayed away, except busloads of Koreans. They were the ones that were not afraid, and I liked that.

So now I am studying Korean at the Korean School of Amsterdam, which is actually in Amstelveen. A side effect of this process of elimination is that I am the only one in the class with no relation whatsoever to anything Korean.