There are many great mysteries in life. Where do we go after we die? Are we alone in the universe? What is the purpose of Stonehenge? Does Bigfoot really exist? Where in the world is Carmen San Diego? Why is the sad cebu sad? (Ha! Now there’s a reference!)
Unfortunately I don’t have the answers to all these questions (that’s what Wikipedia is for!) But what I do have is some insight into the deepest mystery of all (cue cinematic simultaneous thunder and lightning): the Korean language.
Now, if you’re a 한국사람or a 재미교포 you can stop reading now because most likely you already know all this and it’s probably better if you don’t watch me try to explain complex grammar to the 외국인; it might get ugly. But, I promised that I would keep you all up to date on what I’m up to and since all I’ve been doing this week is studying Korean in preparation for my midterm exams, I’m going to try and spin that in the most entertaining way I can. Hopefully this doesn’t get too confusing (or boring) for you guys. Keep in mind this is also simplified a LOT. You’re not going to be fluent by the end of the next couple of paragraphs but you’ll be able to say you know something about a foreign language that you didn’t know before.
First of all, as you may have guessed from the title, there’s something a little different about Korean adjectives… and that’s because they’re technically verbs. That’s right: dot your “i”s, cross your “t”s, and don’t forget to conjugate your adjectives! In the present tense both verbs and “adjectives” are conjugated pretty much the same, though they can differ a little depending on the grammar form. So for example, in English we have the adjectives “sneezy”, “sleepy” and “dopey”. In Korean they would translate to the verbs “to be sneezy”, “to be sleepy” and “to be dopey” (though I don’t actually know if these adjectives really exist in Korean.)
The number one rule in Korean grammar is that all sentences (and phrases) must end with the main verb (or adjective, since they’re treated like verbs.) This would explain why, if you’ve ever heard anyone speaking Korean (or listened to Jin and Sun yell at each other on “Lost”), you might notice that most of the sentences end in “yo.” To a non-Korean speaker it sounds like “blah blah blah blah yo” or “blah blah blah blah seyo”. Before you were probably like what the heck? But now that you know all sentences end with the verb you’re probably thinking why are they just saying the same word over and over again? Is there only one verb in Korean? Actually, the verb changes, but the “yo” is added on for politeness. It shows respect for the listener.
Let’s clarify the respect thing a little bit. In Korean, there are different methods of speech based on the status of your listener and the status of the person you’re talking about. If you’re speaking formally, like giving a speech or a report or talking to an older person in a formal setting then you use the highest form of speech. When speaking to someone who is older than you, or who is your age but you don’t know them that well, you use the polite form (that’s the “yo” verb ending.) If you’re talking with a close friend or someone who is younger than you, you can relax and drop the “yo.” Each of these forms can be adjusted to reflect the status of the person you’re talking about as well. In case you’re interested, here’s an example (that “Lost” fans might appreciate) where you can hear the difference. Notice how the younger speaker adds the “yo” at the end but the older speaker doesn’t?
It’s actually not too confusing once you get the hang of it, but I tend to forget when I’m speaking because I’m used to using just the polite form in class. Sometimes I end up speaking too politely to my host sisters (who are younger than me), and occasionally I’ve slipped up and been informal with my host mom, but I don’t think I offended anyone too badly. They kind of expect that foreigners will mess up a lot. However, I have heard that there is a double standard for Korean Americans. If you are of Korean descent, even if all you know how to say is “hello” and all you know about Korean culture is “Gangnam Style”, Koreans will still expect that you speak fluently and know all the Korean customs. Then they get really disappointed in you if you don’t. Sorry guys.
Whew, thanks for hanging in there guys. Learning Korean can be hard. For example, there are two verbs that mean “to be” in Korean. One is used for statements in which you equate one thing to another thing, like if you say “that animal IS a dog” or “my favorite food IS bulgogi.” The other one is used for statements that show existence of something, like “there IS a pencil on the table” or “there IS a chopstick up my nose.” See the difference? Now that’s not confusing at all!
And for my 한국사람, a pun, just for you:
할아버지는 여자친구를 어디서 찾았어요?