March 7, 2010 | Korean

Particles and Plurals

Korean grammar continues to mystify me, but maybe a little less.

I was supposed to run a race today in the Bronx, but didn’t because I have been sick all week. I am coughing and my chest hurts. So, instead of racing, I ran a loop of Central Park, very slowly and with Dr. Pimsleur for company. I got through a good two and a half lessons. I would have gotten through less if I hadn’t been going so slowly, so in a way being sick was helpful. The experience was heartening, too, as I think I am now finally beginning to hear some of the Korean pronunciation subtleties that have been eluding me.

In the early afternoon I went to Café Margot, with a book I bought weeks ago but hadn’t tried out yet, called Read & Speak Korean for Beginners. It is kind of silly-looking, with games and pictures, and I didn’t expect to like it, but I realized as I flipped through it that its content has a very high degree of correlation with the oral content in Pimsleur—which means that I finally got explicit written explanations of a number of features of Korean that have been perplexing me for weeks.

Right away in this book I was presented, in both Hangeul (Korean) script and Roman (our) script, the written versions of things like “hello,” “I,” “am/are/is,” and “goodbye.” There are two versions of “goodbye,” by the way—one for the person who is leaving and one for the person staying. It was such a relief to see these things spelled out. In nice big print, too, more appropriate for kids than grownups—and therefore extra reassuring.

Also, I finally got an explanation of the Korean particle neun. If you are unfamiliar with the term “particle,” join the club. I love grammar, and yet “particle” is a term that simply doesn’t register in my brain. I look it up over and over, but it does me no good whatsoever. Just falls right out the back of my head each time.

Not having learned my lesson, I looked it up again anyway and found the following definitions, from American Heritage: (1) “an uninflected item that has grammatical function but does not clearly belong to one of the major parts of speech, such as up in He looked up the word or to in English infinitives” or (2) “in some systems of grammatical analysis, any of various short function words, including articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.”

Not memorable.

Anyway, as I understand it so far, this neun thing—which sounds like nin to my ear and is a rough equivalent for “as for”—gets stuck onto the ends of Korean words in a wide variety of situations, often surprising to English speakers (this one anyway). For instance, instead of saying “I am Ellen,” you say essentially, “I-as-for Ellen am.” The “as for” equivalent, neun, gets tacked onto the end of the Korean word for “I.”

Same thing with the sentence “Our son is big.” You begin that one in Korean with “Our son-as-for,” sticking a neun onto the end of the noun for “son.”

You want to order your wife a drink? Stick a neun on her noun, too.

I admit, this construction kind of flips me out. But I am practicing it repeatedly and may get used to it by the end of March.

Another thing that amazes me is the absence, in Korean, of both articles and plurals. In my Pimsleur lessons, regardless of whether I need a singular or a plural noun, I just keep recycling the same word! Article-free, too.

I view this as an act of charity from a challenging language.

And yet I am mystified about how it can possibly work out. As the abovementioned Read & Speak book notes, “Chaek can mean ‘book,’ ‘a book,’ ‘the book,’ ‘books,’ or ‘the books.’” It is just so hard for me to imagine context being able to overcome this much ambiguity. But it’s fun to think, wow, it really doesn’t matter what I say. I’m going to be right anyway.

It’s like, here’s my noun—how you like me now?

I am writing this in Indianapolis, where I am going to be teaching a series of writing classes this week. I had my usual multilingual cab experiences on both ends of my flight. In New York, on my way to La Guardia, I listened to the Senegalese cab driver speaking Wolof. And on my way from the Indianapolis airport to my hotel here, I spoke a little Arabic with my Libyan cab driver. It really was very little, but it was good to be reminded that some of the Arabic did in fact stick.

A Not Very International Food Court

Leaving, on a Jet Plane

Bye, New York

Hello, Indiana!

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