Tuesday, March 29, 2016

word order in Korean

As a Korean learner, I have a question. To what extent does word order matter in Korean? Take these two examples:

아름다운 우리 화장실입니다. (A sign in my office building's restroom.)

우리들의 일그러진 영웅 (The title of Yi Mun-yeol's famous political novel, Our Twisted Hero.)

Can someone explain why the uri is where it is in both of the above expressions? Does it not matter? Or is there a nuanced difference, similar to the differences associated with adverb placement in English (e.g., She too ran fast* versus She ran too fast)?

*Some will gripe that the "too" should be surrounded by commas. That's an old-school take, and I don't disagree with it, but in modern US English, as well as in comma-hating UK English, the commas are often left out. I can't say that I lose any sleep as a result of their absence. For me, it's very much a "take it or leave it" sort of thing.



Charles said...

Word order is definitely more flexible in Korean than it is in English, by which I mean that changing the word order generally has a greater affect on the meaning of the sentence in English.

I'm not sure if I would call the difference between your two English examples "nuanced," to be honest--there is a pretty pronounced difference between "She too ran fast" ("Jen worried about being able to keep up with the rest of the team, but when the pack of rabid wolves caught their scent, she too ran fast.") and "She ran too fast" ("Jen was psyched for the 10k race, but for the first kilometer she ran too fast and thus found her energy levels dropping well before the finish line was in sight.") That seems like a pretty clear difference in meaning.

The two Korean examples you gave are definitely not on the same level. I think the best way to describe the difference between the placement of 우리 in those two examples is to ask which descriptor is more important. In the first example, the fact that the bathroom is ours is considered more important (the subtext here being, "We all use this bathroom together, so please don't piss on the floor, etc."), but in the second example, the twistedness of the hero is more important. (The construction "adj. + 우리 + noun" is also a common one, for what it's worth.)

That's my take, at any rate. Word order does matter in Korean, but there's a lot more flexibility and opportunity to express nuance through altered word order than in English (where changing the word order often changes the meaning of the sentence). No idea if this makes any sense--kind of went stream of consciousness on this.

Kevin Kim said...

"kind of went stream of consciousness on this"

As did I, which is why I chose the English examples I did. I had wanted to find something more subtle than too = 'also' or 'overly,' but I was tired from type-type-typing all day, and impatient to just hit "send" on the post. I think there are more nuanced examples out there (e.g., using the adverb "really"), but my central point was that adverb placement can change a sentence's meaning, be it a little or a lot. Maybe I should've just left out the word "nuanced," given that it's not that relevant to the larger discussion.

So if I understand you correctly, the closer the adjective is to the noun, the more noun-relevant importance it has? (By which I mean: in the expression "our beautiful bathroom," the "our" is more tightly bound to "bathroom" than "beautiful" is, and this is true as a rule?)

Charles said...

Yeah, that's basically what I was getting at. I'm not sure if I want to commit to saying that it is true as a rule (as Korean linguistics is not my area of expertise), but there is definitely a construction in Korean of the "adj. + 우리 + noun" variety that seems to have this effect, i.e., of emphasizing the collective nature of the noun.

I'll ask my resident Korean linguist about this and see if I can get something more concrete.

Charles said...

Little bit late on getting back to this, but my resident linguist agrees. Her explanation was slightly different in terminology, but it boils down to the same thing: The modifier closer to the noun has the greater weight.

I should also add that while the "adj + 우리 + noun" construction is common, I don't think I've seen this with 우리 pluralized (just thinking of your 우리들의 일그러진 영웅 example).