This post is dedicated to reader “Jan”, who expressed an interest in both languages. I’ve wanted to write this for a while, but waited until I had more information.
Anyway, a while back, I posted a kind of first-pass comparison of the two languages, based on my experiences studying so far, but in the past 6 months I’ve learned more and wanted to revisit the subject, especially when it comes to verbs.
While some aspects of Korean and Japanese are similar, one area that seems to be particularly challenging for me is verbs. In some ways, they’re very similar, and in some ways quite different. As mentioned in the previous post, researchers believe that Korean and Japanese are originally of different “genetic” origin, but have influenced each other by virtue of proximity,1 and I think this becomes apparent with verbs because they behave so differently.
This post is a brief overview of how they seem to work in both languages. It is not exhaustive.
Both languages conjugate their verbs, so when you’re learning the language, you have to invest some time to get familiar with the different forms. The basic idea is the same in both language: there’s a “root” part of the verb that never changes. Instead the ending changes depending on whether it’s present-tense, past-tense, passive, polite, etc, etc. Sometimes you add endings on top of other endings too.
That part is simple enough, but the endings used look nothing like one another.
For example, the “dictionary” form of a Japanese verb usually ends in a “u” syllable like む (mu), る (ru), つ (tsu), く (ku) and so on. When you conjugate the verb, you often change that last syllable into to a different one. For example, for te-form verbs, you change “mu” to “me”, “ku” to “ke”, “tsu” to “te” and so on. You can see Tae Kim’s helpful guide on Hiragana to see this visually. An “u” ending moves down to the “e” row, in other words.
For past tense and some other forms, the “u” ending moves to an “a” ending. For potential verbs, “u” moves to the “o” row and so on.
However, in Korean, it uses a fairly different system. All verbs end in “da” 다. However, when conjugating Korean verbs, the 다 always gets dropped, and an auxilliary verb added. For very common forms, like present-tense and past-tense and the verb ending changes depending on whether the last vowel is a “bright vowel” such as “a” (ㅏ) or “o” (ㅗ), or whether is a “dark vowel” such as eo (ㅓ), eu (ㅡ), or “i” (ㅣ) and so on. Here “bright” and “dark” just refer to how they sound to the listener, now whether they’re good or bad.
So for verbs which end in “bright” vowels, you can make it present tense by adding 아요 (ayo), and for verbs with “dark” vowels, you add 어요 (eoyo). For past-tense, it’s pretty similar, except you add 았어요 (asseoyo) 었어요 (eosseoyo), which is basically the past-tense ending, with a present-tense ending added. But also the endings will change depending on whether the last syllable ends in a consonant or vowel (to help make pronunciation smoother). This is not found in Japanese.
Both languages use auxiliary verbs to change the main verb. These are just “little” verbs that you put on the end of the main verb to conjugate.
In Japanese, many auxiliary verbs attach to the “te-form” like いる (iru), ある (aru) and おく (oku) to make additional forms. If 作って tsukutte is the te-form of “to make/cook”, then 作っている means “making/cooking” , 作ってある “it’s been made/cooked intentionally” and 作っておく “to make/cook ahead of time/proactively”.
But also some auxiliary verbs attached directly to verb stems. The polite ending ます (masu) is just another auxiliary verb, as is たい (to want to do sometime). Thus if 食べ (tabe) is the root of the word “to eat”, 食べます is the polite way to say “to eat” and 食べたい means “want to eat”.
In Korean, auxiliary verbs also exist, but the usage and pronunciation is somewhat different. You take the verb stem and add the appropriate auxiliary verb. If 먹다 (meogda) means to eat, you can take the stem 먹 and add 고 싶어요 (go shipeoyo, space intended) to form 먹고 싶어요 (meoggo shipeoyo) which means “want to eat”. Here again, you can see that the usage is similar to Japanese, but the words look completely different. Likewise, for the formal-polite ending, you take the verb stem and add either ㅁ니다 (mnida) or 슴니다 (seumnida).
Turning Nouns into Verbs
One feature they both share is the way they change nouns into verbs. In Japanese, you can take any Chinese-based compound-word (or “kango” 漢語) and add the verb する (suru), which just means “to do”. You can do this with quite a few nouns, in fact.
Likewise, in Korean, you can pretty much do the same thing with the verb 하다 (hada) which also means “to do”. Korean also has many Chinese-based compound-words and all you have to do is put 하다 after them and you get a verb.
In fact, the Japanese words and Korean words often sound very similar due to the common Chinese origin. While the conjugation of native verbs is quite different, this part has been very easy for me, since I’ve seen these words before.
Turning Verbs into Nouns
In both Korean and Japanese, you can turn a verb into a noun by appending the generic noun for that language: In the case of Korean, you by drop 다 and add 기, so for the example above. In Japanese you can use either こと (koto) or の (no) directly after the verb, though there are some edge-case rules for which one to use. For example:
- 먹기 (meoggi) – The act of eating.
- 食べること (taberu koto)、食べるの (taberu no) – The act of eating.
This is generalizing things a bit, but note that the rules are pretty similar. In Korean you can also often change a verb into a noun by adding 는것 (neun keot), which means “the fact of eating”. It’s similar, but a little different. In Japanese, the example above would be used in both cases.
Why talk about adjectives here? Because the approaches between Japanese and Korean are one aspect of the two languages that are pretty different and relate to this post.
Japanese has two types of verbs: ii-adjectives and na-adjectives. The ii adjectives have an “i” ending い and often have a double いい at the end. These will conjugate a certain way, as Tae Kim explains clearly. The na-adjectives are supposedly words imported long again (ii adjectives are “native”) and have a different, unique way to conjugate.
Korean is completely different though because adjectives conjugate very similar to verbs. This means that they have a present-tense (i.e. ongoing state), past-tense and such like verbs. There are differences between verbs and adjectives in Korean, but suffice to say, adjectives in Korean resemble verbs unlike in Japanese.
Unlike a lot of Europeans languages, neither Japanese nor Korean have inflection. This means that the verb doesn’t change depending on who speak (I eat, you eat, we eat, etc) unlike Latin, Spanish, French, etc. Also, in both languages, it’s common to drop the subject (I, you, we) if it’s already understood, and this means you have to use the context of the sentence to determine who’s doing what.
This can be difficult when you first learn Japanese or Korean, because if you struggle to understand context, you might misunderstood who did what. This takes a lot of time and exposure to the language to get used to it. You’ll develop an intuitive sense.
Transitive and Intransitive Verb Pairs
Both Japanese and Korean have verb pairs, where one verb is transitive (takes an object) and the other is intransitive and does not take an object, but does describe a state.
I studied Japanese years before I started studying Korean, and it’s been an interesting adventure to see the similarities and differences. To me, it helps to show the origins and interactions between the two languages and cultures over thousands of years.
While I have much more experience with Japanese than Korean, I hope this comparison proves useful. It is thin on details, but hopefully helps provide an overview.
P.S. Because of the similarities in usage I often find it much easier to look up Korean words in a Korean-Japanese dictionary than an English one. Not always but especially for common everyday words.
1 Same thing happened to English after the Normans invaded, and Middle French was the language of the court. It had a dramatic effect on English within 100 years. Given that many clans from the Korean Peninsula emigrated to Japan in the ancient history, it’s possible the same effect happened. This is a wild guess though.