Let’s start off with a quick reminder that adjectives are descriptive verbs in Korean, because they include the meaning “to be” in their definition. Using verbs and adjectives we can easily create simple sentences like “My cat is orange.” or “My cat is sleeping.” Great. But what if I want to say “My orange cat is doing something.” or “My sleeping cat is…”? That’s what we’ll learn here. One of my favourite things about the Korean language is the ability to turn anything, even an entire clause, into a modifier– an adjective that describes an upcoming noun. Let’s start simple.
Here are 4 sentences, written in the “normal” way, conjugated in diary form:
이 노래가 좋다! ~ This song is good! (이 = this, 노래 = song, 좋다 = to be good)
그 남자는 똑똑하다. ~ That man is smart. (그 = that, 남자 = man, 똑똑하다 = to be smart)
우리 엄마는 버스를 탄다. ~ My mom rides the bus. (우리 = our, 엄마 = mom, 버스 = bus, 타다 = to ride)
(In Korean you say “our” when talking about your parents, even if you’re an only child.)
나는 선물을 받는다. ~ I receive a present. (나 = I, 선물 = present, 받다 = to receive)
Let’s create a chart to make sure we understand the verbs and adjectives here:
|좋다||좋||to be good|
|똑똑하다||똑똑하||to be smart|
Now let’s turn these into modifiers. We’ll have to learn 3 versions: Present tense, past tense, and future tense.
If the verb/adjective root ends in a consonant, add 은 and place it before the noun you wish to describe. If the root ends in a vowel, tack a ㄴ to that last syllable and place it before the noun you wish to describe. Simple as that.
But let me quickly explain one other thing before we look at our examples, so you aren’t confused. In English we place determiners (words that indicate possession) before adjectives in a sentence. “This good song” “My orange cat”. In Korean, determiners come after modifiers: “Good this song.” “Orange my cat”.
With that in mind, let’s convert the verbs in our four example sentences into past-tense adjectives. These sentences are going to sound extremely clunky in English, but they’ll give you a good sense for the meaning.
좋은 이 노래 ~ This song that was good.
똑똑한 그 남자 = That man who was smart.
버스를 탄 우리 엄마 ~ My mom who rode the bus.
내가 받은 선물 ~ The present I received.
Bonus time: If you watch Run BTS, you know that there are constant jokes around Jin’s name, and teams are always being named after him. This grammatical principle is a part of those jokes.
First of all, Jin’s name in Hangul is 진. Now, the verb 지다 means “to lose”. When you modify this verb as we just learned, to turn it into a past tense modifier, how does it change? First we drop 다, leaving us with 지. Then we add ㄴ and we get…. 진. So when they name a team 진팀 (Jin team), they have just named it “the team that lost”.
In the present tense we don’t care if our root ends in a consonant or a vowel. We add 는 either way.
But here’s an interesting thing. Adjectives get treated as past tense even in the present when we use this grammatical principle. Verbs do not.
좋은 이 노래 ~ This good song.
(Notice that because 좋다 is an adjective, the Korean sentence and its meaning are identical to the example from the “Past Tense” section.)
똑똑한 그 남자 ~ That smart man.
(Again, this is an adjective, so the sentence and its meaning are identical to the one from the “Past Tense” section.)
버스를 타는 우리 엄마. ~ My mom, who rides the bus.
(This one is a verb, so you can actually see the difference.)
내가 받는 선물 ~ The gift I receive.
If the verb/adjective root ends in a consonant, add 을 and place it before the noun you wish to describe. If the root ends in a vowel, tack a ㄹ to that last syllable and place it before the noun you wish to describe.
좋을 이 노래 ~ This song which will be good.
똑똑할 그 남자 ~ That man who will be smart.
버스를 탈 우리 엄마 ~ My mom, who will ride the bus.
내가 받을 선물 ~ The present I will receive.
Let’s have another chart to summarize:
|좋다||좋||좋은||좋은||좋을||to be good|
|똑똑하다||똑똑하||똑똑한||똑똑한||똑똑할||to be smart|
Okay, that took a while, but it’s actually pretty simple. However…
Let’s take it a step farther:
Remember that I said we can turn anything into a modifier. Not just simple verbs, but whole clauses can be used to describe an upcoming noun. And this isn’t a rare occurrence in the Korean language. It happens all the time.
This is one of the main challenges in translating a Korean song into English smoothly. Let’s look at some examples from The Truth Untold:
“푸른 꽃을 꺾는 손 잡고 싶지만…” ~ “I want to hold [your] hand that’s picking the blue flowers, but…”
푸르다 = to be blue
꽃 = a flower
꺾다 = to pick
손 = a hand
잡다 = to hold
-고 싶다 = to want to do X
-지만 = X but
- First we have 푸르다 turned into 푸른 to describe the word 꽃. So 푸른 꽃 = “blue flowers”.
- We could say “The hand is picking blue flowers” like this: 손 푸른 꽃을 꺾는다. But we want to say “the hand that is picking blue flowers”. So 꺾다 becomes 꺾는 and describes 손, and the object marking particle 을 gets added to 꽃 so it’s clear that what’s being picked is flowers. Now we have 푸른 꽃을 꺾는 손. “The blue-flower picking hand.”
- We complete the clause with 잡고 싶지만, which means, “I want to hold X, but…”
Whew! And that was a pretty simple one. I won’t take apart the next one (from the second chorus), but I just want to show you how far this can go. I’ll translate it literally here so you can sense how it works.
할 수 있는 건 정원에 이 세상에 예쁜 너를 닮은 꽃을 피운 다음 니가 아는 나로 숨쉬는 것.
“The I-can-do thing, in this garden, in this world, is, after the pretty-you resembling flower growing, the breathing as the me-who-is-known-by-you thing.”
Makes your head spin, right? We won’t even get it into it. But you should be aware of the power that this holds. It makes the language incredibly versatile, and I absolutely love it.
And it is often used in its very simplest form as well, as we first learned in this lesson, so keep your eyes open for it in the lyrics lessons. You’ll see it a lot.
잡은 손 절대 놓지 말아줘 ~ “don’t ever let go of the hand that you’re holding.”(literally “the hand that you grabbed”)
Original verb: 잡다 – to hold, to grab
웃고 있는 가면 속의 진짜 내 모습을 다 드러내 ~ “Now I’m revealing the real me hidden beneath this smiling mask.”
Original clause: 웃고 있다 – to be smiling
잠시 행복을 느낄 네 순간들이 있다면 ~ “If there are moments that will make you feel happiness for a bit”
Original clause: 잠시 행복을 느끼다 – to feel happiness for a bit.
우리가 함께 뛰어놀던 저 푸른 바다로 ~ “To the blue sea where we used to run around together.”
Original clause: 우리가 함께 뛰어놀다 – we run around together
Original adjective: 푸르다 – to be blue