[the palaverist]

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

[let me count the ways]

It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who asked every English major's favorite math question: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways." It is, of course, a question the poem utterly fails to answer, or even adequately explain.

If Browning were Korean, however, she might be able to put a number on it, or at least on the number of ways to say you love someone.

It all comes down to verb endings and their proliferation in Korean. I'm sure you're comfortable enough with verb conjugations that change the tense or person, but that's not what I'm talking about. Roadmap to Korean: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Language, by Richard Harris, provides a list of 18 different ways to say "I'm going to school" and 23 ways to ask "Do you know?". That's all with the same verb root, in the same tense and person. The shifts change the levels of politeness and formality, and some of them have subtle meaning shifts as well, like expressing surprise or leaving an open-ended feeling.

Fortunately, most of these verb endings are relatively rare. Still, it's discoveries like these that make me worry I'll never really grasp this language.



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