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How Korean grammar differs from Japanese: Negation

Hangugeo and Chosonmal, both of which mean 'Korean language,' written in hangul.

Hangugeo and Chosonmal, both of which mean ‘Korean language,’ written in hangul.

Korean grammar and Japanese grammar have a lot in common. They both use SOV word order and lots of particles; distinguish between “noun-adjectives” and “verb-adjectives”; don’t conjugate for plural, gender, or number; and are agglutinative (meaning they form structures by combining discrete parts with distinct meanings). However, Korean grammar is not exactly the same as Japanese grammar. For instance, negation is different.

In Japanese, verbs (and verb-adjectives) are negated by conjugation. (Strictly speaking, this could also be considered suffixation.) A verb nai that means ‘to not exist’ or ‘is not’ is added after a verb stem.


For example:


Verb:                         iku ‘to go’ or ‘[I/you/he/she/it] goes/is going/will go’

Verb stem:                  ik

Negative:                     nai ‘is not; does not exist’

Negated verb:             ikanai ‘to not go’ or ‘doesn’t go/isn’t going,’ etc.

Example:                    kare wa Tokyo ni ikanai ‘He isn’t going to Tokyo [with the rest of us].’


Korean can also conjugate verbs in this way. A verb anta that means ‘to not do’ can be added to the end of a verb. However, in Korean this is not the most colloquial or common way to make it verbs. The most common way to negate verbs is to add an adverb an ‘not’ before the verb.


For example:

Verb:                            gada ‘to go’

Verb stem:                   ga

Negative:                     an

Negated verb:             an + ga + ayo [present tense] = angayo ‘[I/you/he/she/it] doesn’t go’


Alternately, and less commonly:

Negative verb: anta ‘does not do’

Negative stem:            an

Negated verb: gaji + an + ayo = gaji anayo ‘doesn’t go’


NB: The formal form gaji an sumnida is much more natural. Adding anta to conjugate verbs is more formal than using an, but not formal enough for most formal situations, so gaji anayo is rarely heard, according to Lesson 21 of Talk to Me in Korean (TTMIK). I’ve been using TTMIK audio lessons to learn Korean.

Japanese and Korean grammar are similar, but not the same. Besides negation, can you think of any other differences?


Kieran Maynard

Kieran Maynard

Writer, translator, researcher, traveler specializing in Japanese and Chinese literature.

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