Eating deliciously

Yesterday a Korean professor showed me a paper by one of his students and asked me to guess whether it was written by a native speaker of English. Within one sentence, I knew not only that it was written by a foreigner, but that the writer was Korean.

Of course, with a Korean professor handing me a paper on Korean studies and asking me that question, I could guess before I read anything that it was written by a Korean student. But within one sentence, I knew. How?

Because the student wrote that a certain topic is “controversially debated.” That phrasing, with the weird adverb, is a sure sign of Korean thinking. In Korean, adverbs have a much wider range of signification than they do in English. In English, an adverb modifies a verb, changing the way the verb’s action is carried out. You can run, or you can run quickly, or you could even run stupidly, and however you do it, it’s about the act of running. But in Korean, you can use an adverb to create a general sense or feeling around how a verb occurs. For example, Koreans have a set phrase for the beginning of a meal: 맛 있게 드세요 (mashitge teuseyo), which literally means “eat deliciously.” In English, that makes no sense. The act of eating can’t be done in a delicious way. But in Korean, it’s perfectly normal: “deliciously” is the feeling that should accompany the action.

So back to that “controversially debated.” In native English, you’d probably need to say that the topic “is the subject of debate and controversy,” or that it’s “hotly debated.” “Controversially,” when it modifies the action of debating, means that the very act of debating engenders controversy — that someone thinks there shouldn’t be any debating — when the intended meaning is that there is an atmosphere or feeling of controversy that accompanies the debate.

So in English, adverbs tell you how an action occurs, while in Korean, they can tell you what feeling an action engenders. Which makes sense, when you know Korean and Anglo-American culture. English is set up to give you precision about external action, while Korean is set up to give you nuanced precision about social relations. It makes sense that a grammar construction that’s used in English to tell you what’s happening is used in Korean to tell you how it feels.