Polysemy in Korean Verbs

It’s been a while since I’ve written here.  I’ve been pretty busy with the Spring semester.  Anyways, I was looking over my Korean journal recently, and focused a bit on some “polysemous” words.  I’ll take a look at a few of them here.

Polysemy is the phenomenon of words having diverse meaning – broad and branched.  That is, rather than having a single, unitary meaning, words have differing meanings depending on the broad context and on the words around it.  Most words are polysemous to some degree, some much more than others.  Note that polysemy is different from homonymy; two words are homonyms if they look / sound the same, but have completely unrelated meanings.  On the other hand, polysemy refers to the different meanings that a single word has, due to collocation, metaphor and semantic drift.  An English example of bank (of a river) vs. bank (financial institution).  Note the completely different etymologies.  An example of polysemy would be paper, which can refer to a sheet of paper, or a newspaper.  A very polysemous example is “light”.

I try to focus on the different meanings of a word sometimes in my studies.  Here are a few from my journal:

I. 더듬다 (타동사):

This is an interesting one, because it has (at least) 3 meanings, all of which are basically the same thing, but applied to a different part of the human: hand, mouth, and mind.

  1. fumble for, grope for, feel for:  e.g. 지팡이로 길을 더듬다, 주머니를 더듬다.
  2. stammer, stutter:  e.g. 말을 더듬다.
  3. try to think of something, try to recall it: e.g. 기억을 더듬다, 생각을 더듬다.

So these 3 both basically mean fumble for, first with one’s hand, then with one’s mouth / speech, then with one’s mind

II. 지르다 (타동사) (지르니 / 질러)

Many diverse meanings (possibly homophony in some cases, but I think there is a relationship; hard to tell), but the first is most common.

  1. yell, shriek, cry; used with an object: e.g. 소리를 지르다, 고함을 지르다, 비명을 지르다, &c.
  2. beat, strike, hit: e.g. 못을 지르다
  3. set fire: 불을 지르다
  4. take a shortcut: 길을 지르다
  5. stick into: e.g. 비녀를 지르다, 빗장을 지르다

This example shows the importance of collocation.  In some cases, the verb has one specific meaning with just one word, such as set fire, when 불(fire) is the object.

III. 떠나다 (자/타동사)

This one’s from an old journal, but worth revisiting.  It contrasts well with II, in that the meanings are much more similar.  Note the importance of the 조사s on the preceding noun: 서울을 떠나다 means the opposite of 서울로 떠나다.  3 is a bit strange, because I’d think it would be 여행으로 떠나다, but that’s not the case.  Meaning 4 is a good example of how metaphor contributes to polysemy.

  1. Leave a place (with 을/를): e.g. 집을 떠나다, 한국을 떠나다
  2. Leave for a place (with ~로): e.g. 서울로 떠나다
  3. Leave for vacation: 여행을 떠나다
  4. Die: 세상을 떠나다
  5. Quit a company, job, etc.:  e.g. 회사를 떠나다

That’s all for now.  I’ll try to post some more some time.

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