How comes that ㄴ/은 expresses present for adjectives and past for verbs? I am particularly interested in etymological reasons from a grammatical point of view.

For example, in Japanese the auxiliary (助動詞) used to express past is た(ta) and this is consistent both for verbs and adjectives (for example, 食べる(taberu) becomes 食べた(tabeta) in past form and 高い(takai) becomes 高かった(takakatta) (高く(takaku)+あった(atta)))

Are ㄴ/은 some sort of auxiliaries like in Japanese or something completely different?


For example, why do they function differently in those sentences (from this answer)

밥 먹 사람 -- The person who ate rice (past)
날 -- A cold day (present)

I would nevertheless be interested in the parallels and differences of Japanese and Korean about this point.

  • I am sorry but I can't because I do not have any examples where I find ㄴ/은 confusing (since my korean abilities or more or less reading hangeul) (and I suppose they are not confusing as long as we can discriminate verbs and adjectives). This question is a follow up of this comment. I ask this question not because I will be able to understand its answer now but more because it may be useful in a near future. So I don't think I am able to grant your request sorry.
    – Lyle
    Jul 16, 2016 at 8:32
  • I can't deny that I would be interested to see an answer based on my understanding of Japanese. The other possibility you mention (asking an explanation of those examples) is also interesting because I am not sure that we can assume familiarity of other users with Japanese since we're on korean.se.
    – Lyle
    Jul 16, 2016 at 8:44

2 Answers 2


Japanese verbs have the same form whether predicative or attributive. (The only exception is the copula, which is da or desu when used predicatively and na when used attributively.)

However, this is not the case in the Korean language. Korean puts an attributive verb ending(관형사형 전성어미) to make a verb or an adjective behave as an attributive, and these endings have innate tense that is different from the verb tense. For example, 죽다(to die) in the attributive past tense form is 죽은, while in the verb past tense form is 죽었-.

그가 어제 죽었다. "He died yesterday."

어제 죽 그 "he who died yesterday"

Korean adjectives are considered present tense by default. This explains why adjectives do not take present-tense verb endings in the predicative position.

산이 높다. "The mountain is high."

*산이 높다. (X)

This also applies to the attributive form. It does not take present-tense attributive verb ending "는". Instead, it takes ㄴ/은 for the present form, which is a past form for verbs.

*높 산 (X)

산 "a high mountain"

Attributive adjectives take -던 for the past-tense, which can be taken by a attributive verb too, though the meaning is a little different from 은.

산 "a mountain that was high"

그 "he who was dying"

그 "he who is dead"

Let's go back to the Middle Ages. Middle Korean had no tense, like Chinese. The now extremely common verb tense pre-endings -었-, -는-, -겠- were nowhere to be found. Instead, Middle Korean used moods. There were four major moods in Middle Korean, and each mood mapped to several tenses. enter image description here

As you can see, the attributive form is just -ㄴ added after the predicative endings. (-린 is special, the ㅣㄴ dropped very often, and used like -ㄹ most of the time.)

  • The indicative mood(직설법) was a grammatical device which was used to objectively describe something that is happening, almost always in the present. It normally couldn't be put on an adjective, because adjectives describe a state, and a state can't be actively happening. But in the case when it did, the adjective was used like a verb, meaning "to become such state".

  • The aorist mood(부정법), sometimes called infinitive mood, primarily indicated a fact, which happened in the past when the word is a verb, and is in the state right now when it's a adjective.

  • The retrospective mood(회상법) was used to describe a recalled memory, which can be both past and present.

  • Presumptive mood(추측법) was used to describe a supposed situation or a will, which has little to do with the truth. So it was often used to describe the future.

Then starting from the 18th century, Korean shifted to a new set of TAM(tense-aspect-mood) system. Past -었-, present -는-, and future -겠- was introduced, and the original mood system got largely abandoned.

But not completely. In the attributive position, the mood system partially survived. But the current tense system overpowers the historical mood system, so we say that -은/는 (directly derived from Middle Korean aorist -ㄴ) is a past tense on a verb and present tense on an adjective, when really, it's just a remnant of the original aorist mood.

So that's why adjectives can't take 는 (derived from Middle Korean indicative -ᄂᆞᆫ-) in Modern Korean(except for 없는). According to the Middle Korean grammar, *높는 산 would mean "a mountain which is becoming higher", which is clearly not what we want to describe. Also, that part of the grammar is no longer in use in Modern Korean(it's wrong), and is replaced with something like 높아지는 산, with -아/어지- which makes an adjective into a verb.

  • Thank you. I think I understand in Korean attributive( 連体) and predicative (終止) forms have not merged. That also explain why my book started by presenting 죽었 for expressing past, leaving ㄴ/은 for later.
    – Lyle
    Jul 16, 2016 at 9:19
  • 1
    I see this has been accepted, but does it actually answer the question asked? As far as I can tell, it basically just restates the question: “[The attributive form for adjectives] does not take the present-tense attributive verb ending "는". Instead, it takes ㄴ/은 for the present form, which is a past form for verbs” — that’s exactly what the question is asking. Why is this form the present attributive form for adjectives, but the past (non-continuous/preterital/aorist, judging by your examples) attributive form for verbs? Are they separate endings that just happen to be identical? Jul 16, 2016 at 12:12
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet I actually did some research before I answered, but I doubted OP actually wanted to know about it. I thought that all he really wanted to know was the grammatical difference between Korean and Japanese on this matter, not some full in-depth linguistic explanation about the etymology and the history behind tense in Korean. If you really want to know more about this, you should open a new thread and I could do more research and try my best at answerig it.
    – MujjinGun
    Jul 16, 2016 at 16:03
  • I may have misread the question, but as I read it, it is primarily about the historical/etymological developments that led to the system being the way it is now in Korean, with the Japanese parallel just being there by way of comparison. Jul 16, 2016 at 16:31
  • 1
    Uh.. no, you got the question sligtly wrong. The question is asking why -은 is past tense when used with a verb(e.g. 먹은 밥), and present tense when used with an adjective(e.g. 높은 산). "Why the inconsistency in Korean, when there is no such inconsistency in Japanese?" That is not a misunderstanding, it's a legit question. Also, Korean does use 먹었던, its meaning is slightly different from 먹은.
    – MujjinGun
    Jul 17, 2016 at 9:01

How comes that ㄴ/은 expresses present for adjectives and past for verbs?

First of all, ㄴ/은 doesn't express tense for adjective at all and '예쁜' is the basic form of the adjective used attributively while '예쁘다' is the basic form of the adjective used predicatively. Do the English words 'beautiful' and 'pretty' have any tense expressed in them? No. However, Korean (and Japanese) has the past form of the adjective '예쁘다' used attributively, '예뻤던'.

For example:

예쁜 여자 A pretty woman

뻤던 여자 A woman who was pretty. (Now she is not pretty.)

예쁘지 않은 여자 An unpretty woman.

예쁘지 않았던 여자 A woman who was not pretty. (Now she is pretty.)

As you can notice, "뻤던" and "았던" have the same function as "었던" in "먹었던" below.

'은' in '먹은' doesn't indicate the tense, but a completed aspect. The Korean language developed both '먹은' and '먹었던' and chose to use '먹은' more often than '먹었던' because there is no significant difference in their respective meaning, however, the Japanese Language chose to use '먹었던' equivalent, i.e., '食べた' both attributively and predicatively.

  1. 朝(あさ)ご飯(はん)を食べた人(ひと) A person who had (ate) breakfast

  2. 아침(밥)을 먹 (or 먹었던) 사람 A person who had (ate) breakfast

  3. 朝(あさ)ご飯(はん)を食べた Subject had breakfast.

  4. 아침(밥)을 먹었다. Subject had breakfast.

If you contrast No. 1 with No. 3, you will notice that the past predicative form and the past attributive form of 食べる are the same, 食べた. Syntactically, if you want to use the closest form of 食べた in No. 2, you should use '먹었던' which is the attributive form of the past form '먹었다'. However, you don't need to use '먹었던' in the sentence because using '먹은' is concise and there is no difference in meaning except that using '먹었던' is used when you want to emphasize a completed action. I think that's where your confusion is originated.

밥을 먹은 사람 A person who had breakfast.

밥을 먹었던 사람 A person who had breakfast. A person who had breakfast in the more remote past.

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