Coming and going in Korean and English
May 27, 2008 2:35 AM   Subscribe

Languages: 'I'm coming' versus 'I'm going' in response to 'Come here!'

So one of my students and I were talking about this, and I didn't have a good answer. In English, when your Mom says 'Come here!' the normal response is 'I'm coming'.

In Korean, the response translates directly to 'I'm going'. There's an interesting shift in perspective there (in English, I'm coming to you from your POV, in Korean I'm going over there from my POV), or interesting to me, at least, and one that I can't really explain, even by pulling explanations out of my butt, which is, I admit, my wont sometimes.

It's odd, because given the individual/group-centric cultural tendencies in play, I would have expected the opposite result. I expect that it may just boil down to English's tendency to respond to a question (unless it's 'do') or command using the same verb previously used, but I wonder if there's more happening.

So, yeah, two part question. Anybody have any ideas what's going on here, and for our speakers of other languages, which way do the languages you know express the motion in this situation?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Spanish is "I'm going."

(I've thought about this too and look forward to reading the responses.)
posted by veggieboy at 3:20 AM on May 27, 2008

I'm up way past my bedtime so this'll be a little brief, but if you're willing to wade through technical linguistic literature, you might try searching for articles on "deictic motion/movement verbs" (as well as other variations like "direction verbs"). A little searching produced a dissertation about coming and going verbs in Spanish, German, and Polish, which contains a nice overview of the history of the study of such verbs.

Fair warning: dense.
posted by The Tensor at 3:35 AM on May 27, 2008

Portuguese: going.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:41 AM on May 27, 2008

French is "J'arrive," which translates to "I am arriving." That doesn't help much, does it?
posted by mkb at 3:42 AM on May 27, 2008

Oh, but it's not literally "going". It's more something like "I'll go right now" ("now" not being litteral, it could be "in a minute". Or two... You get the point.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:44 AM on May 27, 2008

Japanese: Going
(and it is coming to be one of my never-endingly repeated mistakes)
posted by whatzit at 3:49 AM on May 27, 2008

Mother: "Kocchi ni kinasai!" (Come here!)
Child: "Hai, ima ikuyo!" (Yes, I'm going now!)

...would be the Japanese answer. So, Korean style. On preview, whatzit beat me to it.

This question reminds me of the problem I still have (in that I have to think first before answering) with the difference between answering "yes" or "no" in English and Japanese. For example, in Japanese, if you're not feeling well and someone asks you a question phrased "negatively," like, "Taicho yokunai no? (Aren't you feeling well?)" in Japanese you'd answer, "Yes (Hai), I'm not feeling well." Whereas in English you'd say, "No, I'm not feeling well."
posted by misozaki at 3:55 AM on May 27, 2008

Dutch: "Ik kom", so that's one for the "I'm coming" category.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 4:00 AM on May 27, 2008

Actually, I just realized it is more complicated in Dutch, as you can also say "Ik kom er aan!" . It's pretty much the same as "Ik kom", but complicated to translate, but I'd say "I am getting there" would be close.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 4:06 AM on May 27, 2008

Latvian: coming.

(can't write the actual words coz not sure how to add diacriticals here)

As an aside, my father once commented that languages tend to use a pursed-lips "sucking" word for "I" and a pouty, puckered one for "you". I pointed out that in Mandarin, it's exactly the opposite (wo / ni). I wonder if this feature appears in other Asian languages, because a quick survey of European languages that I'm at least vaguely familiar with suggest that he was correct...?
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:18 AM on May 27, 2008

Maybe some kind of related data point: My first partner's mother was 1st-generation American born Italian, of the Brooklyn variety. Often heard verb choices which were opposite of the expected, such as "Bring them upstairs", when being told to take something. Also, "Borrow me a pen" instead of "Lend me a pen". Whether this is some oddity of Brooklyn or the combination of that and Italian, I've no idea, being a properly raised WASP of the Midwestern variety.

German: "Ick komme". Just like the Dutch, without the ink-saving economy of minimalist spelling (sorry, couldn't resist).
posted by Goofyy at 4:30 AM on May 27, 2008

You'd always use "I'm coming" in Greek.
posted by ersatz at 4:38 AM on May 27, 2008

I usually use arrivo/sto arrivando (I'm arriving), but I've heard vengo (I'm coming) used as well. As a non-native speaker, though, I tend to shy away from the latter since it can be a double entendre, earning me the occasional ribbing or two in the past.
posted by romakimmy at 4:41 AM on May 27, 2008

^Goofyy: the "lend" vs "borrow" confusion is common in Portuguese as well. In Latin languages we only "lend", "borrow" doesn't exist, therefore the use of "borrow me a pen".

In the end it all comes down to language strategy. Some "come", others "go", and as to why it is that way, it is probably buried in language history, but I really think in the end it boils down just to "because".
posted by neblina_matinal at 4:55 AM on May 27, 2008

You might be interested in reading Charles Fillmore's Lectures on Deixis, which is an extremely readable discussion of some of the more subtle constraints on when and how English uses "come" and "go" in just such circumstances.
posted by redfoxtail at 5:07 AM on May 27, 2008

misozaki writes: in Japanese, if you're not feeling well and someone asks you a question phrased "negatively," like, "Taicho yokunai no? (Aren't you feeling well?)" in Japanese you'd answer, "Yes (Hai), I'm not feeling well." Whereas in English you'd say, "No, I'm not feeling well."

This has been a point of interest for me too... and of course, once you think about, the Japanese way is the correct way, logically speaking, to answer the question, no?

No? ...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:07 AM on May 27, 2008

Flapjax, this might be a hangover from before negation entered western thought. In the middle ages, double negatives where completly valid, adding emphasis.

" He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde "
"He never yet no rudeness not said"
Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
posted by munchbunch at 5:25 AM on May 27, 2008

As regards the main question, whilst it is tempting to try and interpret lexical differences as cultural differences, the reality is almost always more complicated than that.

Most likely a difference like this is arbitrary, what counts is that the speech act (confirming that you are in fact coming/going/arriving) is the same. You can ses a rough correlation amongst the West Germanic Languages mentioned so far, English, German, Dutch etc are "coming". But even there you'll run into trouble, for instance one that always got Germans learning English was the fact that in German when you order a drink "Man bekommt eine Cola", but in English you certainly don't "become a coke". Same word, same derivation from the same language, but usage couldn't be more different.

This is why you need pragmatics, the study of what people "mean", not what "technically" are they saying. In OPs case, there is no pragmatic difference, the markers each language uses to indicate it are different, but you shouldn't read anything into that.
posted by munchbunch at 5:41 AM on May 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think it's "I'm coming" in Mandarin.

"Come here": 过来
"I'm coming (already)": 我来了
posted by hellopanda at 6:24 AM on May 27, 2008

German: "Ick komme". Just like the Dutch.

Swedish: Jag kommer.

To orgasm: Jag gick. I went.

So in Swedish going is coming and cuming is going.
posted by three blind mice at 6:28 AM on May 27, 2008

Interesting question! But munchbunch is correct (about this, not about negation): it is a mistake to leap from language to culture. And (pace flapjax) it is also a mistake to try to equate language with logic. Basically, the answer to the first question is "each language (or language family) has developed its own habits, for reasons lost in the mists of time."

Flapjax, this might be a hangover from before negation entered western thought. In the middle ages, double negatives where completly valid, adding emphasis.

I have no idea what "before negation entered western thought" means; negation has been a part of thought in every language and culture I'm familiar with, and it's hard to see how it could not be. And double negatives are still "valid" (i.e., used and understood) even in English; in many languages, like the Romance ones, they're virtually mandatory.

posted by languagehat at 6:53 AM on May 27, 2008

Icelandic, like the other Germanic languages so far mentioned, uses "I'm coming," the form being "ég er að koma," usually pronounced "éra koma" (ye-rah koh-mah).
posted by Kattullus at 7:07 AM on May 27, 2008

Deixis is indeed a subject typically studied under the rubric of pragmatics, but pragmatics isn't precisely 'the study of what people "mean", not what "technically" are they saying,' either. It's been defined various ways, but the basic idea is that it's the study of the aspects of meaning that depend on the context in which a piece of language is uttered.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:58 AM on May 27, 2008

I think what he meant to say was more like "This might be a leftover from when double negatives were a common syntactical structure in English" (ex. Old and Middle English...not Western thought). That's just my guess.

Otherwise, I'd say that munchbunch and The Tensor (2nd comment) have it. The speech act is the same, but the lexical items for representing the each language's metaphorical structures of space and movement through space are (naturally) different.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:03 AM on May 27, 2008

French is "J'arrive," which translates to "I am arriving."posted by mkb at 3:42 AM on May 27 [+] [!]

Italian, too.
posted by JimN2TAW at 9:12 AM on May 27, 2008

All those other languages are wrong because if you say "I'm going", you could be going anywhere.

Mom - "Come here!"
Kid - "I'm going..." [under breath] " the mall"
posted by nomad at 9:27 AM on May 27, 2008

The real difference seems to be whether the reference point is the speaker or the listener.

In English, you are particularly looking at a special case, when you are talking about moving towards the listener. Normally, the speaker is the reference point:

1. He is going to the park. (= The speaker is not at the park)

2. He is coming to the park. (= The speaker is at the park, or expects to be at the park when "he" arrives)

But when the listener is the destination, suddenly we shift the point of reference from the speaker to the listener:

3. I am coming to your house.

Historically, this could have evolved for all sorts of reasons, and I'm not sure that the reason is definitively known. It is possible that this listener-perspective exception developed to express politeness towards the speaker. When the speaker is not the destination, English and Japanese and the like seem to align with each other just fine.
posted by kosmonaut at 9:50 AM on May 27, 2008

Yeah, the whole negation tangent that I went off on. With the "before negation entering western thought", that didn't make much sense. I was talking about negation as a component part of Predicate Logic, where ~~P is the same as P.

Applying this kind of negation in our language is a recent addition to western thought, as Predicate Logic is. Negation existed before then, but we didn't recognise the need to express it this way in our language. So in the quote, "He never yet no rudeness not said" means "he really really never said anything rude". So anyway, um... this relates because, maybe when we say ""No, I'm not feeling well." The "no" just adds emphasis, rather than its other use as the logical operator ~, which as flapjax correctly points out would mean you were contradicting yourself. So in English it makes sense to talk about two seperate ideas of negation: Negation 1 (of Chaucer) and Negation 2 (~). The difference being, with Negation 1 two wrongs don't make a right, and with Negation 2 they do.
posted by munchbunch at 12:20 PM on May 27, 2008

I think it's "I'm coming" in Mandarin.

From my imperfect memory of Mandarin study, I think that coming & going are expressed through a vertical metaphor - eg to go to work would be to "ascend" work, and to leave would be to "descend".

Can anybody more fluent confirm or deny this?
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:25 PM on May 27, 2008

Redfoxtail nailed it: it's called deixis.

Scott Thornbury (my tutor...I'm an MA student in TESOL) describes it in An A-Z of ELT as

"deixis grammar

Deixis (pronounced /daɪksɪs/, adjective deictic) describes the way language “points to” spatial, temporal, and personal features of the context ( reference). For example, in the sentence I have been here three weeks now, the referents (i.e. what is being referred to) by the words I, here, and now cannot be identified without knowing the context. The speaker’s location is (generally speaking) the deictic centre, and deictic expressions distinguish between “near the speaker” and “away from the speaker”. Thus, we interpret Come here now as meaning “come to where I am at this present moment of time”. A version of the example sentence that referred to events away from the deictic centre would be She had been there three weeks then.

In English, person deixis is a three-way system of first, second, and third persons (as in I, you, she). But spatial deixis distinguishes between only two points: near and far, as in here, there; this, that. (This is unlike some languages, which have a three-way distinction). The same near/far distinction applies to time (temporal deixis), so that we distinguish between now and then, the latter referring to either past or future, as in OK, I’ll meet you then.

The deictic system is sensitive to changes in perspective, as when we report what people say. So “I have been here three weeks now” becomes She said she had been there three weeks by then. ( reported speech). Deixis is also expressed by certain verbs, which have direction built into their meaning, such as come and go, and bring and take. The first of each pair means “towards the deictic centre” and the second means “away from it”: Guess who’s coming to dinner? Take the money and run. In English, the use of these verbs is complicated by the fact that (unlike Spanish, for example) we can project the deictic centre to the place where the person we are talking to is, as in I’m coming over to your place. What shall I bring? and not (usually) I’m going over to your place. What shall I take?

In the following extract from a play1 instances of deixis are highlighted:

SLOANE enters.

SLOANE. Ready? Come on1, then.

ED nods to KATH, waiting. She looks from one to the other. Notices the case.

KATH. Why is he2 taking3 his4 case?
ED. He5’s coming6 with me7. He8 can’t stay here9.
KATH. Why not?
ED. They10’ll suspect.


KATH. When is he11 coming back12?
ED. Day after next13.
KATH. He14 doesn’t need that15 big case. (She exits.)
ED. Get in the car, boy16.

1. spatial deixis: movement away from the centre but with the speaker
2, 5, 8, 11 14: person deixis = Sloane
3. spatial deixis: movement away from the centre
4. person deixis = Sloane’s
6. movement with speaker away from the centre
7. person deixis = speaker (Ed)
9. spatial = the centre
10. person = some other people who are not present, but who are known to the speakers
12. spatial = movement to the centre from further away
13. temporal deixis; next = the following day
15. spatial = referring to something not near the speaker
16. person (vocative) = Sloane"
posted by FunGus at 12:32 PM on May 27, 2008

Thanks, all.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:15 AM on May 29, 2008

Nobody mentioned this, but during orgasm, you say "I'm going!" (Ah, iku...)
posted by KokuRyu at 12:37 AM on July 9, 2008

In Japanese
posted by KokuRyu at 12:37 AM on July 9, 2008

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