Wednesday, July 08, 2009

물고기와 생선

Until this morning, I thought I knew the difference between "물고기" and "생선" but the truth is, I have yet to see the complete picture.

What I have understood about "물고기" is that it means fish that is alive and "생선" is fish that is died. However, I became uncertain when my teacher asked the following questions:

1. What do you call those fishes that are died and floating on the river?
2. What do you call those live fishes that are sold in a fish market?

For question one, the answer is "물고기" although the fish is died. For question two, it is "생선" despite the fish being alive.

Dead or alive does not clearly differentiate "물고기" from "생선" and neither do the place, where the fishes are seen, differentiate them. The answer actually lies in how a person perceive a fish. Is a fish an animal or food? If he is looking at a fish as an animal, then the fish is "물고기" to him. However, when he starts to see a fish as a food which he has intention of eating, then the fish becomes "생선" to him.

I am writing this post not really to record what I have learnt today but more to highlight the 'peculiarity' of Korean language. In this instance, there are two Korean words which describe the word 'fish' but there is also situation whereby one Korean word describes two 'different' things. For example, "푸르다" can mean both blue and green colour. If I am to explain this 'peculiarity' briefly, "푸르다" is not exactly a word for colour but rather a perception of colour. Perception is not something exact, hence "푸르다" gains its 'duality' nature once after being translated into English.

I perceive Korean as 'peculiar' because I am looking at it from English language's perspective but if I am to change my perspective to that of a native Korean, I guess, what used to be peculiar would become something natural. Everything is about perception here.


  1. ㅋㅋㅋ i do remember these 2 words cos when i saw a painting of fish with my friend, i suddenly said 생선 and she laughed ㅋㅋㅋ

    looks like, what's on my mind is always 생선 instead of 물고기 ㅎㅎㅎ

    original time stamp: 9 July 2009 09:17

  2. ㅎㅎㅎ so interesting ^^

    fortunately, you didn't point at the fish and said "선생" ㅋㅋㅋ

    we all learn from our mistake, don't we?

    original time stamp: 9 July 2009 13:29

  3. what i find strange though is the 고기... usually for other meat it's 불고기 소고기, but strangely the 물고기 is not the one meant to be eaten.
    Yeah the 선생 - 생선 is actually really funny. I guess a lot of students who attends classes with teachers know 생선 because of 선생. My first Korean professor said (pleaded) at the beginning of the class not to call her 생선님. She said she was so sick of it the previous semester. Apparently a lot of students were confused and ended up calling her 생선님 from time to time. ㅋㅋㅋ

  4. Fascinating post....

    It made me think though... it's more than that, looking at the etymology of the words:
    "물고기" is literally "water meat/ meat (from the) water."--it's more like "FISH as live prey/ soon to be food."
    "생선" is Sino-Korean for "alive/raw & fresh" (生鮮) & it's more like "FISH as prepared food on a plate, ready to be eaten." Or perhaps "fish AS INGREDIENT."
    (Most probably first & commonly prepared sashimi-style, thus "raw & fresh.")

    It has similarities of the Japanese term "sakana" which means "fish" now but the etymology is actually "dishes to go with sake."
    So i feel that fish has been such an integral part of Japanese & Korean diet that the words for the living animal is just "A THING THAT'S FOOD (or GOING TO BE FOOD SOON)"--kind of like rice, which is synonymous to food in many Asian cultures.

    Of course 생선 doesn't mean "raw fish" nowadays... just "seafood" i suppose. Sashimi-style raw fish is 회 (膾)--an ancient Chinese term which meant "shredded/chopped up raw meat," which the Chinese stopped eating during the Yuan/Ming dynasty (earlier pollution around the continental seas, perhaps, or Mongol dietary influences)
    육회 (肉膾) is obvious clarifying that it's "MEAT (=beef) that is chopped up."
    膾 is also the etymological parent of Vietnamese "goi"--their shredded raw salads.

  5. How to say the cat eat fish?do i should use 물고기 or 생선.i'm still confuse with this

  6. How to say the cat eat fish?do i should use 물고기 or 생선.i'm still confuse with this