My late philosophy tutor Bob Hargrave ran a sect of supporters of the radical philosophical views of the grammarian V.H. Dudman. One of the surviving members has indicated it might well prove useful for me to present some evidence from Korean in favour of one of Dudman’s key theses. That thesis is that natural languages have no future tense. He claims that purported future tense sentences are statements of the conclusions of inductive inferences.

Three caveats, all of which I might in the future try to rectify, should the information I present here prove to be academically useful. Firstly, I’m not going to discuss Dudman’s views themselves in this quick blog post, mainly because I have not looked at them for more than a year. A reading list prepared by Bob may be found on this archived copy of his website. Secondly, I am not in the least bit conversant with the academic study of Korean linguistics, so I shan’t be saying anything about or citing any material from that field. Thirdly, my Korean level is uncertified and relatively low. I’ve been studying inconsistently for two years. This being said, I am confident in my understanding of the meaning and usage of the two simple grammatical forms which I discuss in this blog post.

Some elementary facts about Korean. Since the early twentieth century, almost all Korean has been written in the hangeul alphabet.[1] This alphabet is not quite perfectly phonetic, as the Korean language has evolved over time. However it is close enough that in order to explain what I want to explain to readers totally unfamiliar with Korean, I can work with the writing system directly with almost no transcriptions into the Latin alphabet. The reader is invited to consider the evidence I present in terms of the syntax of hangeul, and imagine an isomorphism between hangeul and the spoken language.

Korean is highly contextual. What does not need to be said is not said, including, for example, the subject of a sentence, which is compulsory in English declarative sentences. This explains the wide variety of possible meanings in English for a single one of my examples below.

Some consonants of hangeul are ㅎ, ㄹ, ㅇ, ㅁ, ㄱ, ㅅ and some vowels are ㅓ, ㅣ, ㅕ, ㅜ, ㅗ, ㅠ. These are put together into uniformly sized blocks where each block represents a spoken syllable. These syllables have a starting consonant and at least one vowel, and then optionally an final consonant: 하 ha has no such consonant; 한 han has one.

Korean verbs and adjectives start in their dictionary form, ending in 다. Korean sentences list the subject, object, indirect object etc., suffixed with particles to indicate which of these they are, and then conclude with a verb or adjective conjugated as a predicate. Different conjugation patterns give various shades of meaning. A verb or adjective may be conjugated as a modifier rather than a predicate. It is then placed before the noun it is to modify, which is suffixed as usual with a particle indicating its grammatical position. Here is a case of the adjective 맛있다, to be delicious, in both of those roles, in the present tense. ‘것’ means something like ‘thing’.

이 것은 맛있어.
This thing is delicious.

이 것은 맛있는 것이야.
This thing is a delicious thing.

Verbs and adjectives are given past meaning by adding the suffixes 았 or 었; the choice depends on the final vowel of the verb stem. This is the only non-idiomatic way to have a sentence-concluding predicate say something about the past. By contrast, there are a variety of ways to say something about the future, and crucially for Dudman, all these forms may be used to express conclusions of uncertain, non-deductive inferences about the past, present or future.

I will give examples of these various usages of the two most common ways to say something about the future. Pay close attention to the variety of meanings, that isn’t possible with 았/었 alone. 어요 and 다 are conjugations from the dictionary form into the present or past tense whose differences are irrelevant.

It will be delicious. / It’s going to be delicious.

It looks delicious. / I guess that it is delicious. / Based on what you’ve said, I think it’s delicious. / Maybe it’s delicious.

It must have been delicious. / It sounds like it was delicious. / It seems to me that it was delicious. / It was probably delicious. (here 었 and 겠 are used together)

잘 모르겠어요.
I don’t know well. (모르다: to not know; 잘 well (adverb). Here 겠 just makes the sentence a bit less direct; this is a very common fixed expression one might use to one’s superior in the strictly hierarchical Korean culture. I hear it almost every day.)


This ending converts a verb into a modifier with future or unactualised meaning. 을 or ㄹ is selected based on the presence or absence of a final consonant in the preceding syllable. Here are some of its uses as a modifier, not as part of a sentence, to show how it works:

내릴 문
the doors you will leave the train from (내리다: to get off e.g. a train; 문: door(s)).

요리할 수
a way or method of cooking (요리하다: to cook; 수 way or method)

This latter is used with the verb 있다, the verb of existence, to express possibility:

요리할 수 있어요.
He can cook.

Now for the sentences:

내일엔 요리할 것이야.
Tomorrow I will cook. (lit. concerning the point in time tomorrow, it is a cooking thing)

맛있을 것이야.
It will be delicious. / It’s probably delicious. / It sounds delicious. / It looks delicious. / I guess that it’s delicious etc.

맛있었을 것이야. It was probably delicious. / It sounds like it was delicious. / Based on what you’ve said it seems to me that it was delicious. (here the past tense marker 었 is combined with this grammatical form)

맛있었을 것니?
Do you think it was delicious?


[1] /Hangeul/ was invented in the 1400s but it took several centuries to fully displace a convuluted application of classical Chinese characters. The first syllable, han, is the Korean pronunciation of the classical Chinese character 韓 which means Korea. The second syllable, geul, is the native Korean word for markings, script or writing.

Developed before any of the scientific apparatus of modern linguistics had been developed, let alone transferred west to east, hangeul could easily be thought Korea’s greatest academic achievement.