Thursday, September 02, 2010

Stop! You can't mix 종이 and plastic!

"Lockaw-ga open imnida", a pleasant voice announced ("로커가 오픈입니다"). I was using a storage locker at a subway station when, all of a sudden, out of a confusing haze of Korean options, the voice abruptly switched to two English words. What made it amusing is that unlike, say, an MP3 player or ice cream, there are perfectly good words in Korean for both 'locker' and 'open'. Wouldn't it be easier and more comprehensible to say "보관이 열립니다"?

Few things make me as uncomfortable as mixing languages. It all started about 15 years ago when a Pakistani friend told me in English that "I had chawal for lunch". I was confused by the fact that he threw in the word for "rice" for no apparent reason. Later on, I grew to hate it more and more, as people who had been born in Canada randomly and needlessly mixed English and their choice of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.

My affinity for linguistic purity was made clear by my mom one day. Because I prattle on in English for hours about topics no one cares about, some older relatives were shocked to see that I even spoke Urdu. "He doesn't really speak it that well," my mom noted, "but when he does, he insists on speaking only Urdu." That's something of an anachronism among the Pakistani diaspora, for whom speaking in a mixture of English and Urdu is standard. I know of no way in Urdu to say that someone is at work, because we only say "wo job pay hai".

Mixing languages in Canada is probably a reflection of a mix of cultures. The 9-year-old that told me he had chawal for lunch had probably never eaten rice in a setting where it was called rice. Many words, of course, either do not translate or do not translate coherently. I don't call keema ground beef because that's like calling referring to coffee as ground beans roasted and then brewed. It's frequently better to use the original word.

The use of foreign words in a language is very different in Korea, however. I really just mean English words, though there is the odd Japanese or German word. Using English automatically makes anything higher-status, which is why most coffee shops and bars, as well as various stores, post their signs in English only. Some coffee shops go so far as to have a menu that's in English only. My personal favourite are magazines that have covers and titles in English, with everything else in Korean, because of the way it suckered me into picking them up for my first few months here.

I'm certainly not a fan of people who feel the need to toss in words from my language to make themselves feel superior to others. I except English words used in Korean either in a different way, or English words that don't really exist in English (one shot, hand phone, glamour, service, sign, call, talent, comeback, etc.). But the day I saw a magazine described as "seutailishi libing maygawjin" (stylish living magazine), I got a little angry, since there's already a way of saying that in Korean.

There are others who like to use only English words when talking about English. For example, they'll say they're only good at listening instead of 듣기, speaking with an extra syllable thrown in (suh-peaking) instead of 말하기 or 대화, grammar instead of 문법. There are those who like to take English words and turn them to Korean adjectives. I've seen sexy, which is an untranslatable word that makes sense, but also busy, nice and fresh, which is absurd since even a toddler would have the vocabulary to say that in Korean.


Jennifer said...

"Because I prattle on in English for hours about topics no one cares about..."

You prattle pretty well for someone whose first language isn't English. ;)

lisa. said...

Andre and I think Koreans must be somewhat judgmental. These are all very cute.