Thursday, May 05, 2011

Right when I do it, wrong when you do it

When English speakers move to Korea, there's a short grace period after which their near-obsession with the pronunciation of English loanwords in Korean becomes to sound a lot like a suburban housewife who went downtown, saw an unshaven bum and breathlessly told the story for weeks on end. Granted, the gratuitous use of English in many fields, marketing being one such case, is annoying and verges on being incoherent.

Rare is the Korean car commercial that doesn't finish with a native English speaker giving us an adjective, a noun and the name of the car, though never a sentence. We get things like "excellent luxury: the Hyundai Sonata". Korean Air has a commercial for its A380, scheduled to enter service next month, that uses the slogan "from 기대 to 놀라움". Korean Air also uses the car commercial (maybe it's a transportation thing?) tradition of using an American male to tell us their slogan. It's "Excellence in flight: Korean Air".

This is a case that bothers me, but it's different from what usually earns sophomoric jokes from Westerners, which is the use and pronunciation of English loanwords. For example, there's a very popular department store in Korea called Home Plus, along with its competitor E-Mart, roughly the Korean equivalents of Wal-mart.

The Korean language is unforgiving to consonant clusters notwithstanding words like 닭, 흙, 짧게 or 몫. So, a word like Home Plus becomes 'Home Peullawseu', turning one syllable into three. Of course, opposite examples, such as the one-syllable word for filial piety (효) being a six-syllable phrase in English, tend not to count for such people. Yes, it's probably interesting to someone who has been here for a few months, but when you could listen to an Australian and a Canadian have a half-hour conversation about this, or when someone injects this joke into an otherwise unrelated conversation, it's cringe-worthy.

Much of the humour comes from a sense that Koreans are so stupid that they can't even pronounce a simple English word like 'plus' or 'bus', always adding a syllable or two because of their innate stupidity and their innate ability to speak English. These same people, invariably, can't figure out Korean vowel sound and spend years talking about life in 솔, shopping at 덩대문 and 영산 and clubbing in 신천 or 신츤.

Generally, the worst speakers of Korean are English speakers because of the fact that it's easier to find an English speaker than a Chinese or Hindi speaker. So, there's generally very little incentive for an English speaker to ever learn Korean, similar to how someone who lives in a Koreatown overseas doesn't really need to learn English.

It's not that a failure to learn what is a very difficult language with sounds, grammar and context very different from English is a moral failure, but to equate the presence and usage of English loanwords in Korean with a limitless source of humour is thoroughly unjustified. Yes, 'livingtel' is not an English word and neither is 'libingtel', but is a security czar really a Russian king? Are political pundits actually that knowledgeable about Hinduism?

To hear them talk, it's not as though English has ever taken a word from another language, changing the meaning and pronunciation to fit linguistic and cultural circumstances. It's not as though English has its own bizarre set of rules and customs, ones which make the Korean idea of a sentence becoming more formal if you append 'imnida' seem like the most natural idea in the world.

This bizarre myopia is hardly a Western phenomenon. If you take ten Koreans and ask them to share three impressions they have of Japan or the Japanese, odds are you will hear the idea that the Japanese can't speak English. It's true that even major Japanese cities have less English signage than their Korean counterparts, and that you are less likely to be spoken to in English, but we're really just splitting hairs.

What's more comical still is the way Koreans take the Japanese to task: their English is awful because of the way they pronounce McDonald's, a pot-calling-the-kettle-black anecdote I've heard quite a few times. Both the Korean and the Japanese way of pronouncing McDonald's is so far removed from the English that you would have no idea what the person was saying unless you were both sitting under a Golden Arch chewing a Big Mac. In Korean, it's 맥도날드, pronounced make-dough-nahl-duh, while it's マクドナルド or Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do in Japanese. Ironically, the Japanese aversion to consonant clusters that makes Japanese easier to pronounce than Korean (try pronouncing Cheongnyangni) turns McDonald's into a six-syllable tour de force.

In a similar vein, while Western ideas sell in Korea, Eastern ideas do just as well in the West. Consider, for example, the Western obsession with yoga, martial arts and Buddhism. Think of how easy it is to open up a Chinese restaurant back home with some combination of the words "lucky", "dragon", "palace" and "garden". Once you've done that, all you have to do is play up your accent and sell a $6 plate of chicken and black bean sauce with their choice of steamed or fried rice.

If you want, you could just add some of your weirder dishes, make it taste worse and add a sign in Chinese. Then you have the sort of "authentic" place that hipsters can frequent, a Western equivalent of the man who once stopped me in a Subway to ask, in front of his kids, whether those sandwiches were "the same as in America".


Anonymous said...

The first part of the post could be labelled "Old man Adeel tells kids to stop making jokes he's heard too many times".

I like that Koreans are English hipsters. "Oh, Japanese people have better pronunciation? Whatever. Well, we've got English words. Everywhere. Some of them you've probably never even heard of. No big deal."

The Korean said...

Koreans have the perfect phrase for this: "남이 하면 불륜, 내가 하면 로맨스." ("Adultery if done by others, romance if done by me.")

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

my favorite example of the clumsy, cliched and stereotype-filled shorthand way asian cultures are portrayed in the west is in this post: how to design the cover for an asian novel:

Seadog said...

Ah, I've noticed your posts getting crankier over the past few weeks. It's like experiencing an Adeel-naissance. I like it.

Anonymous said...

When I saw Rob-o-SE-yo's name, I was like, "Oh man! I've read lots of his stuff before! That guy's a celebrity in the Korean blogosphere!" Then I felt deeply ashamed for thinking it and being a blogo-nerd.

Anonymous said...

(same with The Korea)

(sorry for spamming your comments)

Adeel said...

Whatever, I've met Rob. I think we sat on the same couch.

Rob-o-SE-yo said...

Thanks for the ego-bump, havediplomawilltravel. I'll be living off that one for weeks.

Truth be told, every time I think my blog is getting pretty famous or something, a humbling experience is quick to follow, cause let's be honest: famousest k-blogger is kind of like tallest hobbit.