Monday, March 24, 2014

The vagaries of loan words and their forgotten equivalents, Korean-only movements in Korea

This post is actually a comment on this post, which I could have actually posted as a comment on the Marmot's Hole, but didn't because I'm too scared. That Marmot's Hole post comments on this BBC story about a Japanese man who sued NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, for "mental distress" caused by too many English words on the air.

He is a member of a Japanese group that advocates for the use of Japanese equivalents of English loan words. The comment thread, as is typical on the Marmot's Hole or any other open discussion on the Internet, mixes the uninformed with those who inform. Some people relished the notion, apocryphal as it may be, of young Koreans saying that they don't have any 계피 (the Korean word for cinnamon), but readily putting a dash of cinnamon when asked for 시나몬 (a transliteration of the English word). There's some bizarre joy taken by Internet commenters in stupid young, hip Koreans misusing English and moving away from the beauty of pansori and red bean (I have no idea how old the people commenting at the Marmot's Hole are, or where they live, but I hope for the sake of consistency that they're all Korea specialists in their 40s who have lived in Korea since at least before the IMF crisis).

I was sympathetic to the apocryphal story, though, because:

1) Something about living in Korea can make people more cut-throat about language in ways they might not be elsewhere. I feel it's related to the emphasis on native-speaker proficiency, usually related to English and usually coming from Koreans. The truth is that native speakers constantly don't know words in their own language. Would every 20-year-old working at a Starbucks know what cumin was? How about turmeric? Ask the nearest Chinese person to write down the Chinese character for 'sneeze'.

2) Sometimes it's easy to forget the equivalent word in your native language. Two examples I often discuss are from Urdu, where I can't think of a way to talk about chicken or being at work without sounding overly conservative or formal. I would add the caveat that my Urdu proficiency is only better than the Urdu proficiency of those who have none, but I'm pretty sure that you could easily stump university-educated speakers of Urdu or Korean by asking them for the native-language equivalents of common loan words which which they have no familiarity or which are seldom used. Start with blueberry if you're Korean, as this menu from the inter-Korean family reunions shows the native Korean (?) word for blueberries, 들쭉.

Korean has its own unique uses of chicken. The rough guide seems to be something like this: if you're eating Korean food, you use a Korean word for chicken, but if it's Western food, you use the English word. There are exceptions (파닭), of course, but it goes with things like 팝송 (pop song), which is just 'pop song' transliterated, but refers only to decades-old Western pop songs.

Finally, I'd like to touch on movements aimed at protecting the Korean language. Although Korea, like France, has a government body that manages Korean, there is comparatively little appetite for Korean-only movements in any sense of the word. One of the few noticeable concessions is that shops in the Insadong and Gwanghwamun areas have their names in Korean instead of English. Another is the ongoing movement for "pure Korean" (순우리말, literally "purely our language"), which reminds Koreans of Korean equivalents to words of Chinese origin, e.g. 씨밀레 for 친구 (friend). Of course, that the campaign is put on by broadcasters with names like EBS probably makes it more of a losing battle, as does the fact that so much of Korea's tradition is written in Chinese characters.

There is probably something to be said about a campaign, even one that doesn't catch on, for linguistic purity of this sort. It reminds me of angry letter-writers who wrote to Canadian newspapers chiding them for abandoning the Queen's English and spelling grey as gray, or their Quebecois counterparts who obsess over the status and positioning of the French language in Quebec, both figuratively and literally. What makes Korea somewhat odd is that protection of its language seems to be fairly compartmentalized.

There don't seem to be any laws or widespread movements against English-like gibberish or English-for-the-sake-of-it when it comes to marketing or products that are seen as being modern or even slightly Western. A typical example is this picture from a Starbucks, which uses the English word 'food' transliterated, despite the fact that it sounds nearly identical to the English word 'pooed', for no obvious reason. Another example is this ad from Hewlett Packard Korea, which is typical for advertising copy by being half in English (I once spent a bored hour at a cafe conducting a case study that indicated roughly 50-60% of the words on the cover of magazines or in advertising were in English or transliterated English).

Given that Korea is constantly importing English words into its own language and using them in ways, and with meanings, that are markedly different from the original, there isn't really much appetite for Korean-only movements of any sort. However, Koreans at the same time would widely support knowledge exporting their language and their alphabet to other countries, with the idea being that it is unique and individual. They would also, like someone who wants to buy books that look pretty on a shelf and don't need to be read, support a purer culture and language in certain official or ceremonial contexts (Hangul Day on October 9, or around Insadong), as long as it doesn't interfere with the salad bar at Mr. Pizza.

1 comment:

Michel Lamblin said...

I liked this post, and often chuckle at the amount of hangeulized English found in department stores and cafes.

As for 들쭉, I think that refers to the northern or bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), not the common blueberry. 들쭉 and bilberries are what are commonly, though mistakenly, thought of as wild blueberries. The Wikipedia entry in Korean seems to suggest 들쭉 are (still) found in Korea, as they are in much of China and Japan, as the bilberry (apparently different from the northern or bog bilberry) are found in Europe, and all over Finland (where I lived for some time and was also confused how in Finnish, as in many European languages, there is just one word [mustikka] for both blueberries and bilberries).

So maybe it's the case that there never was a word for a proper blueberry before in Korean, and those imported from Spain or the US, or likely through the army bases, were rightly seen as different from 들쭉.