[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Democracy isn't language-bound

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[HEUNGBO'S GOURD]Democracy isn't language-bound

On Dec. 27, this page carried a letter from a reader suggesting that Koreans need to change their language if they really want to achieve "true equality across age and gender." Although the writer of the letter was an expatriate, he backed up his argument with quotes and examples from Koreans, probably to show that he was not simply expressing his own Western cultural prejudices.

He mentioned a JoongAng Daily article in which Choi Seong-hwa complained about the Korean subtitles on American TV shows like "Ally McBeal" because the dialogue was translated "so that the male characters speak to the women casually, while the women use honorific expressions to men." He also related an anecdote about a middle school girl who was harassed because she refused to use honorifics to students in higher grades, and he added that Koreans could learn a lesson from American feminists, who introduced the use of "Ms." as a title for women instead of "Miss" or "Mrs."

I don't mean to pick on the fellow who wrote the letter. I'm just using it as a jumping-off point because it seems to be representative of complaints I've heard over the years about the different levels of speech in the Korean language. In my experience, however, when Koreans make such complaints, it is not so much because of a feeling of inequality as because they sometimes find it difficult to be sure which forms are appropriate to use in a given situation or because they feel that someone else has slighted them by addressing them in forms that are too low or too familiar. When differences in speech levels are berated as reflecting "inequality" or "undemocratic attitudes," it is almost invariably a nonnative speaker of Korean who is doing the complaining. That is why I can't help wondering whether the examples the writer gave were not generated in one of those conversation classes where the teacher poses leading questions to get the students to talk.

It is a very common misconception that English is a "democratic" language whereas languages like Korean or Japanese oppress their speakers by forcing them to adhere in their speech to undemocratic habits that need to be obliterated. Many years ago in Daegu I heard an American acquaintance of mine address a primary school student very formally in order to ask directions. The student was obviously embarrassed, but answered as best he could and went on his way.

When I asked my friend why he had used such high forms, he said, almost indignantly: "I refuse to use low forms to anyone. It's just not democratic, so I address everybody the same, the way we do in English."

"But you wouldn't go up to a child in an English-speaking country and say, 'Excuse me, sir, but might I bother you for directions?'" I pointed out.

"It's not the same thing," he objected stubbornly. "In Korean it's built right into the verbs."

Well, that's true enough. It is indeed "built right into the verbs" in Korean, while in English such differences are shown by choosing different vocabulary and different turns of phrase. (Actually, Korean complicates matters by sometimes using different vocabulary as well as different verb forms.) Nevertheless, the fact remains that even in English, we don't speak to our bosses, our parents, or our teachers the same way we speak to our army buddy or the little kid next door. And if you've ever been through hazing in school, you'll remember that you weren't supposed to mouth off to upperclassmen the way you could with your fellow freshmen.

Men and women don't talk the same in either language, either. Listen to the conversation among the male and female workers in a Korean office, and you'll hear the women using the more polite "-yo" forms a lot more than the men. That explains why the subtitles in "Ally McBeal" are translated the way they are: They reflect the prevailing practice in an equivalent Korean office. The fact that women speak differently from men does not make them subservient or inferior to men. By the same token, having the Korean Language Academy declare that from this day forth women shall all have to speak just like men wouldn't guarantee social equality across gender lines either.

Language changes to suit the circumstances in which it is used, and the last century has seen tremendous changes in the Korean language, including the complete disappearance of the type of language that was used by slaves and indentured servants to their masters and of the extremely formal levels of speech used in the royal households and government offices of the Joseon Dynasty.

The point of all this is twofold: First, you can't force linguistic change in order to bring about changes in society, but when society changes, then language always follows appropriately. Second, just because language reflects differences in age and gender, that doesn't make it undemocratic.

by Gary Rector

* The writer is a columnist of the JoongAng Daily.

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