[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Korean goes slowly with the flowIn most societies, change updates the language to fit new realities. Vocabulary and ways of speaking change as old customs and institutions give way to new ones. Often, what was once polite becomes old-fashioned and what was once rude becomes acceptable.
In Korea, the language question has particular importance because Korean is one of the few languages in the world that recognizes relations among people clearly through language. It is also one of the few languages in the world where age has a paramount influence over how people speak to one another. Children are still taught to use honorific language to their parents, and a one-year difference in age requires that “juniors” use honorific language toward “seniors.”
Seniors, by contrast, are free to talk down to juniors by using colloquial non-honorific language. Peers, meanwhile, use the most colloquial version of non-honorific language. Politeness in this system means using the appropriate hierarchical-based form of language, but to do so, people must be keenly aware of the age and status of those around them.
Two of most prominent ideas in the recent wave of change have been democracy and nationalism. The democratic desire to take politics away from old-fashioned political bosses and the nationalistic desire to stand up to the United States turned Roh Moo-hyun into an attractive candidate for young voters. President Roh’s election gave young people confidence to pursue broad social change in the hope of remaking Korea into an open and forward-looking society.
When it comes to language, however, democracy and nationalism may be at odds. No democratic society maintains such rigid age-based distinctions in language. Most have a limited repertoire of honorific expressions that are used mainly to show social distance. In such systems, strangers use honorific expressions to keep distance, whereas people who know each other well use colloquial language. In most democratic societies, social status is less important than social distance in determining the type of language used.
Korean nationalism, meanwhile, has always included a strong element of cultural nationalism that has equated the preservation of traditional culture with Koreanness. Beginning in the 1970s, this streak of Korean nationalism was meant to preserve and revive traditional culture amid the influx of foreign culture that accompanied rapid industrialization. Since the late years of the 19th century, reverence for hangeul, the Korean alphabet, has remained a strong component of cultural nationalism and has supported a conservative respect for tradition in language circles. In this context, the idea of breaking from hierarchical traditions could be seen as “anti-national.”
The use of language in Japan is of particular significance to Korea because Japan is the only other advanced industrial democracy with a language that contains extensive system of honorifics. The language issue was prominent in the heady days of democratization after World War II as reformers tried to change the language to promote democracy. Language reformers encouraged the people to drop old hierarchical forms of address and to expand the use of “anata” (you) as a neutral term of address for a democratic society. Though the use of “anata” never caught on, the Japanese language has moved steadily toward greater informality with social distance, not age or status, now being the most important factor in determining how people speak toward one another.
The case of Japan shows that language can evolve from rigid hierarchical age- and status-based forms to a more open system based on social distance. It also shows that efforts to change the language can produce results, but that they fail if the goal is too far removed from reality. So far, language has escaped the whirlwind of social change blowing through Korean society. Yet, the roots of language updating can be detected in the casual and creative language of the Internet, suggesting that old linguistic hierarchies are about to fade as a new, more egalitarian language take hold.
For enthusiasts of the Korean language, the next several years will be most interesting to watch.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan.
by Robert J. Fouser