Words can be funny, if you understand them

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Words can be funny, if you understand them

For some people, it’s fun to be in a foreign land because locals do not understand a thing you say. Even if you call someone on the subway a bum, how can he possibly have a clue what you’re saying? This was just what I saw recently while passing Apgujeong Station, southern Seoul.
A group of young and lively Americans had taken control of a subway car. They were obviously having fun and their conversation was loud enough to keep me from reading. The object of their impassioned discussion, however, was not one that would please their fellow Koreans: making fun of an overly kind, elderly man.
A few days later, I witnessed quite the opposite on another subway ― a group of young Koreans laughing at a Western passenger’s less-than fashionable outfit.
Poking fun at language and culture differences does not happen only in subways, but also on television screens. “Gag Concert” on Sunday evenings at 8:50 on KBS2-TV, is one such program.
A collection of short skits, “Gag Concert” pulls solid ratings. The show loves to have fun with language. In “Samurai Talk,” comedians in kimonos come on stage and, wearing grim expressions, perform a serious routine in Japanese, reminiscent of a samurai movie. The Japanese sentences are always the same, simple things ― “I don’t know,” “I understand,” “Great.” The important part of the skit is not the content but the manner of speaking, the typical Japanese serious but polite way.
The comedians soon repeat the skit, only this time in Korean. In the Japanese version, they appear as if they are discussing matters of life and death, but in the Korean version it turns out that they are just getting a massage or playing a game.
And it’s not only Japanese. English is not free from ridicule either, especially in the show’s main attraction, a section titled “Dialect in Everyday Life.” Taking the form of many local English-language instructional programs, which feature native English speakers, the show is aimed at teaching the dialects of the Gyeongsang and Jeolla provinces.
A comedian taking the role of a native speaker introduces himself: “Hi Tom, I’m from Philadelphia.” Then the main emcee of the section, Park Jun-hyeong, inserts his two cents of English.
One of the recent expressions of the day was the Korean equivalent of “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” Mr. Park immediately said, “In English, it’s ‘Go horse pretty, come on horse pretty.” It was a pun ― the Korean mal can mean “speech” or “horse” ― and it wasn’t at all funny. But Mr. Park drew a big hand from the audience for his courage and for his knowledge of English, whether it made sense or not.
In another section, where they read postcards from viewers, named “Postcards of Love,” the emcee all too literally translates the title into the English “Love of the Letter,” again to thunderous applause.
The abuse of foreign languages does not end here. In another highlight of the show, “Bongsunga Hakdang” (The Touch-Me-Not Village School), a student, played by Kim Ji-seon, boasts of her command of English in this age of globalization, teaching her fellow students. But Ms. Kim is only punning English words with Korean.
One of her recent puns included what to call a wedding of high school students ― her answer was goding, a slang word for “high school student” that sounds like “wedding.”
The producer of the program says that the show is especially popular among children. I just hope that children, who are the major viewers of the show, don’t use the program to learn foreign languages.


by Chun Su-jin
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