[VIEWPOINT]Divided by a common languageA recent exchange of letters in a local English-language publication concerned the difficulties of learning the Korean language. Is it exceptionally difficult, in particular because of the use of Chinese characters, or is Korean no harder for English speakers than English, with all its embedded Latinisms, is for Koreans?
I know a man from South Africa, now living in Yeongju. He speaks Hindi (his parents are ethnic Indians), Afrikaans and Urdu, as well as English. When asked why he isn’t learning Korean, he simply replies: “It’s too difficult, man!”
A former U.S. diplomat, James C. Whitlock, spoke six languages before coming to Korea. He wrote a book, “Chinese Characters in Korean,” examining the root structure of hanja (Chinese characters) in Korean, because, according to him, “Korea was the only country where I couldn’t dominate the language.”
When I ask one of my students ― a young man from China studying here at Dongyang University ― which language is more difficult, Korean or Chinese, his answer was quick: “Korean!”
Sometimes Koreans themselves don’t understand their own language. I recently tested this seemingly dubious claim by holding up a copy of the Yeongnam Ilbo and asking several of my students what the Chinese characters running across the headlines signified. Only about half of them could tell me. What is the point in publishing a newspaper if half the potential readers can’t understand it? There seems to be more going on here than meets the eye.
When asked why Chinese characters are used in Korean newspaper headlines, my students responded that they are needed to reveal the meaning behind the often-ambiguous Hangeul, Korean characters. Some scholars and linguists argue that the Chinese-based vocabulary used in Korean is difficult to comprehend because it is written in Korean characters. Thus the need to supplement Hangeul with Chinese characters, which those of us who haven’t studied them will not understand. King Sejong is rightly lauded for inventing Hangeul and bringing literacy to Korea, but in using it to represent Chinese characters, he opened a Pandora’s box of literary interpretations. Sejong greatly increased literacy, but he appears also to have increased literary confusion. Before, one looked at a headline and either knew or did not know. Now, one looks at a headline not knowing what to know and what not to know.
Some people say that the cognitive gulf in America between the street sweeper and the Wall Street banker is every bit as big as the gulf between the educated and the uneducated Korean. This may well be true. But in America, any literate person can read any newspaper headline. Such is not the case here.
Which brings us to Konglish, the other language prevalent in Korea that means not a thing to North Koreans, or even to South Koreans who have been mucking about the rice paddies these last 10 or 15 years. When an 80-year-old grandmother from South Jeolla province sees the words “woman sense” phonetically translated into Hangeul and reading like “ooman saynsuh,” what is she going to think ―- that someone is playing a cruel trick on her? Or take the phrase “morning buffet,” which comes out in hangeul like “moahning bweepay.” What is she going to think then?
Koreans, both knowingly and inadvertently, are playing a game of literary hide and seek, when they should be concentrating on making communication as painless as possible.
Simple oral communication in the Korean language, can be perplexing, too. Consider “my” and “your.” These words roughly sound like “nahui” and “nohui” in English. Korean language scholars say that there is virtually no difference in sound between these two meanings.
Or consider tangshin, a word to which foreigners cling (yours truly included), as it is the only real equivalent of the English “you” in Korean. But it doesn’t mean “you.” It means the “other body,” as pointed out by Koreaphile Gary Rector. It has both second- and third-person connotations. It is only to be used between lovers and intimates, say the scholars. So then why is it bandied around so much on TV advertisements?
Finally, let me mention a very revealing vignette from Michael Breen’s book “The Koreans.” Mr. Breen makes reference to a Korean journalist who prefers to argue with his wife in English, even though both are Korean. Why? “It’s too easy to be misunderstood in Korean,” he responded.
* The writer teaches English conversation at Dongyang University in Punggi, North Gyeongsang province.
by Rick Ruffin