Revolutionary linguistics pits high vs. lowNews item: Last July, the Daegu prosecutor’s office refused to issue arrest warrants to the police because the form they submitted was not written in honorifics. The police had to re-submit the form, replacing “baram,” a contraction of “we request,” with “baramnida,” to get the warrants.
Most people might find this merely annoying or write it off as an isolated case of idiocy. But Professor Choi Bong-yong says it indicates a much deeper problem. The Korean system of honorifics is “the biggest obstacle to developing this country’s democracy,” he says.
Mr. Choi, who teaches Korean Folk Culture at Hankuk Aviation University, has sparked a heated public debate with the publication of his book “Discrimination and Suppression in Korean Society.”
For Mr. Choi, jondaemal, or honorifics, and banmal, or the low form of speaking, are weapons in a struggle between generations and social classes.
“The first thing Koreans often ask someone is, ‘How old are you?’ to decide how to speak to them,” Mr. Choi said. “Such a system leads Koreans to perceive others as either higher or lower than themselves.”
“Do you know how much stress and oppression Koreans feel, talking up and down everyday?”
It also “prevents honest communication among people,” said Mr. Choi. “We should change the hierarchal nature of the Korean language for the sake of this country’s development.”
Mr. Choi’s solution is to have everyone use honorifics at all times. “Paying respect to everyone is easier and safer than not paying respect to anyone at all,” he said.
But for many Koreans, such equality is a foreign concept.
“Our honorific system in the language is a part of our culture that we have to preserve and respect,” wrote one person in an Internet debate. “Are we now supposed to talk to our grandparents in banmal?” asked another.
Mr. Choi counters that although all languages have more and less respectful ways of speaking, few languages have such rigid honorifics as Korean.
“For example, when we talk to someone older or higher, we call ourselves, ‘Jeo,’ while when we talk to someone lower or a close friend, we call ourselves, ‘Na.’ In English ‘I’ is always ‘I’ and ‘you’ is always ‘you.’ They make sentences polite by simply adding ‘please,’ or by avoiding imperative forms.”
Recognizing that this was a sensitive subject, Mr. Choi actually kept his book from the public for many years.
“I wrote the first draft in the 1980s but it had to stay in my drawer because the social atmosphere was not right.”
He explained that in the 80s, people blamed Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War for society’s problems. “We didn’t pay enough attention to our language as a source of problems,” he said.
The idea of making Korean a less hierarchical language is actually far from new, as Mr. Choi admits. North Korea, considering honorifics to be “remnants of unequal feudalism,” has since the mid-60s urged its citizens to address one another as “comrade” and eliminate high-form words.
Mr. Choi said there was a good side to the North’s attempt at language reform, even though honorifics had to be resurrected in order to venerate its totalitarian ruler, Kim Il Sung.
Even earlier, a prominent Korean independence activist, Philip Jaisohn, addressed the subject in a newspaper column in 1939, when he was living in Los Angeles.
“[Koreans] should eliminate all honorifics at the ending of a sentence such as in ‘issipnida’,” he wrote. “The word ‘nida’ is unnecessary, as it does not help clarify the expression or sentence one iota, and only makes the sentence unnecessarily long.” He added that doing so would have a “far-reaching influence in the advancement of education and culture for the Korean race.”
In order to bolster his case, Mr. Choi keeps a file of news reports about fights and disturbances involving honorifics.
In July, a middle-aged homeless man in Seoul stabbed his acquaintance with a broken bottle, saying that he couldn’t stand hearing the man speak to him in banmal any longer.
In August last year, a middle school student was beaten to death by older students because he did not speak to them in high form.
A survey conducted in January found that one of the most common pet peeves of corporate workers is hearing “Ya,” or “Neo,” (“you” in banmal), from their boss. They said it makes them feel degraded.
“Koreans hunger for respect. Regardless of social status, there is always someone above, whom one must lower oneself below when addressing,” Mr. Choi said. “So they become oppressive to those beneath them as well.”
Mr. Choi says that his solution of having everyone use jondaemal has a precedent. “Japan had similar problems with their hierarchal language system and as its society changed to be more horizontal than vertical, everyone became polite to everyone. It’s common to see a politician bowing down in front of the public in Japan. People with social status speak and act very politely, and that’s one way to make a language less hierarchal.”
“Koreans often say they want to be treated like human beings,” Mr. Choi said. “Why do people say this so often even though slavery has long been abolished in this country?”
He noted that even some foreigners who do not speak Korean can sense that there is a problem in the language. “Three-D workers (doing dirty, dangerous and difficult work) from developing countries hear banmal from their Korean employees all the time. They can see the difference between the way their bosses talk to them and the way they talk to others. They feel the grief of the powerless.”
Mr. Choi acknowledges that changing the way people talk takes time. But the first step, he emphasizes, is to understand the problem.
“Honorifics were only suitable for the old feudal society, when there were five ways to say ‘meal’ in Korean. A king ate ‘sura.’ For an older person it was ‘jinji,’ and for yourself and others on the same level as you, it was ‘bab.’ For your servant, it was ‘ipsi.’ For a dead person, it was ‘jinme’,” he said.
“Society just isn’t like that any more.”
No Korean, no problem
Cho Hyun-myung, 27, solves the problems with honorifics by simply pretending she can’t speak Korean. This isn’t as difficult as it seems, as Ms. Cho teaches English to corporate executives. Although she is a fluent Korean speaker, even after class, she still chats with her students in English. She says that while this is good for their English abilities, her real motivation is to protect herself. Ms. Cho says that if she speaks Korean to the executives, she suddenly goes from being a respected teacher to just a young woman, while the executives become older and more powerful.
“They are older than me, and they’re addressed in honorifics in the company,” Ms. Cho said, “When I speak English, I can treat them like equal human beings or just students, but if I speak to them in Korean, I have to call them “~nim” [an honorific suffix indicating respect] and lift them up while lowering myself. That makes me uncomfortable and intimidated, especially when I have to correct their mistakes in class.”
Kim Sang-hyeon, president of P&G Korea, can’t hide his Korean ability, but has a similar solution. His workers are ordered to address him by his English name, Sam, and he holds English-only meetings.
“It is not to improve the workers’ English skills, but to hear their honest opinions,” Mr. Kim said.
He said that the phrase, “Sam, I disagree,” is much easier for a subordinate to say than “Honorable president, my thoughts are different from yours.”
Mr. Kim said his English-only policy has made company meetings more productive.
by Choi Sun-young