Changing face of Korea seen in evolution of common termsMany Koreans who grew up under Japan’s colonial rule take pride in Korea’s danil minjok, a term meaning “one race.”
To nationalists fighting the colonial regime, the term justified the struggle as one of national identity. Then for decades afterwards, the term was used in Korea to stress the ethnic unity that tied South to North Korea.
Its use in Korean history textbooks, however, appears doomed. In a recent nod to the nation’s increasingly multiracial face, the Education Ministry announced that the term for racial purity could be taken to exclude the children of mixed parents living in Korea, and that it was considering mandating a revision of the nation’s textbooks.
Like many other words and phrases in the Korean language, danil minjok is being erased in favor of more inclusive and politically-correct language. As with any society in transition, Korea is becoming increasingly aware of how its language reinforces stereotypes and assumptions about people.
Only recently, however, have Korean scholars begun to consider language to be a mode of political expression. Nor have they seen language as a reflection of a social mindset, of which Korea’s is rapidly changing to include disadvantaged social groups.
Part of the linguistic change is simply a realistic reappraisal of Korea’s changing demographics; the country is rapidly losing its status as the world’s most homogeneous society. Last year, a government survey found that one quarter of men in rural Korea were married to foreign women, in large part because few Korean women are willing to marry farmers and live in the countryside. If the rising number of migrant workers is also taken into account, the multiracial population is expecting to reach around 1.67 million by 2020.
Because Korea’s new face is still so young, most of the changes are being made to accommodate children.
Last month, the Korean Industrial Standards Association officially changed the name of its “flesh” colored crayons and paints to “apricot,” after four foreigners, including a Ghanaian living in Korea, filed a petition against the agency through the National Human Rights Commission in 2002, saying the label infringes on racial equality.
The association ordered local stationery companies to use new names for other colors as well; most of the old names had been directly translated from Japanese terms in 1967.
“‘Apricot’ is one of the most frequently used colors in art classes for kindergarten children,” said Seo Gwang-yeol, a researcher at the Korean Industrial Standards association. “It could leave a significant impact on children's perception of a normal skin color.”
Even if a word’s original meaning is relatively harmless, context can make it offensive (few black Americans, for instance, accept the term “negro,” even though the word simply means “black” in Spanish).
The Korean version of this is the word honhyeol, which literally means “mixed blood.”
Kim Tong-won, a professor of social welfare at SungKyunKwan University, said the word is loaded with contempt because it is used in contrast to those of “pure blood.”
People have struggled to find alternatives, such as “Kosian”: Korean and Southeast Asian, one of the most common forms of international marriage in the country these days.
The school board for North Jeolla Province, an area with one of the highest rates of international marriages, recently held a public competition to select the best term for biracial people in Korea. One of the most popular was “onnuri-an,” meaning “people of the whole world (onnuri).”
The Korean Association of International Families, which represents biracial or bi-ethnic people, prefers the term “international family.”
Earlier this month at a public hearing of the National Assembly to discuss discrimination against families of international marriage, many lawmakers agreed that the phrase “children of immigrants by marriage” should be used in legal documents as a substitute for the less politically-correct term, “mixed blood.”
Racial diversity is not the only area where language is changing to be more accommodating. Korean society is slowly opening up on issues of identity politics for gays, women, the disabled and people who have alternative lifestyles.
The National Institute of the Korean Language recently hired a team of researchers to investigate and collect samples from newspapers, television news broadcasts and Web sites to analyze the common usage of discriminatory language in the vernacular media.
One of the institute’s ongoing projects is to encourage the use of gender-neutral job titles. Jo Chae-won, a head researcher with a Ph.D. in social linguistics, said one positive development is the use of the word yeoryu in front of a woman’s title. The word is not easy to translate in English, but it means roughly “female confluence,” a way of indicating that women have melded into the workplace.
“We are focusing on subjects in the Korean language that reflect a non-objective view,” Mr. Jo said. “It includes language that’s biased, written from the position of a single writer, intended particularly to exclude the racial or cultural groups being described. This is a relatively new project in Korea. Until now, we focused on revising technical grammar and spellings that suit the origins of hangul.”
There is precedent, however, for changing Korean terms to reflect changing attitudes. Historical terms are perhaps the most commonly revised, in order to “set the record straight.”
The “Korean War” is now commonly referred to as the “June 25 War” to shift the perception of the event from a foreigner’s perspective to a Korean one. History textbooks no longer refer to the “Donghak Revolt,” in which 19th-century religious farmers fought the government, preferring to call it the “Donghak Farmer’s Movement.”
The “Gwangju Affair” (usually called the “Gwangju Massacre” in English) is now cited in textbooks as the “Gwangju Democratic Movement.”
Perhaps one of the most radical changes in the evolution of politically-correct Korean has been words concerning homosexuality.
Gay activists in Korea succeeded in changing the common word for homosexuality to dongseongae, which describes the sexual orientation of same-sex couples, from dongseong yeonae, which literally means “same-sex love acts” as a commonly used term in the media in the past.
Gay groups in Korea have been arguing that the new word is a general term that describes the sexual identity of gays, while the old term overemphasized the physical act, which they said implied that gays can’t have friends of the same sex.
In most cases, the idea of changing a word or a phrase is raised by an advocate group for a minority. Yet sometimes the new term isn’t well received by the group.
The most common example is the change from jangaein, meaning a “disabled person,” to jangaeu, a word widely used in the Korean media today that means “disabled friend.”
Some critics suggest that the new word overemphasizes a moot point, such as that disabled people have able-bodied friends. The case is similar to the brief popularity of the phrase “black is beautiful” in the United States. Who said it wasn’t?
“In any case, we can’t make people use these terms,” Mr. Jo said. “But whatever the case, it illustrates a need for social change and a willingness to change.”
by Park Soo-mee