[Viewpoint] Going beyond our mother tongue

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[Viewpoint] Going beyond our mother tongue

Up until the 18th century, Latin reigned as the lingua franca among intellectuals in England. English was regarded as a dialect, good enough for popular novels and plays, but incapable of imparting great and complex concepts and thoughts. Few thought English could replace Latin’s prestige.

But there were pioneers who thought differently. Richard Mulcaster (1530-1611), revolutionary educator and headmaster of the country’s largest school, Merchant Taylors’ School in London, was an avid advocate of the English language.

“I love Rome, but London better. I favor Italy, but England more. I honor Latin, but worship English,” he said.

He campaigned for the propagation and greater use of the English language, emphasizing the richness and vitality of it. “I do not think any language is better able to utter all arguments, in more pith or great plainness, than the English tongue,” he wrote in “The Elementary,” published in 1582. And his prophesy was realized in the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

Despite passion and devotion to the language, Mulcaster knew English could not rival Latin on other soil. He predicted the English tongue would remain in the realms of the English islets, as his country had no ambitions to go out and conquer the world. Little did he know that 300 years later, his country would turn into a colonial empire on which the sun never set.

There are some among the intellectual elite in our society that complain about the confines of the Korean language and believe it will never reach the status English enjoys today. But we need not limit ourselves and our language.

One of England’s most revered poets, John Milton (1608-1674), was a man of letters, competent in eight languages and one of Europe’s most prominent Latin scholars. His mastery of Latin allowed him to serve as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues for 10 years under Oliver Cromwell.

The prolific writer and thinker would have earned greater prestige and broader readership if he had written in Latin, the lingua franca of the European continent in his time. Yet he chose his mother tongue to write his magnum opus “Paradise Lost.” Even a great thinker like Milton could not have imagined English would, centuries later, gain global status.

The elite of a society can identify themselves either as members of a national community with a future or as refugees without ties to the society.

A refugee doesn’t have any commitment to the dwelling he considers as mere shelter. He will pack and leave at the first chance of a better life. To live comfortably in his lifetime is all he cares about. He does not hold any devotion, commitment or long-term vision for the community. He may be presentable on the surface, but is, in fact, shallow and carefree in his life.

A citizen and refugee would regard their mother tongue differently. The exemplary approach can be found in 19th century Japanese society.

Elite Japanese who had traveled and studied Western civilization set up a translation bureau within the government during the start of the Meiji Restoration to translate all significant foreign works to make them accessible to common Japanese people.

Toshihide Maskawa, professor emeritus of Kyoto University, joked that he studied physics because he was poor at English. His professor had to waive him from a foreign language test during his post-grad years, and he didn’t even own a passport because he never had the chance to go abroad.

Yet he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2008 thanks to the translation legacy in Japan that provided him the world’s knowledge. Poet Kim Soo-young said Koreans born after 1930 were ignorant of world culture because they didn’t read Japanese.

Our language would have been different if we had devotees to our native culture and heritage like Mulcaster, Milton and the sponsors of translation in Japan. It is time we establish a long-term vision for our mother tongue. Setting up a translation administration would be a start.

We should ditch the rhetoric about the greatness of our language and instead embark on real moves to create an intellectual infrastructure in Hangul so that anyone can access valuable information and wisdom written in foreign languages - just by knowing Korean, as all of us do. This is a practical approach, and never has it been easier to accomplish and disseminate than in the age of the Internet.

Depending on our efforts, we, too, may see Nobel Prize laureates who know no other languages than Korean by the end of this century. You never know: centuries later, our descendents could be speaking a language with as formidable a status as English.

Only a state with ambition and vision can walk toward that goal.

*The writer is a professor of history education at Woosuk University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Park Sang-ik
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