[Letters] The politics of Konglish

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[Letters] The politics of Konglish

Koreans are beginning to resent the use of borrowed English words in their daily conversations. While English teachers resent the fact that foreign loanwords in Korean lose their original English meaning, Koreans fear losing the authenticity of their language.

Before we address those issues, we should look at the term “Konglish.” Linguists refer to English words adapted into Korean vocabulary as loanwords and consider such words an integral part of the Korean language. Words like “pijja” (pizza), “hambeogeo” (hamburger) or “cunning” (cheating at an examination) are therefore 100 percent Korean words.

Konglish is the Korean adaptation of the English language. Take this sentence that could well be spoken by a Korean in English: “I told the PD to tell the announcer to cancel the section on NGs. We will tell Kim MC to put that section in his show.”

The sentence sounds like gibberish to a native English speaker, but it makes perfect sense to a Korean: “I told the producer to tell the anchor to cancel the section on bloopers. We will tell Mr. Kim to put it in his show.”

Konglish has not yet been the object of a study by linguists although some patterns emerge: changes in sounds and deletion of auxiliaries and prepositions. Many patterns in Konglish follow Korean grammar.

Does this threaten the Korean language or the English language in any way? In Singapore, documents are written in English, people from different ethnicities communicate in Singlish and ethnic Chinese people communicate in Chinese, so maybe it doesn’t.

English teachers in Korea should keep in mind that no matter where they teach English, they will never educate foreign students to acquire accents, intonations, vocabulary and grammar like theirs. A form of “sublanguage” would emerge, be it Konglish in Korea, Japanglish in Japan or Chinglish in China.

Many people see “borrowing English words and incorporating them into Korean” as unethical for two reasons: English and Korean are not related, and Koreans change the meaning of original English words.

English and Korean may not be related, but Korean isn’t related to Chinese in any linguistic way. Linguists place Chinese in the Sinitic language family, while Korean is considered an “isolated language,” possibly related to Japanese, but surely not to Chinese. Still, despite the fact that both languages are unrelated, 50 percent of the Korean vocabulary is derived from Chinese.

I know, some people mean “related” in that they share a common history. But English is slowly building historical relations to Korean.

Borrowed words sometimes lose their original meaning and almost always lose their original pronunciation. Languages are breathing, living entities that change and evolve constantly, and that sometimes involves borrowing words from foreign languages.

As for those who say that Koreans are losing their Koreanness because of English, I would say that as long as they are communicating in Korean they are not losing their ability to communicate in Korean. And while Korean may evolve and borrow words from all sorts of different languages, unless Korea becomes a desert and everyone emigrates to a foreign country, the Korean language will remain alive and well for the centuries to come.


By Akli Hadid, a former student in Korea now residing in Algeria

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