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Language Spasms and Iconoclasms

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Joined: 22 Apr 2003
Location: Daejeon, South Korea

PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2003 5:13 pm    Post subject: Language Spasms and Iconoclasms Reply with quote

By David Beattie

(The writer is a journalist publishing a series of essays on living and teaching in South Korea. He has been published in major daily and weekly newspapers and magazines in Britain, the USA, Canada, South Africa and Korea.)

*Any comments on this draft report would be gladly appreciated. If you DO WANT your real name attributed to your response, please send it to [email protected]


A Story of Our Mother Tongue in the Global Crucible, and how Vanity becomes Hilarity, Through the Looking Glass, Backwards ...


* WAITING for a train at Daejeon Station, I aimlessly amble about, killing time. A fiftyish man walks past me, noticeable because of his shabby attire, something extremely rare here. His lined, soiled face and dirty clothes suggest he is a labourer of some kind, as there are no Korean homeless - at least I have never seen any.
But what really gets my attention is his jaunty lilac sweater, which has the logo "Jenny Versace" on it! Gianni's lesser known sister of course ...

* "Ceylon Tea. Now dream of Tea is distilled each pure drop a tear of joy, A vision of paradise for men lost in their dreams, Sailing the Indian Ocean towards new horizons."
Thus runs the label on a popular brand of iced tea.

* On my first day working at a new school, I enter the teachers' room and meet a Korean teacher sitting at a desk. She wheels in her chair to present a heavenly visage. Raven haired, marble skinned, eyes big and black as bats at sleep. She says hello, points to her heavenly face and remarks "oil painting." Turns out she is trying to tell me she is the art teacher, and a specialist in oils.

* A new university student teacher is waiting for me in a particular class, as the kids are total beginners and need Korean translation for basic understanding. It's no surprise that she's an absolute knockout, the standard bewitching kewpie doll face, slim as a reed, perfect hair and make-up, an Asian "Stepford Wife" chirping fragrantly in the corner. She's a keen learner, and is wearing a black t-shirt with "Oral Skills" on it in large white letters. Oh Baby, BEHAVE!

It's this kind of thing that makes Korea bearable. This is a nation that has raised social status and brand-name consciousness to near holiness, which would be profoundly irritating if they got it right, but thankfully the whole bag is taken to such absurd lengths and messed up so badly it is rendered mercifully farcical, even sweet.

A t-shirt really popular these days has an image of UK punk legend Sid Vicious on it, complete with safety pins running diagonally from shoulder to navel. This anti-establishment statement is especially popular with angel-faced 20-somethings whose Moms expect them home by 10pm, think cigarette smoking is dangerously radical and have never, ever heard of punk let alone the Sex Pistols.

The holus-bolus lifting of western cultural icons and haphazard, near arbitrary repositioning in the completely borrowed cultural landscape of this society is hilarious and often, for me, strangely satisfying. It unknowingly takes the piss out of the west's smug self-importance, reducing established iconography to its physicality only - symbols and images lose dimension or relevance, they are hollowed out and bcome just marks on a surface.

Take the Hitler Bar for example. This is a fairly large and very obvious bar on a major street, complete with swastikas and other Third Reich paraphernalia such as Eagle wings painted in letters a half meter high. You can see it from 60 meters away.
Anywhere in North America, Europe or just about any part of the British Commonwealth this would get the perpetrators into serious trouble; no doubt it wouldn't be allowed. I suspect the same goes for even much of the Middle East. I can't talk for Arab Africa or South and Central America, but the fact it doesn't even raise an eyebrow over here is an indication just how different historical and cultural context is in East Asia.

This is curious when you consider that for the two Asian countries which are major economies and completely democratic, Korea and Japan, almost everything they do is built on a western and especially American template. Dress styles, automobile design, a shift to fast food joints nigh indistinguishable from Burger King and Pizza Hut, even town planning, such as it is, looks to the US of A.

I have recently returned from the Japanese city of Fukuoka, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. It is two-thirds Vancouver and one-third Amsterdam. Really. Remove the Japanese writing from the buildings and wrap every head in a pair of shades, and you could absolutely be at that mythical place somewhere where Europe meets North America. There is NOTHING distinctively Japanese about it. I did not see any lanterns or kimonos or anything familiarly Japanese that you would expect. I hear it is a little different in the bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but in central Fukuoka at least, to the naked eye, globalization is complete.

To the ear, both Japan and Korea cede little to the west. Both are learning English furiously, spending more on the language than any other non-native speaking countries, but so far spoken English - as we know it - has made relatively narrow inroads into these cultures. That is by comparison with virtually all of the Spanish speaking countries, most of Africa, all of Europe and southern Asia. Even Russians and Arabs take to English easier than Koreans.

Japan and Korean, along with Arabic, are the languages least similar to English and language learning in either direction is monstrously difficult (okay wiseguy - not counting Xhosa or the clicking of the San "bushmen" of Southern Africa, the two-toed pygmies of Zaire who speak through their feet or Albanian "throatsingers" of the lower Urals - I talk of major languages).

Korean is one of three "Altaic" languages, together with Mongolian and, strangely enough, Turkish. It is an ancient tongue, and although it is very different from Chinese it is modelled on it to some extent. Korea used the Chinese alphabet until the 16th Century, when a popular king who seems to have been that very rare thing, a monarch genuinely wise and nice and not a complete doofus, got together the nation's major eggheads and had them drum up a set of letters.

I am familiar only with the Roman and now the Korean alphabet, but on the face of it I must say that the Japanese, Chinese, Cyrillic, Thai and Arabic alphabets and any others with squiggly scratchings and fritchings look totally incomprehensible compared to the blocky simplicity of Korean, or Hangul as it's known. It is easy to learn, impossible to pronounce and looks as though it belongs on Mars.

The Koreans are so proud of their alphabet they waste no opportunity to use it. Every available surface is fair game. There are two publishing industries in this country - one for books and printed stuff in general, and the other for banners and signs for buildings and hills and parks and river crossings and whatever else they think of. There is writing everywhere.

Korea has a literacy rate of 98 percent, one of the highest in the world and it's easy to see why - every building is bedecked not only with large signs for every business on every floor, but beyond that with brightly coloured cloth banners strung every which way shouting out the price for spicy bean soup at old Kim's at the back of the building, in the basement, and how much it is per hour for one of the 10,000 Internet Cafes in this city.

But onto English as she is spoke. Remarkable. South Korea has developed its own blend of English and Korean that goes beyond dialect in my view, or at least what should qualify as a kind of mega dialect. This is known as "Konglish."

If you think of standard Registered Pronunciation, the Queen's English if you will, it is a far cry from those plummy vowels to the crunch of the Glaswegian working class, the drawl of the US Deep South, the pidgin of Jamaican Rastafarians. And those are English speaking places.

No doubt Russians and Icelanders and Inuits all put their own spin on English. But I believe the Koreans take it a step further - this country is so computer-transfixed, drinks so deeply of American influence and has a culture so permeable, it has conflated its own language with that of English to come up with a language so hybridised it's neither one nor the other.

I don't know if news readers on the national TV channel or some university professors speak pure Korean, but almost everyone else speaks Konglish. Highly educated Koreans take an English word like "church" and Konglish it to "churchEE". And that is a very mild example.

Part of the reason for the extreme bastardization of the language over here is that Korea is including literally hundreds and perhaps thousands of English words into Korean - but writing them in the Korean alphabet. The snag is that Korean does not have the letters or sounds to cover a whole range of English words. In Korean, nearly all words that end on a consonant (if that consonant falls on the upper line of the final syllable cluster) have that consonant followed by a sound best described as "uuh." This is written by the letter "-". That's it, a long hyphen.

Take the word "card" for example. The Korean for card is card. It is exactly the same. But in Korean the final d must be followed by the "uuh," so the Korean word for card is "carduuh." I am not making this up.

When the word ends in e it is even worse, or funnier, depending on your take. Korean for lounge, an extremely, extremely popular word over here for the literally thousands of lounge-style bars, is ... you guessed it, lounge. But that ends in e, so in Korean it must be followed by the "ee" sound. Lounge becomes "loungEE" or "loungey." You must be careful or you could end up playing "cardUUHs" in the loungEY."
The US president, Little George, is known as "BushY."

Also, Koreans substitute J for Z, B for V and P for F. A bar called the Fuzzy Duck becomes the Pujjy Duck. It's freakin' hilarious man.

Combine this with the extremely common Asian inability to pronounce Rs, they come out as Ls as you know, and a less common but still frequent replacement of "s" with "sh," you get a linguistic dog's breakfast that makes your head spin. If the first time you are invited to "shit down, have some lice and maybe watchEE a Bideo" you don't have to stifle a laugh you are a master of control. It's a riot man, this is what multiculturalism is for!
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Joined: 01 Feb 2003

PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2003 5:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article.

When I was in Egypt, I always wondered why Koreans seemed to have a hard time learning English as opposed to Egyptians whose first language is more challenging for the English speakers. Well-educated Egyptians are almost trilinguals: men tend to have a better English than French and women have a better French.

To me, the key to the Egyptians successful language learning is the immersion schools. Traditionally, women go to French speaking schools run by catholic nuns and men go to English speaking schools.

What Korea needs is immersions schools where children learn subjects in English and are allowed to develop reasonable competency in wide range of subjects.
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Joined: 26 Jan 2003

PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2003 9:16 pm    Post subject: Language spasms Reply with quote

Konglish definitely rocks. "It's my mind" has been a common one I've seen on student papers. Translation has driven me out of my mind at times, but I think it means "it's according to what I think." Any ideas from better linguists?

My favorite one though can be found in quart-sized cartons in discount stores in Haeundae. It tastes quite good actually, but the name "Coolpis" kind of throws cold water on my appetite, as does "delicious tasting peach flavor".
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The Lemon

Joined: 11 Jan 2003

PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2003 9:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

"It's my mind" has been a common one I've seen on student papers.

I see "buy the way" a lot. That store sent Korean English writing back 20 years.

But I'm happy to see them at least try. Too many students pass in whatever vomits out. But that's a whole other thread:
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Joined: 16 Mar 2003

PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2003 11:45 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Is Konglish really that cool? When I first heard the term before I came to Korea, I kind of expected an actual mish-mash of the two languages - I had visions of intermediate English learners happily conversing with each other, with each sentence being a weird amalgam of Korean and English words. My brother and I spoke like this growing up, in "Franglais" (or Frenglish) - "Voulez-vous play baseball dans le park?" - that kind of thing. When I got here and discovered that Konglish was just Hangul-ized pronunciation of the odd borrowed English word, I was really disappointed. Seems pretty unremarkable to me.
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Joined: 01 Feb 2003

PostPosted: Thu May 08, 2003 8:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Konglish I have always taken to be more than JUST the way of pronouncing English words. Here are some distinct words that only have a dialectical meaning:

Konglish--------------- Standard English

Stand------------------ Lamp
Handle---------------- Steering wheel
Nite-------------------- Nightclub
Booking--------------- No exact equivalent to this - it is kind of a way
to meet girls in a "Nite"
Same-same---------- Exactly the same
Cunning-------------- Cheating on a test
Eye-shopping-------- Window shopping
Shutter-man-------- someone whose wife supports him
Self------------------- Self-service in a restaurant
Service-------------- Something "on the house" in a restaurant

As you can see there are some words that are obviously just clipping of Englisg to make it easier to pronounce and fit into the Korean language and there are others that seem to be misunderstandings of the English.
Some like "Shutter man" may just be pure creativity.

Except for "cunning" most of my younger students don't seem to know most of these words though so I believe konglish will eventually disappear or perhaps just change.
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Joined: 22 Jan 2003

PostPosted: Fri May 09, 2003 6:43 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Personally I prefer "Engrean" -- using Korean terms in an English sentence or context. I find that I use 'hand phone' and 'free size' often enough to have almost forgotten the real words or terms. I use 'hagwon' all the time when discussing these academies. Some of my students laughed when I said "There are a lot hagwons..." because I had pluralized it, when in Korean there are no plurals for these kind of nouns.

I also use expressions (albeit only with my wife or close friends) like "Let's kaja!" or "I am haeba-ing" (after my wife teases me to "haeba" something in particular). Actually one can add '-ing' to almost any Korean verb form and make good Engrean.

Anyone else? I think if Koreans can butcher English in Konglish than we should be free to butcher Korean in Engrean. Any takers?

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Joined: 16 Mar 2003

PostPosted: Sat May 10, 2003 12:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Sounds like a pretty chaemi innun idea, do-pshida!
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Joined: 11 Mar 2003

PostPosted: Sat May 10, 2003 11:26 pm    Post subject: Language Spasms and Iconoclasms Reply with quote

I have many chimis. Ne koya chohun chimi is listening to jazz. Chimi=hobby. My favourite hobby is listening to jazz.

pali come = come quickly (no hidden meanings intended) The Koreans usually say pali onda. translated literally its "quickly come"
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