Like in any language, Korean grammar is systematic and rule-governed. It serves its purpose well for Korean speakers. So in no way is it lacking any value or quality. But there are several features of English grammar that are not present in Korean. The English features Korean lacks are:
- markers for plurals or possessives
- phrasal verbs
- tag questions
- auxiliary verbs
- suffixes to mark comparatives and superlatives (using separate words instead)
- perfect aspect
- capitalization (not a grammatical feature, but still interesting)
Korean’s word order pattern is subject-object-verb (SOV). Although foreign to English speakers, the SOV structure is actually used by over half of the world’s languages; whereas only 35% of languages use English’s subject-verb-object (SVO) pattern.
Korean is an agglutinative language, which is a fancy way of saying that affixes are “glued” onto words to express grammatical information. For example, in Korean, a sentence like “He should have gone” would be expressed as the word go with suffixes signaling the modals and past tense.
One final comparison is that Korean speakers answer negative questions differently than English speakers. They say yes to agree with the speaker and no to disagree. So if someone says to a Korean man, “Don’t you like this movie?”, and he says, “yes”, it means that he does not like the movie. Essentially Korean speakers interpret the question as, “Do you not like this movie?” Clearly this could lead to loads of confusion.
A Belated Mothers Day
A Korean novel is taking the world by storm. Take Care of My Mother by Shin Kyung-sook is a Korean bestseller that has also been published in fifteen other countries. The book is especially popular in Norway. The author earned an advanced of the equivalent of $430,000. The novel is about an older mother from the country who suffers from Alzheimer’s. She visits her adult children in Seoul and gets lost in a subway station. Take Care of My Mother shows the respectful attitude towards mothers in Korea and is also credited with turning around the Korean fiction industry. Alas, we will not be able to read it until next year. The book won’t be published in English until May 2011.
The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People
The Korean alphabet is fascinating. First of all, it’s an alphabet. A lot of Westerners associate Korean writing with its geographic neighbors, China and Japan. But the written systems of these languages aren’t linguistic neighbors of Korean. Chinese uses a logography, in which each grapheme (distinct written unit) represents a word. Japanese writing is based on both a logography (when it uses Chinese characters) and a syllabary, which uses graphemes to represent syllables. Korean, on the other hand, has an alphabet, which represents individual sounds with letters (like English). Unlike English, the Korean alphabet even has its own name, Hangul. When Hangul was created in the 15th century it was referred to as “the correct sounds for the instruction of the people”.
Hangul consists of 24 letters: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The letters are combined in a units of three to make words. Consonants and vowels never appear in isolation. Although the language used to be written vertically right to left, nowadays it is mostly written horizontally left to right, like English.
The written consonants are even based on how of the tongue or mouth looks when producing the sound. Five hundred years ago Hangul was invented and they knew about bilabial stops and dental fricatives!
The Honor System
In Korean, there are a whole lot of degrees of politeness. There are only two in French (tu/vous) and Spanish (tù/usted or vosotros), but Korean has no less than six honorifics. And unlike French and Spanish, which uses honorifics for pronouns, Korean employs these levels of respect and definitions of social relationships for nouns, verbs and particles. The six levels are:
- deferential style
- polite style
- blunt style
- familiar style
- intimate style
- plain style
Children do not use the blunt or familiar styles. Deferential is a polite, formal style used more by men than women and also used by the media. The polite style is less formal, but just as respectful as deferential. These two styles are often used interchangeably by the same speaker in the same situation. The intimate style is used amongst friends, family members and peers. The plain style is used by adults to people younger than them. Honorifics aren’t just restricted to language in Korean. Nonverbal behavior expresses respect, age, social status, etc., as well. Bowing is an important part of Korean greetings. The junior person always bows to the senior person who does not reciprocate the gesture. According to the U.S. Army of all places, there are even different ways to bow depending on whether you are meeting someone for the first time. If you know the person you are bowing to, you only have to bow at a 15°, but if it’s an introduction, you need to bend over to 30°!
A news article in February suggests that this honorific system in Korean is on the decline: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2010/02/113_60399.html
Of course Korean has been around for a long time, so I wouldn’t say goodbye to its honorifics quite yet.
Cho, Y. et al. (2010). Integrated Korean: Beginning 1. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Back to Korean
Now that my graduate studies are over, I can focus more on this blog and get back to Korean. Since I haven’t posted anything in two weeks, I figure the best way to get back to Korean is not to examine morphology or syntax, but to look at Korean comics. Last year, the Korean publishing house Dasan Books released an English-language edition of The Obama Story, a comic book/graphic novel about the U.S. President. Apparently some schools in the U.S. have adopted the book as a supplemental text for the curriculum. Dasan plans to print comic book biographies of other important American figures including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Hillary Clinton. I like Obama’s big, shiny eyes!
King Sejong on the 10,000 Won note
As one would expect, the history of the Korean language is intertwined with the history of the Korean peninsula. About 6000 years ago, humans settled the peninsula. No records of the language of these peoples survive. At the beginning of the Common Era/A.D., tribal societies began to emerge in the area. One of the languages of the tribes of the southern part of the peninsula was Han. Around the time of Constantine I in the West, the era of tribal states of the Korean peninsula was coming to an end. Three kingdoms, the Kokuryo, the Paekche and the Silla supplanted the tribal states. Three hundred years later the Silla united the Korean peninsula. As the Silla spoke the Han language, Han became the sole language of the peninsula. Han is the precursor to modern Korean and remained the single language of the land for the dynasties from 932 to 1910.
As is the case with most languages, the dialect of prestige in Korea was the dialect of the capital. The capital city moved several times from Kyongju to Kaegyong and finally to Seoul, which became the seat of government in the late 14th century. There are not many records of the Korean language prior to this time. This is most likely due to the fact that the Korean way of writing was revolutionized in the 15th century. A lone individual, King Sejong, invented an alphabetic script called Hangul to serve the purposes of Korean writing. Prior to the invention of Hangul, Koreans used Chinese script for their writing. However the grammars of Korean and Chinese are vastly different, which made Chinese characters a poor choice to represent Korean. Sejong’s alphabet was more in tune to the Korean language and much easier to learn (sound familiar, one person creating a new alphabet for a language that was using the writing system of a different language ill-equipped for its purposes? Maybe in 600 years Frederic Cassidy’s Patois alphabet will be as prevalent as King Sejong’s!). Although Hangul is the alphabet of the Korean language, some Chinese characters still coexist with Hangul letters. Korean students must learn nearly 2000 Chinese characters in addition to Hangul letters. This is due to enormous presence of Chinese loanwords in Korean: they make up half of the Korean lexicon. In fact, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the first newspapers in Korea were printed in Hangul.
While Chinese characters exist in the language in South Korea, they are not allowed in North Korea. The governments of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il stamped out use of Chinese characters in Korean in an attempt to purify the language. North Korea has created Korean words to replace the removed Chinese characters.