[Hungbo's Gourd] Endless linguistic change

"Latin is a dead language,
As dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans,
And now it's killing me."

That little bit of doggerel was widely quoted among students in my high school days as an expression of their frustration with having to learn a language that nobody actually spoke any more.
What we didn't realize, of course, was that Latin isn't really dead at all. Its various regional dialects had simply changed so much that their speakers could no longer really communicate fully with each other, so the "dialects" were renamed Italian, French, Spanish, Romanian and so on.

It took centuries for Latin to disintegrate into all those Romance languages, and we tend to think of linguistic change as being glacially slow. Oh, sure, slangy fads come and go and new terms are constantly introduced along with technological developments, but basic vocabulary or fundamental aspects of the sound system and grammar don't really change that fast, right? Well, as it turns out, sometimes they do.

I think the first time it came home to me that a language can change an awful lot even in one person's lifetime was when I went back home to Kentucky after many years of living in Korea. The teller at a small-town bank where I went to see about some family business had a slight down-home lilt and some of the old pronunciations were still there, but her accent was watered down, washed out by television and movies, I supposed, and she didn't use any of the expressions or syntax that had been typical of the region when I was a child there. Even though I myself had made a purposeful effort to get rid of any trace of a Kentucky accent many years before, when I was going to school in Ohio and Michigan, I found myself feeling a certain nostalgia for the old way of speaking and was terribly disappointed that it was gone.

"You don't sound like you're from around here," the teller said to me. "Neither do you," I answered.

Back in Korea, a visit to Daegu after more than 20 years away proved that the same thing had happened here. When I lived in Daegu in the late 1960s, for example, people would shout "Osoiso!" when you entered a restaurant or tearoom. Now they say the same thing they do in Seoul ("Oso oseyo!"), albeit with the strong pitch accent of the Gyeongsang region. (Say "Uh-suh oh-SAY-yoh!" as if you were from Brooklyn, New York, and you'll get the idea.)

I also heard people speaking lower forms to friends on their cell phones identify themselves by saying "Naya" ("It's me"), which is typical of Seoul, instead of the usual Daegu-style "Naeda."

But the only real changes I'd noticed in Seoul were the way younger speakers often rush over long syllables, use a peculiar rising intonation on the end of statements in formal speech (as in "iss'mni-DAH"), and tack an unnecessary "-ra-" syllable onto quotative forms (e.g., "haettaraneun geot" instead of "haettaneun geot"). Native speakers, however, especially those from families who have lived in Seoul for generations, say that it is rare to hear anyone speaking real "Seoul-mal" these days.

In an interesting little book called "Seoul-Mal Yeongu" ("Studies in Seoul Korean"), published last year by Bagijeong, there is an article by Chong Yang-wan, formerly a professor at the Academy of Korean Studies, in which she outlines some of the changes in vocabulary and usage that she has noticed over the last few decades. (I was beginning to think I was alone until I read this article and noted that she, too, laments the unnecessary "-ra-" mentioned above.) Some of the items she covers were a total surprise to me, and even many Korean readers may be just as surprised as I was to learn of some of the changes she points out.

According to Professor Chong, in the old days "eomma" (equivalent to "mom"), was not used to address one's own biological mother, whom you always addressed as "eomeoni," but was the form of address for your father's younger concubine. The second wife in someone else's family was called "mama," with the place name of where she lived tacked on, as in "Jeondong Mama" or "Jeju Mama." Boys called their older brothers "Eonni," the same way girls still address their older sisters today. And "ajumeoni" wasn't just a common way of addressing any married women with children; it was really used like the English "aunt," to address any aunt, whether she was your father's sister (gomo), your mother's sister (imo), your paternal uncle's wife (keun eomeoni or jageun eomeoni), or whatever.

Some of your favorite Korean foods had names you never hear in modern-day Seoul. Kkakdugi (kimchi made of diced radish) was called "jeonmu." Ganjang (soy sauce) used to be "jiryeong." That bindaetteok (mung-bean pancakes, literally "bedbug bread") you love to eat in the makkeolli houses was called by the much more appetizing name of "nokdu buchim," meaning "mung-bean fry."

The most surprising thing to me, however, was to learn that the term "bulgogi" wasn't introduced until after the Liberation at the end of World War II. Before that, it was called "neobiani," "neobihani," or "neobihalmi."

When we look at old American movies from 60 or more years ago, we don't notice such bit differences. Apparently Korean changes faster than English.


Gary Rector can be contacted at gary@korealore.com. - Ed.
You can now find Gary Rector's weekly column in the Korea supplement of Saturday's Internation Herald and its Web site http://english.joins.com/