Linguistic Crossfertilization

by Gary Rector

"Hungbo's Gourd"

Korea Herald 05/31/1999

I've turned over a new leaf. I used to fancy myself Lord High Protector of the Korean Language, a position of tremendous responsibility, believe me - especially when you're not even a native speaker of the language you're trying to protect. As I walked up and down the streets, seeing all the signs with "English" on them, I'd try to think of ways I could get my friendly local assemblyman to introduce in the National Assembly legislation that would stop eateries from putting up signs that said "Cafe & Rest" and keep footgear outlets from labeling themselves "Shoes Salon."

It wasn't so much that there were mistakes in English itself; it was more that I didn't think it was a good idea to let the Korean language get contaminated with a lot of unnecessary borrowed words, particularly if the borrowings didn't make proper sense in their home language.

It didn't cross my mind that I was applying a double standard here. I wasn't bothered by the fact that the Koreans use lots of words borrowed from Chinese in ways the Chinese don't (or even never did) or that English is probably the guiltiest language on earth when it comes to taking words from another language and twisting them around to suit a purpose they weren't originally intended for. (I wonder if it bothers Spanish speakers when they visit the United States and see a sign saying "Cafeteria" on a self-service restaurant. We took the word from their language, where it means "coffee house.") I've long since realized that it's not only fruitless but also bad for your health to be constantly concerning yourself with what other people should or should not do, especially when it comes to something so utterly uncontrollable as the way a natural language changes. But I can't help wondering why so many of us (both English speakers and Koreans alike) tend to think of such borrowing and adapting as a corruption of the language and therefore something to be avoided.

You'll find organizations and movements aimed at keeping language "pure" not only in Korea, but in many other countries around the world. The Academy Francaise has been perhaps the most famous in this regard. Though they seem to have had some success in preserving the written language, they have utterly failed with its spoken form. In fact, if you visit France today, you will be appalled to discover that the French no longer speak the language we learned in school at all. They have given it up in favor of a mixture of street argot and Franglais.

Maybe the reason some people are protective about a language is because of the term "borrow" itself. Saying we "borrow" a word makes it sound as though it's still, in some measure at least, the property of the original owner, as though English speakers like me could come along and say, "Hey, buddy! Don't put 'Rest' on your sign! That's our word and you can't just shorten any old way you please!" R. L. Trask called "borrowing" a "curious" designation in his book "Historical Linguistics." He said, "... the lending language does not lose the use of the word, nor does the borrowing language intend to give it back."

Good point. They're not borrowings; they're copies, modifications, adaptations. Let's call them cross-fertilizations, for all languages that come in contact with each other are forever helping themselves to each other's treasure of words and expressions, and they are richer, not poorer, as a result.

That's a good thing to remind yourself of if you find yourself wincing (as I often do) when you hear your Korean friend talking about how his aksereta (accelerator) got stuck on the expressway or about how he had to have his shyokam replaced. (Shyokam is short for shyokamshyoba, meaning "shock absorbers.") So what if hof, which means "castle" in German, has come to mean "draft beer" in Korean? (I'd love to be around a few hundred years down the line when etymologists try to figure out how that happened.) So what if the people who actually use sandpaper call it ppeeppaa instead of sapo, which is what the purists would have them say?" They can proudly point out that, while sapo is just another run-of-the-mill Sino-Korean word, ppeeppaa has the distinction of having come all the way from ancient Egyptian into Korean via Greek, Latin, and English, and that's much more exciting.

In any case, these "loan words" will have to pass the test of time. Those that don't will be quickly forgotten and relegated to lexicographers' footnotes, and those that do will wind up being accepted as "good Korean."

Just think. We are all participating in the making of linguistic history right now, as we speak. "Whiting!"

Morphed words redux


In last week's column I wrote about how the human tendency to adopt words from other languages is something that we should accept gladly rather than trying to prevent it for the sake of maintaining the so-called purity of a language. One of the words I brought up as having undergone a complete change of meaning in Korean was the German word "hof," which Koreans use to mean 'draft beer' these days. One reader (a linguist teaching German at a university here in Seoul) very kindly pointed out that "hof" means 'yard' (as in "backyard" or "courtyard") or "court" (as in "royal court"). It must be from this latter meaning that I mistakenly got the notion that it meant 'castle.' In any case, the change of meaning from 'court' to 'draft beer' is still just as astounding as a change from 'castle' to 'draft beer' would have been.

To those of us who have lived through this change, it seems clear what happened. Since German beer has a reputation for being among the world's best, a few beer halls (mostly in Shinchon at first) wanted to add a bit of German flair to their decor and their name and latched onto the word "hof," as in Munich's world-renowned Hofbrauhaus (pronounced "Hofe-broy-house" and meaning, as our linguist reader wrote, 'royal court brewery house'). So we had a Kaiserhof here and a Hofkeller there, and soon the Oriental Brewery decided that OB Hof would be a great name for their new chain of pubs. The new pubs were an immediate hit, and every little hole-in-the-wall beer joint in town jumped on the bandwagon and put up "Hof" signs. By this time, the signs were no longer perceived as giving the name of the place but as telling us what product was sold there. Thus the royal court became a plain old mug of inebriating suds. Sic transit gloria mundi.

In some cases it's not so easy to figure out what happened. For instance, how did "fancy" come to mean 'gifts, novelties, and stationery'? In this case, the initial change appears to have occurred in Japan before Korea adopted the word. There's hardly anything actually fancy about the items sold in those "fancy" shops.

Sometimes words taken from English are changed only slightly, in which case an English-speaker has to be careful not to "misunderstand" the word as still having its original meaning. "Mania" is just such a word.

First of all, in Korean it's pronounced "man-ia" rather than "may-nia" as in English. To an English speaker, "movie-mania" would be a craze for movies; to Koreans it's a movie buff.

Another one to watch out for is "hip." When Koreans use this word, they mean the buttocks, not the hips. The big problem here is that the English-Korean dictionaries all give the incorrect meaning. Different dictionaries even use the same wording in the definition. Apparently when publishers put out a "new" dictionary, they may add some helpful layout features, but for the definitions they just copy from previous generations of dictionaries, so that the mistake is carried on from one edition to another.

I wonder how much of an effect Konglish has on marketing. I bet if they did a demographic survey of their sales, confectioners that make those Oreo-like cream-filled cookies would be dismayed to find that expats don't buy them much at all. The makers probably don't realize how unappetizing the name "Sand" sounds in English. The word appears to be a shortening of "sandwich" and originated in Japan, where the cookies are called "Sando."

Because Koreans have an entirely different phonological system from English and a different sense of how words can be shortened, they often come up with abbreviations that leave an English-speaker completely in the dark. I remember an incident that happened many years ago when I was translating a brochure for a big company. The Korean copy mentioned that they had used so many tons of "remicon" on a certain building project. When I asked the section chief in charge of the brochure what "remicon" meant, he was flabbergasted. "But it's English!" he said. Turns out it means 'ready-mixed concrete.' I had already been in Korea for a dozen years at the time. I wonder how I had failed to learn such a basic "English" expression.

Incidentally, this is a two-way street. When I was in the Peace Corps, we volunteers spoke a version of English with Korean mixed in that you might call "Engrean." Koreans who spoke good English couldn't understand us when we'd say something like, "I'm going to the mohg." When they learned that by "mohg" we meant "mogyoktang," they might ask, "But why use a shortened Korean word when you have the word 'bathhouse' in English?" The answer, of course, was that the two words carried quite different semantic content: the mohg was a place you went to actually bathe whereas a bathhouse was a place where, well, you might catch a sexually transmitted disease.