Ban loan words, says North Korea

When it’s not prompting nightmares, North Korea is often good for a laugh.

The December 9 edition of Minju Chosun, the newspaper of North Korea’s Cabinet, editorialized on the “Culture of Language,” arguing for the importance of the “four don’ts.”

  1. Don’t use difficult Chinese phrases and other words of foreign origin. Loan words should be banned because they are “‘toxins that destroy the character and purity” of the Korean language. They also undermine the people’s sense of independence.
  2. Do not make excessive use of regional dialects. That sort of thing “creates confusion in language, hampers communication and degenerates personality.”
  3. Avoid slang and vulgar words. They cause misunderstanding and distrust and mar public unity.
  4. Don’t speak too fast. The proper speaking speed is 260-270 words per minute. If people speak too fast, it’s hard to understand what they are saying.

Talk about the “purity” of a language is of course particularly absurd, especially considering what a large portion of Korean has been borrowed from Sinitic languages over the years. But there is a grain of truth in the assertion that borrowings from Chinese have resulted in some troubles for Korean. The problem, however, is rooted in Chinese characters rather than linguistic borrowing itself. William Hannas discusses this some in his excellent book Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, including within a section on the so-called homonym problem.

For nearly two millennia non-Chinese languages on China’s periphery have shared Sinitic vocabulary) freely, in a manner known to all of the world’s languages. Until recently, the direction of this “borrowing” had been largely from Chinese to Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, although the latter languages — most notably Japanese — have reversed the process and for the last century and a half have been coining new terms from Sinitic morphemes that are adopted by all four languages. As a result of this borrowing, more than 40 percent of Japanese, 50 percent of Korean, and at least one-third of the words in Vietnamese are based on Sinitic morphemes, according to Liu (1969:67). These figures apply to everyday vocabulary and are lower than other researchers’ counts that take in a wider corpus…. Ho Ung claims 60 percent (1974:44), and Oh claims 90 percent for some types of Korean materials (1971:26). Helmut Martin notes that in formal Vietnamese the ratio of Sinitic words can reach 50 percent; for newspapers it goes much higher (1982:32).

In general, the share of Chinese-style words in these non-Chinese languages increases with formality and difficulty of content, which is to say, Sinitic terms dominate those environments where style and subject matter make them the least predictable. One would think that the emphasis would be on maintaining phonetic distinctions between these word forms, but the opposite is more nearly true. Since most of the terms refer to higher-level concepts, the expectation was they would be identified through writing, where phonetic characteristics matter less. Accordingly, there was less pressure to avoid homonyms and near homonyms. Another, more important reason for the homophony can be traced to the dynamics of borrowing. When a language “borrows” terms from another, it typically adapts the words’ sounds to its own phonology, which is never a perfect match. The borrowing language cannot add distinctions to the sounds of the terms it is borrowing, but it can and does ignore phonological distinctions that its own system is not equipped to handle. In the case of international Sinitic, this means dropping the tonal features that help distinguish one Chinese syllable from another.

source: North Chides South for Dirtying Korean Tongue, Korea Times, December 18, 2005. This article also has an interesting anecdote about a North Korean general’s reaction to seeing “English” letters on a sign in the south.

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