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.

US students abroad

The Institute of International Education has released its 2005 “Open Doors” report on U.S. students studying abroad.

The top twenty destinations for study abroad by U.S. students during the 2003-04 school year were, in declining order, Britain, Italy, Spain, France, Australia, Mexico, Germany, Ireland, China, Costa Rica, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, Cuba, Chile, Greece, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Russia, and the Netherlands.

Britain was by far the leader, with 32,237 U.S. students. China was ninth, with 4,737.

Fear of SARS resulted in numbers for parts of East Asia dropping off for the spring and summer of 2003, so the 90 percent increase for China is not so much a dramatic increase as a return to pre-crisis levels.

In 2003/04, overall U.S. study abroad in Asia (13,213) increased by 36%, with American student numbers in China exceeding pre-SARS levels (4,737, up 90%), and increases in students going to Japan, (3,707, up 7%), Korea (879, up 19%), Hong Kong (487, up 6%), and Taiwan (195, up 32%). However, even with all of these increases, only 7% of all Americans studying abroad selected Asia for their overseas academic experience.

I don’t know how those numbers are reached. Taiwan certainly has more than 192 Americans studying here. Perhaps the figures are related to official university-level study-abroad programs.

Nonetheless, the figures do represent an increase, especially for places such as China, where many are studying Mandarin. Indeed, being in an environment where the target language is spoken is especially important, given how many Mandarin-learning programs (in both the West and Asia) are badly imbalanced toward memorizing Chinese characters rather than learning the language itself. So environment is especially important for those wishing to learn Mandarin.

For what it’s worth, I’ve lived in both China and Taiwan, and I recommend Taiwan.

‘Seoul’ in Chinese characters

Last year I noted that South Korea had decided to call upon China to use different Chinese characters to refer to “Seoul”. Judging by a Xinhua article, it looks like China has finally agreed. Taiwan had already approved the change.

So 汉城 (“Hànchéng” in Mandarin) is out, and 首尔 (“Shǒu’ěr” in Mandarin) is in. I’ve seen the spelling “Shouer” in several stories. The proper Pinyin spelling, however, is “Shou’er.” The apostrophe is not optional.

In traditional Chinese characters, 汉城 is written 漢城 and 首尔 is written 首爾.

While it is important to keep in mind that the etymologies of words/names and the etymologies of Chinese characters used to write them are not at all the same thing, it can be hard to overlook the characters. Thus, the desire for a different Chinese name isn’t mere caprice on the part of South Korea. The 漢 in 漢城 is used to refer to the Han people (i.e. “Chinese”). This is the same “Han” as in Hanzi (漢字 / Chinese characters) and Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音). The 城 means “city” (as in 城市 chéngshì). 城 is also used for “wall,” as in the walls that used to surround most Chinese cities (Xi’an’s wall is almost the only one left), and as in chángchéng (长城 / the Great Wall). (I’m not sure which meaning came first, so I don’t know which way that metonomy flows, as it were.) So using Hancheng for Seoul could be seen as labelling it a Chinese city.

And then there’s the fact that “Hancheng” doesn’t sound a thing like “Seoul.” The Chinese languages take a variety of approaches to rendering foreign place names.

The Xinhua article says “Hancheng” came from the fact that Seoul originated as a walled city on Korea’s Han River. Interestingly, the Chinese “Han” also originally referred to a river (a different one, in China). Later, Han was the name of a dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.). Then it became associated with the most populous ethnic group in China and the language.

source of China’s announcement: Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hànchéng shì Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”, Xinhua, October 23, 2005:

Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hànchéng shì Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”
Xīnhuá wǎng Běijīng 10 yuè 23 rì diàn (jìzhě tán jīngjīng) jìzhě 23 rì cóng yǒuguān bùmén huòxī, Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hánguó shǒudū Hànchéng shì de Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”.
Hànchéng shì jīnnián 1 yuè xuānbù, jiāng gāi shì Zhōngwén yìmíng gǎiwéi “Shǒu’ěr”, Hán fāng xīwàng zài Zhōngguó yě shǐyòng zhè yīxīn yìmíng.
Cǐjiān zhuānjiā rènwéi, Hánguó shǒudū shǐyòng Zhōngwén yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”, fúhé guójì guànlì, yě fúhé Zhōngguó yǒuguān wàiguó dìmíng fānyì shǐyòng guīdìng.
Shǒu’ěr lìshǐ yōujiǔ, gǔshí yīn wèiyú Hàn Jiāng zhī běi, démíng “Hànyáng”. 14 Shìjìmò Cháoxiǎn wángcháo dìngdū Hànyáng hòu, gǎimíng wéi “Hànchéng”.
Jìndài Cháoxiǎn Bàndǎo shòu Rìběn zhímín tǒngzhì qījiān, Hànchéng gǎichēng “Jīngchéng”.
1945 nián Cháoxiǎn Bàndǎo guāngfù hòu, gēngmíng wéi Cháoxiǎnyǔ gùyǒu cí, Luómǎ zìmǔ biāojì wéi “Seoul”, yǔyì wéi “shǒudū”.

Korea’s official seal

South Korea’s official chop has become cracked, worn, and should be replaced, according to government auditors there.

The 2.15 kg, 18-karat gold chop, commissioned to mark the nation’s 50th anniversary in 1998, is used to authenticate public documents and diplomatic papers, honorary certificates, and certificates of appointment.

The chop uses a “more modern font” than that of its predecessor. According to the report on this, “critics had complained that the old seal used Korean characters that looked too much like Chinese characters.”

(Emphasis added.)

Here’s the current seal:

source: Crack in seal, 6 years old, irks auditors (Joong Ang Daily, September 23, 2005)


A sign of change at Gwanghwamun?

The Cultural Heritage Administration is at the center of controversy after announcing plans to take down a sign penned by former President Park Chung-hee located at Gwanghwamun, the southern gate of Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul.

The administration plans on hanging in its place a sign written in hanja (Chinese characters) compiled from the handwriting of King Jeongjo (1752-1800), the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty.

Its head Yoo Hong-jun announced three days ago that it was taking measures to remove the “Gwanghwamun” sign in Park’s handwriting as part of palace restoration projects.

“The current sign does not match with the characteristics of Gyeongbok Palace and compared to the original hanja sign, it is written backwards so we have decided to change it,” said an official at the cultural properties administration, which oversees the restoration and preservation of the nation’s cultural properties. In contrast to modern Korean, signs composed in hanja were traditionally written from right to left or top to bottom.

The administration is drawing fire from conservatives over its decision to replace the marker at Gwanghwamun, considered by many as the spiritual center of the capital. Conservatives are abuzz with suspicions that the decision has political motivations behind it. The Chosun Ilbo, a conservative daily newspaper, featured an article on its front page yesterday claiming that Yoo had likened President Roh Moo-hyun to the reform-minded King Jeongjo.

While giving a tour of Changdeok Palace to the president last October, Yoo was said to have remarked to Roh that he shared three characteristics with the late Joseon Dynasty ruler: upholding reform as his motto, unsuccessfully attempting to move the capital and seeking out the advice of young scholars.

Yoo responded to the newspaper’s allegations, saying, “It’s true that I compared the president to King Jeongjo. But that is not the reason why we are trying to change the Gwanghwamun sign, nor are there any political reasons behind it.”

The administration plans to make the switch on August 15, to mark the 60th anniversary of Liberation Day. The decision must first be approved by a separate cultural heritage board. A sign by Park has already been taken down at Hwaryeongjeon, a palace housing a shrine to Jeongjo in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

King Jeongjo did not reside in Gyeongbok Palace but lived at Gyeonghui Palace and later moved to Changdeok Palace, where he established Gyujeonggak, a royal library, in 1776, the first year of his reign. He also built Hwaseong Fortress in honor of his father, crown prince Sa-do Sae-ja.

The current wooden sign hanging at Gwanghwamun is written in Korean characters and was made in 1969. The three hanja characters in Gwanghwamun form the meaning, “Bestowing the great virtues of a king upon the nation and its people.” The original sign was said to have been written by nobleman painter Jeong Hak-kyo (1832-1914).

Placed at the center of a gate’s beam near the roof, signs or “hyeonpan” were typically written by important individuals to denote certain characteristics of a building. Signs were first used during the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.-688 A.D.). During the Joseon Dynasty they were used to mark temples, palaces, Confucian academies and even ordinary residences.

The current “Gwanghwamun” sign (above) penned in Korean letters by late President Park Chung-hee and a new sign written in Chinese characters compiled from the handwriting of Joseon Dynasty King Jeongjo


‘Net influences writing in Chinese

Related sorts of Internet-influenced mixed scripts, abbreviations, and loan words are also popular in Taiwan and China among the young.

“よøぎㅎビλĦㅎコ_¤ 읍ㅎF_しち흐ロっㅉヴ”_≥∇≤☆”

This is one of the commonly used words of teenagers on the Internet. It means: “Hello. You are so cool.”

The language used on the Internet is passing over the danger level for breaking down Hangeul, the Korean alphabet.

Up until recently, it was just writing down the words as they were heard or shortening words, like “ban-ga-wo” (meaning ‘glad to see you’ in Korean) to “bang-ga” or “yeo-ja-chin-gu” (meaning “girlfriend” in Korean) to “yeo-chin.” However, lately, it has gotten to the point where words that the general public cannot understand at all are being used.

The language for these words used by some netizens for communication, mixing special characters, Japanese, Chinese characters and Korean, are called “alien words.”

The meaning of alien words such as “㉯㉯납별뉨ⓔ는ⓔ렇퀘글쓰능高☆로㉯뽀게생각안훼 (I, Byeol-nim, do not think using words this way is that bad)”, can be guessed when looking closely, but some seem like codes, such as “읍ㅎ℉를_ㅁ|てつ효_∩∇∩★ (I believe in you)”.

These alien words are becoming popular among some teenage netizens who want to share secrets of their own. They even make community clubs on the Internet and talk with each other in alien words.

However, these alien words are not in the Korean spelling system, and so netizens using this language sometimes misunderstand each other. Accordingly, a translation program for alien words has appeared. It translates Korean words into alien words.

The problem here is that this language used by teenagers on the Internet is continuing into use in everyday life, becoming a serious threat to breaking down the Korean language.

In fact, teachers are pointing out that many students are writing “추카” instead of “축하” and “겜” instead of “게임” during writing classes. (Words are written by the way they sound or by shortening the original word.)

Accordingly, the Education and Human Resources Development Ministry (MOE) has published a teachers’ guide to refine the Korean language and effectively teach students the manners in language for everyday life to be distributed throughout schools on Monday, January 10.

This teachers guide, titled: “Refining Internet Language, Manners for Language in Everyday Life,” was written by the MOE, the National Academy of the Korean Language, the Information Communication Ethics Committee, the Korean Education and Research Information Service and the Teachers’ Clean Media Movement, and will be used during classes starting this semester.