How Language Makes Me Feel

비는 비.  낮은 낮.  여름은 여름….  살면서 많은 말을 배웠다.  자주 쓰는 말이 있고 그렇지 않은 것이 있었다.  지상에 뿌리내린 것이 있고 식물의 종자처럼 가볍게 퍼져가는 말이 있었다.  여름을 여름이라 할 때, 나는 그것을 가질 수 있을 것 같았다.  그럴 수 있다 믿어 자꾸 물었다.  땅이라니, 나무라니, 게다가 당신이라니…. 입속 바람을 따라 겹치고 흔들리는 이것, 저것, 그것.  내가 ‘그것’ 하고 발음하면 ‘그것….’ 하고 퍼지는 동심원의 너비.  가끔은 그게 내 세계의 크기처럼 느껴졌다.

The first couple pages of 두근두근 내 인생 (yes I’m reading that now) absolutely struck me dumb.

Never have I read a more accurate depiction of how I feel about language – particularly Korean.  I always whine about how it’s so hard to learn new words and really have them stick in your long-term memory.  But the fact of the matter is, when it does happen, it’s such an astounding feeling.  When you really truly know word – when not only know its definitions but also its subtle nuances, its color, the intangible quality it gives the sentence it’s a part of – that’s a special feeling that I think only true lovers of language can appreciate.

Q&A: Being Indian in Korea

Janhavi asked:  I will be studying abroad in Korea next spring. I was wondering if you could tell me about your experience as an Indian in Korea, since I will be in the same position once I get there. Thank you so much!

First off, hi Janhavi and thanks for the question and comment!  I’ve been meaning to write more about my trip to Korea but (as always) am distracted by a million other things I want to write about first.  That actually struck me as something interesting about myself: As much as I LOVED my trip, I can really, truly love Korean on just a pure intellectual level.  I don’t crave the need to be surrounded by it to really enjoy it.

Anyway, I digress!  You brought up a valid question and it’s my pleasure to answer, but with the requisite caveats!  These are some things to keep in mind before you read too deeply into my answer:

  • I only visited Seoul.
  • I stayed only for 10 days.
  • I didn’t get to visit all the different parts of the city.
  • I traveled with someone else who was Asian but not Korean.
  • I spoke primarily in Korean with no difficulties.
  • I went to a lot of touristy places.

That being said, my experience as an Indian in Korea was…. well, rather unremarkable!  I don’t think there was ever a moment, either in a positive or negative sense, when I felt like oh, such-and-such is happening because I’m Indian.  

One thing that I want to emphasize is that whenever I had to communicate, I always initiated the conversation in Korean and the conversation always continued in Korean.  I think in general, this puts a lot of people at ease, especially if you go into small shops and restaurants that may not be used to dealing with foreigners.  For example, the S.O. had his hair cut at a really fancy-pants salon in Cheongdamdong and none of the stylists spoke English.  Needless to say, I probably would have had a very different experience had I tried to get an appointment there without knowing any Korean, but whether or not my ethnicity would have contributed to that experience is hard to tell.  Some shop attendants at the smaller department stores avoided us or tried to use sign language, but the instant I spoke in Korean, it was all warmth and politeness.  Knowing some Korean and having a sense of cultural awareness can make yourself feel confident in a foreign environment as well!

You’d be surprised by the number of Indians you might catch sight of in Seoul.  I definitely noticed a handful young South Asian professionals (mostly men) at various subway stops.  I ran into an entire salwar-and-kurta-wearing family from Dubai at the Trick Eye Museum in Hongdae.  (Beware that people like that can forcibly try to befriend you just because you’re a fellow brown person.  Heh.)

If you wander around Sinchon and Hongdae, you can find young people of all different ethnicities!  That sort of diversity is more like what I’m used to since I’m from the U.S., so I didn’t feel out of place or anything.

I’ve heard some secondhand stories of racism and prejudice in Korea, so I think a part of me was bracing myself for something like that.  But honestly?  Nothing of the sort happened to me.  We were treated with nothing but graciousness wherever we went.

There were just two incidents where Koreans made direct references to my Indianness.  One was a guy at Migliore (a fashion mall in Dongdaemun) who was  saying stupid stuff to try to get me to look at the stuff he was selling (“Hey, you look Indian!  You’re Indian, right?  If my guess is right, you have to talk to me!”).  The other was a sweet saleswoman at Lotte Department Store who said I had really beautiful, wide eyes (and then she gave me an extra nice discount on the Beanpole clutch I was buying haha).

That’s really all that comes to mind on my end.  The greatest joy I had out of my trip to Korea is getting to enjoy normal day-to-day things that native Koreans would do in Seoul – speaking in Korean, reading random stuff in Korean, taking the subway, eating Korean snacks, hanging out at a cafe…. and I was able to do just that just fine.

Happy studies in Korea, Janhavi!

한글날 축하합니다!

I’m going to cheat and set this post as published on October 9, 2014 (even though it’s really October 13 here shhhh) because that day was Hangeul Day!

I have so much admiration for King Sejong.  He took the problem of illiteracy into his own royal, ink-stained hands and literally created a whole new alphabet so his subjects would be educated.  Are our nations’ leaders even half as proactive these days?  I think not.

So what exactly is Hangeul Day?

October 9, 1446 is the purported date of the publication of 訓民正音 [훈민정음].  Considered one of UNESCO’s World Heritage records, 훈민정음 is the official document detailing King Sejong’s new script and the reasons behind its creation.

훈민정음
훈민정음

What does the title mean?  Once again the Hanja tells you the entire story.

  • 訓 [가르칠 훈] = to teach
  • 民 [백성 민] = commoners
  • 正 [바를 정] = pronunciation
  • 音 [소리 음] = sound

Put that all together and in English you get something like “Instruction on Pronunciation for the Common People.”

Hangeul as we know it and use it today has 24 자모 or characters (14 consonants and 10 vowels).  But back when Sejong wrote the 훈민정음 during the 25th year of his reign, Hangeul actually had 28 자모 – 17 consonants and 11 vowels.  Over the centuries, as the language evolved, four characters slipped quietly into extinction.  한글날 made me strangely nostalgic for these letters.

I first learned about these 옛한글 (old Hangeul) characters from my dear friend (and ex-language partner) Kwang-im and was really curious about what they looked like and how they were pronounced.  So after some researching and digging around, this is what I found.

ㅿ[반시옷]:  It’s a sound that is made between your teeth and the tip of your tongue, closest to the English ‘z’ sound.  It went extinct during the Imjin War (1592).

ㆁ[옛이응]:  This is pronounced likeㅇ but was written little tick mark (꼭지) on the top.  I think the usage between ㅇ and ㆁis actually different in terms of when one is used as 받침 verus another, but that’s something I still need to read about and clarify!  It went extinct around the 17th century.

ㆆ [여린 히읗]:  This character was created specifically to in order to pronounce Hanja.  I’m… actually not sure how exactly it’s pronounced.  It didn’t have a really prominent role in spoken language so it went extinct during the 15th century.

ㆍ[아래아]:  It’s really just a dot!  And for a character that looks so simple, I honestly can’t even fathom the sound in my head.  It’s a mix between basically all the other Korean vowels but closest to a sound that lies midway between ㅗ and ㅏ.  Unsurprisingly, a sound that complex went extinct quickly but the script remained in use until 1933.  Supposedly some inhabitants of Jeju Island still use it to this day.

Naturally, the four ‘extinct’ 홑낱자 (single 자모) means there’s a whole bunch of ‘extinct’ 겹낱자, or double (think the ㅄ in 값), and even triple 자모 , as well!

A while back I remember reading something about historical dramas and how even in the most historically accurate ones, the way the actors speak isn’t necessarily how people really spoke back in the Joseon Era.  Not just in terms intonation and grammar.  The lost characters of 옛한글 is evidence that even pronunciation was different back in those days.

Why did these specific characters go extinct?  As with any language, Korean is constantly evolving.  The way words are pronounced keeps changing and sounds blend into one another.  Just think about how difficult it is for the untrained ear to pick out the difference between 애 and 에 these days!  Words and sounds that are rarely used die out and are replaced.  Society seeks to optimize both speed and efficiency when it comes to spoken and written language; of course, the definitions of speed/efficiency change over time too as technology evolves.

I am, without a doubt, a purist when it comes to language.  It pains me to see lost words and alphabets, but language isn’t static.  Understanding how and why it changes is just as rewarding as understanding its past.