Thoughts on non-Koreans adopting Korean names

This is a topic that’s made me scratch my head for a while now and I’m not entirely sure about it. Over the years, I’ve come across many non-Korean-heritage learners who have adopted a Korean name and introduce themselves in class and to their native Korean friends using that name. Usually it’s a Korean-sounding name or a Korean name that carries the same meaning as their given name. I myself have been asked by my Korean instructor several times if I go by a Korean name or if I want to make one up.

Acknowledging the fact that I’m not Korean and thus can’t know an ethnic Korean person’s perspective, I’ve always found this practice weird and kind of offensive.

For me, a name has always been more than just a name. My name is a tie to my Indian heritage — a tenuous connection to my extended family with whom I share very little in common now and a relic of the religion I was brought up with (archana is a specific type of Hindu prayer). For years, I thought about changing my last name because I hated  Tamil Nadu’s practice of using the patronymic as a family name (more on this here), which was constant reminder of the extreme patriarchal thinking and misogyny rampant in my family. And in America, for better or worse, every mispronunciation of my name is a reminder of my otherhood — and yet I refuse to come up with a Starbucks name. Why should I, when the West continues to appropriate and capitalize on Indian culture?

In other words, names come with baggage. Even if I were to permanently immigrate to Korea, I could never casually adopt a Korean name because I don’t know what it’s like to carry that baggage. For example, I was weirded out when a Korean friend of mine told me about what an American acquaintance of hers did: he married a Korean woman and both of them adopted a random a Korean last name that their children would later take on. Even though she was impressed by the guy’s decision, it felt too much like cultural appropriation to me. That said, regardless of my feelings on the topic, could there be a scenario in which adopting a Korean name not only makes sense, but would be considered a courtesy to native Koreans?

I know many Asians who come to reside, work, and/or study in the West adopt Western names for the sake of convenience or so they can avoid hearing their name horribly botched over and over again. A lot of this is rooted in Western imperialism, which has turned English communication into a survival skill; sadly, not choosing a ‘White’-sounding name can even be detrimental to your success in the West.

If Koreans (or anyone with a non-Western name) feel that they can only be successful in an English-speaking country by adopting an English-sounding name, shouldn’t foreigners in Korea do the same?

My language teacher pointed out that in a country full of immigrants, like America, there’s enough diversity that even if people botch non-Western names, they’re at least unfazed by it. But because Korea is relatively homogeneous, having a name that is difficult to pronounce can inconvenience yourself and others around you in non-insignificant ways; some official forms for example, can’t accommodate names that are longer than 3 or 4 characters.

If you’re living and working in Korea, is it a form of arrogance to insist on having people call you by your “difficult” name? Aren’t you just acting like a special snowflake, constantly correcting/reminding everyone about your name? Isn’t conforming to cultural expectations a way to show respect for that country’s conventions? I don’t know.

I’m curious to know if any of you have an opinion one way or another on this. Is it courteous to adopt a Korea name if you’re a foreigner living in Korea? Should Korean learners adopt a Korean name from the outset? Is it offensive no matter what?

That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).



사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그의 과거와 현재와
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.


There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.

육예 – The Six Arts

I’ve learned a lot about Korean Confucianism reading <성균관 유생들의 나날>. The main point being, everything academicincluding the meritocratic Joseon governmentwas rooted in the teachings of Confucius (공자). Even “extracurriculars,” like archery had deep philosophical meaning.

대사례 [大射禮], for example, was a ceremonial archery demonstration that scholars partcipated in alongside the King. The act of doing archery alongside the King, after having passed the civil service examinations, was supposed to further cultivate and reaffirm one’s class and rank.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Yeorim (Song Joong-ki) during Dae Sa Rae.

In fact, there’s a part in <성균관 유생들의 나날> where the main character, our cross-dressing female scholar Yoonhee, gets huffy about practicing archery. Sunjoon replies:

“활쏘기는 선비라면 반드시 익혀야 하는 육예 중 하나요. 우선 바른 자세를 만들어 주고, 그와 함께 정신도 가다듬게 하오. 이것을 거치지 않는다면 활을 쏠 이유가 없소.” (p. 255)

Archery, he says, is part of 육예, and therefore something all scholars must be familiar with.

육예[六藝] literally translates to the Six Arts. (You can intuit the meaning easily given the Hanja. is 여섯 륙/육 and  is 예술 예.)

The Six Arts were the six main “subjects” that made up a proper Confucian education:예학 (ceremonial rites), 악학 (theory of music), 궁시(archery), 마술 (charioteering), 서예 (calligraphy), and 산학 (mathematics). Those who mastered all six arts were known as 군자[君子]a gentleman, or man of virtue.

The novel mentions calligraphy and archery, and eventually the four main characters also form a mathematics club (which becomes a big deal because it includes members across political factions.) But I haven’t read our main characters having to deal with any of the other 육예 yet.

Given that pretty much everything that the scholars did had something to do with Confucianism, I wonder if there’s some deep philosophical explanation of 장치기 (a street hockey-type sport from Joseon Korea which the main characters play in the novel) or was that something that people maybe actually played for fun?

I still can’t believe that <성균관 유생들의 나날> was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought back when I started learning the language seven (!!!) years ago. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I can not only comfortably read it, but also research the things I don’t know and learn from them. Ugh, now I just want to keep reading historical novels forever!

(Header: 송풍수월 )


In terms of genre, 구르미 그린 달빛 checks all the boxes for me–historical rom-com, crossdressing (guilty pleasure don’t judge), princes who pretend they aren’t princes, and dramatic angst delivered in the most delicious of ways.

Continue reading “화초서생”

The thing about 책임감

Let’s talk about 상류사회 (High Society).  That show should win some kind of award for creating two of the most precious side characters in a drama full of people I couldn’t care a whit about.  Changsoo and Jiyi’s flirtationship is, at least in the first six episodes (and honestly I don’t see myself continuing with this show in the future Edit: I am no longer following this show), everything that Joongki and Yoonha’s relationship is not.  It’s honest and transparent, a little bit silly and awkward and, golly, the characters actually communicate about their feelings and insecurities!  Go figure!!

Granted, I’m speaking from what I’ve seen of the Changsoo-Jiyi dynamics up till episode 6.  I’m sure the writers will screw it all up with stupid misunderstandings and heartbreak and such now that all the cute is out of the way.  I know their relationship is bound to have drama but it’s just a question of whether the characters suddenly devolve into frustrating idiocy or continue to communicate openly like they have thus far.  Please don’t ruin this couple, 작가님!

Anyway, I love this couple.  Certain silly, unrealistic K-drama lines still make me swoon on occasion (despite having a heart of ice, or so I’ve been told) and there was one such exchange between Changsoo and Jiyi in episode 5.

Jiyi says she knows he’s a “bad guy” – as in, he dates around without the intention of getting married.  She pouts and tells him not to do nice things for her because she’s starting to like him more and more.  They go back and forth a little and then…

High Society Ep 5
Image credit:  Dramabeans

창수:  이건 뭐냐?
지이:  좋아지고 있어요.  안 좋아하려고 했는데 넘 귀여워요.  
창수:  …
지이:  만나면 꿈 꾸는 것 같아요 […] 세상에 공짜는 없지만 사랑에 공짜는 있잖아요. 본부장님은 점점 좋아지는데 나는 점점 싫어져요. 이럼 안되잖아요.
창수:  넌 남자한테 책임감 끌어내는 능력이 있다?

Changsoo:  What are you doing?
Jiyi:  I’m starting to like you.  I wasn’t going to like you, but you’re so cute.
Changsoo:  …
Jiyi:  Going out with you is like being in a dream […] Nothing is free in life, but love is free, you know.  I’m starting to like you more and more, but I’m starting to hate myself more and more too.  That’s not okay, is it?
Changsoo:  You have a talent for dragging a sense of responsibility out of a man, you know?

책임감 is literally defined as a sense of responsibility.  Obligation.  Duty.  Those are words are associated with the different roles we play as a person i.e. my “duty” to my family as a daughter or sister, my “responsibility” as a tenant, my “obligation” to pay taxes as law-abiding citizen, fulfilling my duties at work and owning up to them, etc.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I rarely associate the word responsibility/obligation/duty with friends or lovers.  Is that individualistic Western thinking?  I will do things and act a certain way to my friends because I cherish them and care for them.  If they ask for help, I will always do my best to help them, but I don’t feel a sense of “responsibility” for them.  I do what I do for my friends out of love, but not responsibility.  I don’t see my friend and think, “I have a duty to do x or y for this person.”  I think, “I will do x or y for this person because I care for them.”

That’s not to say that love and responsibility are mutually exclusive!  But they certainly do not always overlap.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by the Korean concept of couples vowing to “take responsibility” for each other.  When you tell someone you love them, I guess it’s implicit that you will support each other come what may, etc. but (and this may just be me reading too much into it) there’s something deeply serious about the idea of having 책임감.  Taking responsibility for a person.  It’s something I would expect out of a marriage but not out of friendship or courtship; and yet, it is not unusual to hear Korean couples say “책임 질게” to each other.

To me, 책임 질게 connotes an earnestness, gravity, and a depth of love that’s lacking in a mere “I love you.”  These days, “I love you” is so overused it’s practically meaningless.

Now, I think the phrase is mostly used by the man and said to the woman in the relationship, though not always.  The feminist in me protests, “Men and women should be responsible for themselves!” but then I think, how truly comforting it must be to hear those words from a best friend or lover, regardless of your gender.  It’s like saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.  Just depend on me.”

On those especially stressful days when you aren’t strong enough to take on the world, sometimes just hearing those words is enough to take the weight off your shoulders.

Buying and selling rice

I’ve said over and over again that it is impossible to truly understand the essence of a language without knowing a bit of culture and history.  Language is contextual.  An idiomatic phrase or saying that is difficult to remember because it seems “odd” might stick better if you understand its origins.  Such was the case for me with this particular idiom.

  • 쌀사다: to sell rice
  • 쌀팔다: to buy rice

My friend Kwang-im told me that in Korean, the phrase ‘to buy rice’ actually literally translates to ‘to sell rice.’  쌀을 팔다.  쌀 is rice and 팔다 is ‘to sell.’  I couldn’t really make head or tails of why this phrase would turn out this way.  It just seemed to be intentionally misleading!

Back in the day, rice was the most important crop/asset for any Korean family, especially farmers.  It was so critical to their survival that Koreans believed just the merest mention of “running out” of rice would infuriate the souls of their ancestors.  So, instead of saying you were going out to buy rice (implying that you had run out – gasp!), you’d say you were going to SELL rice.  Because you have so much excess rice that you need to get rid of some of it.  That’ll placate the ancestors!

There is also some speculation that class hierarchy and social standing might have lent itself to this phrase.  During the Joseon Dynasty and earlier, when Korea was chiefly an agrarian society, those who were in the position to sell rice could almost be considered almost nobility.  However, partaking in commercialism implied you were a merchant, which was still considered “low-class.”  So instead of saying outright that they were selling rice (쌀을 판다), merchants would say something like “I am buying money with rice” (쌀로 돈을 산다, which then becomes shortened to just 쌀을 산다).  So then from the merchant’s perspective, 쌀을 산다 actually means “I’m selling rice”; flip that around, and from the buyer’s perspective, 쌀을 판다 means “I am buying rice.”

Kind of confusing, but a very interesting redefinition of what it means to buy and sell something.  It makes a lot of sense if you think about money as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So when merchants say 쌀 산다 it’s like they mean “I have a lot of rice so I will BUY money with it.”  When buyers say 쌀 판다 it’s like they mean, “I have a lot of money so I will SELL it in exchange for rice.”

Now that my brain can interpret Korean in real-time (without first mentally translating into English, that is), reading language history and etymology stuff like this makes it easier for me to grasp less intuitive idioms.  Plus it’s super interesting!

(paraphrased from: source)

외눈박이 물고기의 사랑 – 류시화 시집

Way back when, I read a poem by Korean poet Ryu Shi-hwa.  My friend and language partner at the time, Kwang-im, suggested him when I was suddenly struck with the desire to read Korean poetry.  Now, I’m not inherently a lover of poetry but through my many years as a student of English literature (which came to an end right before college), I’ve managed to amass a few favorites.  Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, to name a few.  And, having scoped out as many poems as I can find by him, I can now add 류시화 to that list.  His poetry is simple, yet deep and ponderous at the same time.  A fellow poet describes Ryu’s poetry as such:

“류시화 시인은 일상 언어들을 사용해 신비한 세계를 빚어낸다.  바로 이 점이 그의 시의 중요한 미덕이다.” – 이문재 (시인)

Poet Ryu Shi-hwa evokes the mysteries of this world using everyday language.  This is the most significant virtue of his poetry.  – Lee Moon-jae (poet)

When I went to Korea back in September 2014, I was thrilled to finally add one of his anthologies to my Korean literature collection.

The title of this particular anthology translates to The Love of the One-eyed Fish.  The titular poem is actually one of my favorites.  This is the first half of it:

외눈박이 물고기처럼 살고 싶다
외눈박의 물고기처럼
사랑하고 싶다
두눈박이 물고기처럼 세상을 살기 위해
평생을 두 마리가 함께 붙어 다녔다는
외눈박이 물고기 비목처럼
사랑하고 싶다

<외눈박이 물고기의 사랑>에서

The poet wants to live and love like a one-eyed fish.  Why?  Because in order to live like a normal two-eyed fish, two one-eyed fishes have to stick by each others’ side and swim about together.  It’s a poem about longing for companionship in life.

In this particular anthology, and in most of his other works too, Ryu’s poems are rooted in nature.  Trees, birds, rain, fish, etc., sometimes anthropomorphized, nearly always complimented with a very human emotion or desire.  Nature and humanity are often inextricable.

여우와 여우 사이
별과 별 사이
마음과 마음 사이

그 사이가 없는 곳으로 가고 싶다

물과 물고기에게는 사이가 없다
바다와 파도에는 사이가 없다
새와 날개에는 사이가 없다

나는 너에게로 가고 싶다
사이가 없는 그곳으로

<여우 사이>에서

In this excerpt, the poet laments there being a “distance” between everything in the world – between vixens, between stars, between hearts.  But he soon realizes there are some things that are truly inseparable – there is no distance between fish and the water they swim in, between the ocean and its waves, between a bird and its wings.  Likewise, the poet wants to exist in a place where there will be no distance between himself and his lover.

What I love about Ryu’s poetry is how deeply I can feel in response to it.  Many of his poems are tinged with a wistfulness, a slight melancholy that makes you introspect on your own life, your own mistakes and regrets.  Every one of his poems has touched a visceral sadness within me.  But at the same time, they are not depressing.  Rather, they let you embrace and accept the emotion and move past it in some way.  Perhaps that’s just me.

소금별에 사는 사람들은
눈물을 흘릴 수 없네
눈물을 흘리면
소금별이 녹아 버리기 때문
소금별 사람들은
눈물을 감추려고 자꾸만
눈을 깜박이네
소금별이 더 많이 반짝이는 건
그 때문이지


Reading this one makes me think of Le Petit Prince.  You know that saying that says the saddest people smile the brightest?  That’s what I thought of when I read this poem.  This poem is for the people whose eyes shine bright with tears held back, because shedding them would mean shattering the illusion of contentment they’ve worked so hard to build.  Ah yes.

9 things that are an actual “thing” in Seoul.

In September 2014, I went on a 10-day vacation to Seoul.  I didn’t find it too difficult to adjust to city life there, actually, and didn’t face any huge cultural hurdles.  But I did notice some quirky trends that I thought I’d share!  Here are nine random things I noticed while out and about in Seoul.

  1. Horizontal stripes.  In the world of men and women’s fashion, the pattern of the season was horizontal stripes.  Stripes of all colors, in fact, but the most popular seemed to be white and navy blue.  WHYYYY.  Pretty much 80% of the twenty-somethings we encountered were wearing horizontal stripes.  Now, I’m a bit on the curvy side so I’ve always avoided horizontal stripes (my hips and derriere really don’t need any more attention drawn to them heh) but Theo LOVES them so… now I own blue-and-white stripey shirts.  Guh.  A very… uh… helpful shopkeeper in Migliore informed me that it was currently in style for young women to wear over-sized striped shirts tucked baggily into a pair of micro shorts.  Guess who’s not going to dress like that ever?

    I succumbed to the stripes.
    I succumbed to the stripes.
  2. Illegal U-turns.  Think this only happens in Korean dramas?  Think again – IT HAPPENED TO US.  We were heading to lunch in Myeongdong and the driver and I were chatting quite happily (he was speaking 사투리 which was kinda scary!) and suddenly he just guns it.  Wrenches the wheel in the middle of a two-way street and does a U-turn to get to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road.   Granted, we took the taxi only twice the entire time we were in Seoul so we have no idea how frequently this happens…. Most of the time it’s not even physically possible because there’s so much traffic!
  3. Coffee, coffee EVERYWHERE.  I can think of absolutely NO logical reason for there to be as many cafes as there are in Seoul.  Is it the population density?  Are there really that many people and that much demand that all cafes manage to be somewhat profitable?  I dunno.  As a consumer, I think it’s great (albeit baffling) because no matter where you are in Seoul, there’s probably a cafe within a few paces from where you’re standing where you can get your caffeine fix.  And it’s nice to be able to go into any cafe to meet up with friends and know that it’s not going to be unbearably loud or crowded.  Most cafes have just the right steady-state of people going and coming for it to be comfortable enough to study in or work from.  And most importantly, there’s almost never a struggle to find a spare power outlet.

    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes  can you spot?
    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes can you spot?
  4. Couple-sized desserts.  Oh woe is the soul who is single in Seoul.  I have never been in a place that so thoroughly makes me aware of my relationship status – and I’m not even single!  One thing Theo and I realized was that the general cost of desserts/smoothies/sweets/etc. were much pricier than we thought they’d be.  That’s because 8 out of 10 times, ‘one’ dessert item is sufficient to feed two.  (Actually this doesn’t apply to just desserts – even entrees at some places are proportioned so as to satisfy you and one other special someone).

    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
  5. 셀카봉/Selfie sticks.  Improve your selfie-taking experience by using one of these contraptions.  So they’re not strictly Korean  but, let’s be real, I don’t think any other country has gotten the art of taking selfies down like South Korea.  Literally every stall in Namdaemun, every gift shop, and any other random place you can think of sold these things.  (If you’re thinking of getting one in Korea, you may find this post useful.)  We… didn’t bother getting one.  I think we only took 3-4 selcas the entire time we were in Korea.  At Coex Aquarium, we even asked another couple to take a photo of us together.  Gasp!!  One thing that surprised us was the lack of instant cameras.  Theo bought a Fujifim Instax before our trip and – for whatever stereotypical reason – we both thought they’d be really popular in Korea?  Not so much.  The couple who took our photo at Coex Aquarium were delighted when offered them a photo.

    Theo and me at Coex Aquarium!
  6. Keypad locks.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Airbnb apartment didn’t have a front door key – it used a keypad lock.  (Speaking of which, isn’t it a Korean drama cliche that an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend can break into the other’s apartment by using his/her birth date as the keypad combination?)  Having JUST had the experience of locking myself out of my apartment, I really wish I had a keypad lock to my own place.  The one thing we didn’t know is that after the four-digit code, you press (*) to unlock from the outside.  That tripped us up when we first got to the place, but Theo (who’s way more in-tune with electronics than I’ll ever be) eventually figured it out.
  7. Parasols.  Best way to keep cool on a muggy, sunny Seoul day?  Parasols!  I saw tons of people (mostly 아줌마s) carrying around beautiful paper parasols to ward off the midday sun.  If, like us, you decide to trek around Bukchon in the middle of the afternoon in late summer, I highly recommend getting a parasol.  When I went to school in Texas, I used to unabashedly carry around an umbrella in the summer.  I regret not buying my own pretty parasol in Seoul.
  8. 명품.  This is such an interesting word – it’s a catch-all term for brand-name, luxury goods.  And people are really into luxury goods in Seoul.  One thing that surprised me was the absolute craze people have for duty free goods.  Go to the top floor of Lotte Department store, for example, and you can have your pick of duty free brand-name handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and a bunch of other expensive things.  Speaking of department stores, we spent a lot of time exploring all the major ones in Seoul – Lotte, Coex, Galleria, Shinsegae…. And for people who can’t afford new items (ahem – me), if you walk around Gangnam and Apgujeong, you can find tons of stores selling used high-fashion goods (that are still ridiculously expensive).

    Buy all the things!
    Buy all the things!
  9. Complicated garbage.  Gah taking out the trash is SO DIFFICULT in Korea.  Recycling isn’t just about sorting into compostables, paper, and glass.  In the apartment we were staying in, we had to sort out glass bottles, cans, papers, food waste, plastic bags, cardboard and other stuff into separate bins.  Needless to say, I was the one who had the responsibility of taking out the trash because I was the one who could read Korean.  When I asked the security guard where the garbage area was, he pointed me in the right direction, and then eyed me as I sorted the trash out appropriately.  I didn’t get yelled at so I’m assuming I did it right.  Heh.  Want to know why trash is so complicated in Korea?  Check out this excellent post on Seoulistic.

Well, that about covers the 9 main things that really stood out to me while I was in Korea.  I’m sure I missed plenty of other trends!

Gosh.  Writing this post really makes me miss Seoul.

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.


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.


소자 vs. 소신

The good thing about having so many Korean novels is when I get bored/frustrated with one, I can always move onto another.  I’m pretty sure that at the moment I have a bookmark in every single one I own – but I’m close!  So close!  This close to finishing 우리들의 행복한 시간…. and I started reading 해를 품은 달 again (Note: The novels are fun but I do not recommend the drama.)  It’s sad but also amusing that I was reading these two books at the same time way back in 2012 as well.  Amazing how time zips by.

I’m not going to be critical about the fact that I haven’t improved much in Korean over the past couple years because I know I was struggling with bigger issues than just trying to get over a learning slump.  Only in the past few months have I made a real return to reading and listening to Korean on a daily basis again.  And I’m so, so happy to say that it brings me just as much joy now as it did when I first started!

So I reunited with 해품달 again a few days ago and have already read 50 pages or so from where I last left off.  No more skipping paragraphs/chapters and only reading for the Hwon-Yeonwoo Tragic Romance (TM)  Storyline!  Actually, a lot of characters have tragic moments in the novel and somehow – maybe it’s something about actually reading it – I can feel the tugging of my stiff, underused heartstrings more intensely than I did when I watched the drama.

This particular passage comes from Yangmyung’s point-of-view regarding his father, the King.  For those not familiar with the drama or novel, Yangmyung is the older son of the King and one of his concubines but has always been overlooked by his father.  All he ever wanted was to hear a word of praise from the King and, in hopes of achieving it, he throws himself into studying the philosophies and principals of being a good ruler.  But, knowing that Yangmyung will never ascend the throne so long as Hwon is alive, the King sees his academic achievements as “impudent” (건방지다).  Crushed, this is what Yangmyung decides:

이 일이 있고 나서부터 양명군은 ‘아바마마’와 소자라는 단어 대신 ‘상감마마’와 ‘소신’이란 단어만을 입에 담았다.

Something I’ve always found fascinating about the Korean language is its ability to, with almost no ambiguity, accurately define interpersonal relationships – which is why this one sentence alone is sufficient to tell the reader how swiftly and harshly Yangmyeong perceived the change in his relationship with the King.  The key words alluding to it were:

  • 아바마마 vs. 상감마마
  • 소자 vs. 소신

The first bullet is simple to understand – it’s just the difference between calling the King ‘my royal father,’ which is used by princes, to ‘Your Majesty the King,’ which is used by ordinary subjects.  It’s sort of easy to guess the meaning of 아바마마, given that it derives from 아버지 and 마마 (‘majesty’).  On the other hand, I had heard 소자 and 소신 many times while watching historical dramas and knew enough from context that they were both first-person personal pronouns or 1인칭 대명사 (i.e. “I”), but I couldn’t really tell what the difference was.

  • 소자 [小子]:  honorific way for a son to address himself to his parents
    • 小:  작을/젊다 소
    • 子:  아들 자
  • 소신 [小臣]:  honorific way for a subject/citizen to address himself to his liege
    • 小:  작을/짧다 소
    • 臣:  신하 신

The breakdown of the Hanja really makes the difference between the two pronouns clear:  소자 = “young son” and 소신 = “young citizen.”

You could liken it to the difference between 저 (polite) and 나 (casual) except the fall from addressing yourself as a prince to addressing yourself as a mere subject seems much more precipitous!  By changing the way Yangmyung addressed himself to the King, he made clear the change in their relationship – and the severing of familial ties – to everyone in the court. It’s such a simple change and yet it is heartbreaking….  Perhaps I feel the contrast more strongly because I’m not a native Korean speaker!  In any case, I’ll  continue to marvel at these linguistic gems that I pick up from the novels I’m reading.