How Good Are Koreans at Korean?
The last ten days of August in South Korea were dominated by alarm that some Koreans don't speak proper Korean. Is there substance to the charge?
Simsimhada 심심하다 is a Korean adjective meaning "boring" or "bland".
Simsimhada 심심하다 is also a Korean adjective meaning "very profound".
Difficult as it may sound, they aren't hard to distinguish in context for native speakers of the language, or so it was once the case. After a store in Seoul's Hongdae area issued on Aug 20 a "very profound apology" (simsimhan sagwa 심심한 사과) on Twitter for causing inconvenience during the signup process for an event, it was inundated with criticism from some who believed the management was being insincere and mocking.
The critics—South Koreans who apparently don't get the second meaning of the word—felt insulted that the apology being offered was 'bland'.
To say simsimhada to imply something is bland or boring is in fact far more common. And simsimhada in the sense of being very profound is Sinitic i.e. Chinese in origin, combining simsim 심심 甚深 with the common Korean suffix -hada 하다 that indicates a noun or verb.
But a "very profound apology" is a fixed expression that leaves little room for misunderstanding, at least for Koreans of a certain age and older including yours truly.
It's unclear how many Koreans didn't grasp the difference, but the confusion online has been enough to throw South Korean society into a full reflection mode. How can it be that Koreans—young people, it looks like—can be so terrible at their own national language?
The daily Munhwa Ilbo ran the headline "Generation MZ Seriously Lacks Literacy". The internet media outlet Insight put the spotlight on a literacy test that's making the rounds for gauging one's ability to understand Korean, and called for strengthening education in Chinese characters—once the norm in school.
For recent examples of Koreans not understanding proper Korean and going so far as to attack others who use old-fashioned but perfectly correct vocabulary abound.
One viral tweet vented anger at the experience of being put down after using the phrase jajireojida 자지러지다, meaning to turn rigid from a shock. Because it contained the syllables jaji 자지—a slang for penis—the author contended that he/she was "treated like a fucking pervert by a listener who went to university no less, and it left me speechless."
That itself was a reply to another viral tweet from someone who claimed to have once told a customer, "I will process your application". The verb used was surihada 수리하다—which can mean both to process and to repair. Again, the definition ought to have been perfectly clear from the context, but the customer was convinced that the speaker was offering to 'fix' or 'correct' the application and angrily replied that nothing was wrong with the document.
- surihada 수리하다 受理하다: to process [a document]
- surihada 수리하다 修理하다: to repair
And other old examples resurfaced. According to one, some young Koreans don't understand that geumil 금일 今日 stands for today and not Friday, written as geumyoil 금요일 金曜日. (It's not hard to imagine; young people are used to shortening words by just taking two syllables of each, even when the original consists only of three syllables.)
Then there is the fact from two years ago: news that a national holiday fell on a weekend and the government made the following Monday a day off drove enough people to search the very common word for "three days" (saheul 사흘) on portal sites that it started to trend. Having heard that the coming weekend was to be saheul, they erroneously thought the holiday period would last in fact four days and wanted to confirm it (sa 사 ordinarily means four, but the prefix sa in saheul is actually derived from the word sam 삼, meaning three).
The outrage makes sense in a country taking much pride in its language, often cast as central to the national identity.
The country's most revered king, Sejong who reigned in the 15th century, enjoys his status as a national icon (and a statue of him stands at the center of downtown) given that the invention of the Korean script in use, Hangeul 한글, is attributed to him. The history of Japanese colonial rule, which riles many Koreans to this day, is described as a time of tyranny and oppression, not least because of Japanese policies at the time to marginalize the Korean language.
That's why the notion that some Korean adults fail to grasp proper Korean riles the nation, even though the modern Korean language—like languages everywhere—has been ever-changing and words have come and gone, not least through the government's own efforts at "purifying the national language" (gugeo sunhwa 국어순화 國語醇化) since the 1970s.
In 1976 the Ministry of Health and Society even cajoled companies into changing the names of snack products. "90 percent of all cookies intended for children have foreign names, posing a serious challenge to the effort at purifying the national language," decried one paper.
The Korean vocabulary is also significantly made up of Chinese characters, which accounted for some 70 percent of the lexicon in 1956 according to the Academy of Korean Studies, a state-funded academic institution. Seeing it as an affront to national pride, the government toyed with abolishing school education in Chinese characters since 1970 and significantly reduced the instruction at primary schools in the 1990s.
At different times South Korea also attempted to eliminate the use of popular Japanese words by suggesting Korean alternatives (oden 오뎅—fishcake—was to become eomuk 어묵, bakeseu 바케스—bucket—was to be replaced by yangdongi 양동이, etc.), but with limited success.
Excessive uses of English have been attacked, too. The 2009 drama Style, starring top stars Kim Hye-soo and Lee Ji-ah as editors of a fictional fashion magazine (think of a South Korean take on The Devil Wears Prada), unwittingly documented the creeping trend of peppering sentences with English words, with Kim's trademark line in the show—"do it with an edge" (etji itge hae 엣지 있게 해)—almost becoming a catch phrase.
Only a few years later, media took to condemning that kind of language as "Vogue script" (bogeuche 보그체)—defined contemptuously by an editor at the national daily Joongang Ilbo in 2015 as "writing that converts English words into Korean as they sound and just adds particles". (Unsurprisingly, fashion magazines such as Vogue Korea were the main culprits behind the fad, thus the name.)
More recently, concern has piled up over the improper use of the polite mode.
The Korean language has largely two modes of speech: plain and polite, used in accordance with the social situation, the speaker and the person being addressed (it's actually more complicated but let's not get into that now). But in the aughts the use the polite speech even to refer to mere objects became the norm in the service industry.
While it's hard to capture the full nuance through translation, one example, often heard in coffee shops, is something like "Mr. Coffee has graced us with his presence" (커피 나오셨습니다) instead of "Coffee is ready" (커피 나왔습니다) as if a beverage were a person deserving of respect.
Last year, a reader of the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo denounced this way of speaking as a "department store speech" in a letter to the editor, as "sales people at department stores use this type of expression especially often."The practice, however, has been spreading in society.
Yet the recent misunderstandings over "a very profound apology" has launched a far more contentious debate as it's such a familiar expression for the older generations. It felt like a sign—or outright proof—that Koreans of different ages aren't speaking the same language any longer.
"This wouldn't have happened if young people actually knew the vocabulary and correctly understood the word's meaning,"opined the daily Hankook Ilbo. "But if we scold children as ignorant for not knowing Chinese-based words, then they might hit back with 'aren't you ashamed that you don't know brand-new words in vogue?'"
That different generations in South Korea appear to be speaking different languages caused alarm even back in the mid-1990s. Internet use became the norm around then, and Korean slangs and shorthands proliferated, with the media calling the development a "destruction of the language" (eoneo pagoe 언어파괴).
A popular TV program Sedae Gonggam Oldeu Aendeu Nyu 세대공감 Old & New (Bringing Generations Old and New Together), on air between 2005 and 2007 on the public broadcaster KBS, was an attempt at bridging the growing linguistic gap between the young and the old.
It didn't do much to improve the divide between generations if one's to be frank. In 2016 nearly sixty percent of secondary school students said in a survey that they regularly used neologisms—newly invented words. And so quickly are new words being minted that almost 80 percent of respondents to a 2020 study said the rapid changes to the Korean language were exacerbating generational differences.
How to address the question—how good are Koreans at Korean?—cannot be so simple. Young Koreans are speaking an entirely different Korean from that of their elders even ten, twenty years older, and the answer depends on how 'good Korean' is defined. I consider myself a fluent Korean speaker but cannot understand half the things I read in Korean on Twitter.
What one can say with any certainty is that the linguistic breakdown is worsening the communication breakdown. If "a very sincere apology" makes no sense to a big segment of the population, what hope is there for any kind of national unity?
Cover image: the name of the Korean script rendered in Hangeul (source: DarkEvil via Wikimedia / public domain)