Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"English" names cause Korean speakers to shut themselves off from the outside world

Shut-ins, they're called. People who can't take being bombarded with all the "English" surrounding them on the streets of Seoul so they just stay home. The Chosun Ilbo has an article on them, complaining about how Korean names for food shoppes (innovatively named Chongno this and Chongno that) have been supplanted by Tous les Jours, Cold Stone Creamery, A Twosome Place, Red Mango, and other names that make little sense to those who haven't studied English since the twelfth grade (assuming they were even paying attention then).

Roh Moohyun was a man of the people who recognized that the very old and the very young couldn't figure this out, and so he ordered that no official government information be available only in a form other than Han•gŭl (the Korean alphabet). This included the giant B, G, Y, and R on the sides of Seoul's new buses, standing for blue, green, yellow, and red. For the elderly who also happen to be colorblind, this apparently would throw them into a panic or cause them to get on the wrong bus.

Anyway, the CSI feels your pain:
Coffee has become an essential part of the daily lives of Koreans. Each Korean drank 288 cups of coffee in 2008, based on the amount of coffee beans that were imported that year. But elderly Koreans, who cannot speak English, as well as some younger Koreans who are not yet au fait with the coffee jargon, say ordering the beverage is strange and difficult.

"Coffee is imported, so we cannot do anything about the names," says one man in his 60s. "But why are the sizes classified as 'short' or 'tall' in English?" he said. "I'm a university graduate and have lived without any problems until now. I never imagined I'd end up getting nervous ordering coffee."
Hmm... the collapse of the Hawaii state economy has emptied the coffers at the university where I study, and thus the third year of the graduate assistantship I was promised when I came here has dried up, forcing me to officially take a leave of absence from school because I can't afford tuition and leaving me, except for some at-home projects from Korea, essentially jobless and living off my savings. If not being able to figure out small, medium, large, and extra large at Starbucks is your biggest worry, then STFU (sorry, Matt, I'll try to stop saying that).

Okay, okay. As one who has written that signs in Koreatown and Little Saigon should be accessible to people who only speak the dominant language (which is English if you're in Orange County, for the time being at least), I can sympathize with this up to a point:
An office worker in his 30s said, "When I order coffee, I wonder whether I'm in Korea or America, hearing all the words that are used mixing English and Korean." One Internet portal even posted advice on how to avoid humiliation in coffee shops. "Just ask for 'original' coffee if the shop worker keeps using strange words," one advice reads. At Starbucks in Korea, milk is the only item written in Korean on a menu listing around 50 different drinks.
Oh, boo hoo! If this is what you're complaining about then... Oh, right. I promised to be more sympathetic. Sorry.

The truth is, even native English speakers in America have trouble figuring everything out once they step into your typical coffee house. I know that sometimes I set foot in a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and try to order my regular and can't always find it, even though I know it's there, somewhere, on the ever-shifting menu. And really, Korean governments from decades ago have decided that the road to South Korea's future runs right through Englishtown, so come on, what are you complaining about? It's not like you're unprepared. Enjoy the thrill of international travel while staying close to home and your precious kimchi.

Some people do take this seriously, though:
Stress levels began rising in the mid-1990s when so-called "family" restaurant chains began to pop up in Korea. T.G.I. Friday's, Bennigans, Outback Steakhouse and other restaurants featured menus in English, or words created by mixing Korean and English.
Um... I was living in Seoul at that time, and I'm pretty sure that stress levels began to rise when the economy collapsed. I think that's when people took a look around and noticed all the foreign-sounding family restaurants and said, "Holy sh¡t! I've got to blame someone for this mess, and you guys are easy targets."

So they all started going to Lotteria again, and they bought tickets to Shiri instead of that movie about the boat... the one with the girl... where all those people died. You know the one I'm talking about. It has the annoying Celine Dion song. Oh, right. They're all annoying.

And as usual, the conservative CSI takes the Mrs Lovejoy approach, screaming, "Won't somebody please think of the children?!":
The problem gets worse when it comes to children's snacks. According to a study by a newspaper last year, 54.6 percent of 449 different snacks in production had names that included foreign words. Only 31.2 percent of the snacks had purely Korean names.
Pardon me for making lemonade out of lemons, but wouldn't the preponderance of Roman characters on their fish puffs cause little kids to become accustomed to seeing those strange letters and thus make them less intimidated by them when they encounter them in school? Or it that familiarity breeds contempt?



Anyway, what do kids know?
But children and teens who are loyal customers of the snacks do not look favorably upon the foreign names. Eight students at Doseong Elementary School in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province sent a letter in 2007 to the heads of confectioners asking them to use Korean names. The petition drew support from around 1,000 people after it was posted on an Internet portal.
Guess whose sŏnsaengnim is part of the chinboista teachers union. Can you guess? Can you guess?
At about the same time, a survey of third- and fourth-graders in elementary school showed that 79 percent favored Korean names for snacks, saying they sounded more familiar and made it easier to determine what kind of snack it is.
Unless they're writing "fattening," "rots your teeth," "excessive consumption now will cause heart problems later in life," "would be considered animal abuse if fed to your pet," etc., in Korean, then I am skeptical that such labeling does actually make it easier to determine what kind of snack it is.

[above: From the Korean writing on the package, I know that this product contains 짱 and 구. And probably several chemicals that will give you toxic poop.]


And it's not a save-our-language story unless the nationalist angle is brought into the picture:
Korean language experts say we may end up thinking that it is only natural for products to have foreign names. This perception becomes ingrained as we become adults and create stereotypes that favor foreign words and developing disdain for our own words.
Forcing people to use "our own words" while simultaneously feeding them a narrative that causes them to feel that their own language and culture is under relentless assault because 0.5% of the national lexicon is not originally "our own words" is a sure-fire way to get them to feel disdain.

Look, Korean culture is dynamic (a gross understatement, seriously), and the constant injection of foreign words into localspeak is part of that. And this preference for freshness and novelty is also reflected in the often clever and innovative way in which new Korean words are also developed, not just in the proliferation of borrowed (and then often mutilated) words. It's just the way "dynamic" Korea works, and it's time to go with the flow, unnamed Korean language experts and anonymous thirty-something office worker.

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10 comments:

  1. There was the same hyperbolic humor in America in the mid-90s when Starbucks and Peets started taking off. Although then it was inflected more by class and gentrification than by imperialism.

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  2. Cuando viajo a algunos barrios de aquí, en Atlanta, sé cómo se sienten los coreanos.

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  3. If not being able to figure out small, medium, large, and extra large at Starbucks is your biggest worry, then STFU (sorry, Matt, I'll try to stop saying that).

    Thanks for the effort.

    At every coffee shop I have ever been to, the menu has been in English and Korean. If I use Western pronunciation, usually I get confused looks from the cashier. If I try the hangeulized version, I'm usually understood. If you can read Korean and pronounce the Korean alphabet, what, exactly, is the problem?

    I find the fact that Koreans will use words like "미팅을 하다" instead of using actual Korean words to be much scarier. It's been frustrating for me in my studies. I'd rather learn the actual Korean words than the Konglishized version.

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  4. John B wrote:
    There was the same hyperbolic humor in America in the mid-90s when Starbucks and Peets started taking off. Although then it was inflected more by class and gentrification than by imperialism.

    Well, to be fair, comfort with English is itself an issue of class in South Korea, to some degree. Recognition of this is an important factor in understanding some groups' opposition to making English such an important star in the Korean academic constellation.

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  5. The Sanity Inspector wrote:
    Cuando viajo a algunos barrios de aquí, en Atlanta, sé cómo se sienten los coreanos.

    According to Babelfish, you said that when you travel to some parts of Atlanta there, you know how the Koreans feel.

    I guess that could be annoying, Georgia. In California I take it in stride, but we formerly of Mexico and claimed by Spain for twice as long as we've been claimed by the United States should understand that Spanish speakers predated the Anglophones by centuries.

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  6. Matt wrote:
    At every coffee shop I have ever been to, the menu has been in English and Korean. If I use Western pronunciation, usually I get confused looks from the cashier. If I try the hangeulized version, I'm usually understood. If you can read Korean and pronounce the Korean alphabet, what, exactly, is the problem?

    Playing devil's advocate here, I think the problem is that (a) in some places they just don't have the Hangul available, and (b) even when the Hangul is available, it's not always clear what the product is.

    I find the fact that Koreans will use words like "미팅을 하다" instead of using actual Korean words to be much scarier. It's been frustrating for me in my studies. I'd rather learn the actual Korean words than the Konglishized version.

    It's both good and bad, methinks. Having taught lots of people Hangul and even ventured into teaching basic Korean (not like my own Korean is perfect or anything — it's definitely not), in some ways I think it can make practicing Hangul more accessible, and it provides sort of an easy middle ground for people trying to figure out basic vocabulary and what not. So many words used in Korean are foreign, usually English, and that familiarity makes for more chances for successful communication in the very early stages.

    But yeah, at some point you want to learn the real words for these things, like 선 보는 것 instead of 미팅 or 소개팅. But this is the way the language works, and I think that gives it an interesting flavor. 소개팅 is a great word, the way it combines a real Korean word with a Konglish-laden truncation of a now lost English word that has effectively become a Korean suffix.

    I prefer to take windmills for a spin rather than tilt at them.

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  7. These guys are blaming everything on English? Well, then it appears that their grasp of English is even worse than I suspected. for example, since when is a "Mocha Frappuccino Venti" English? Besides, if the language barrier is a problem...stay out of Starbucks and Coffee Bean. There are plenty of little locally owned independents that have either bi-lingual or uni-lingual Korean menus.

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  8. Douglas wrote:
    These guys are blaming everything on English? Well, then it appears that their grasp of English is even worse than I suspected. for example, since when is a "Mocha Frappuccino Venti" English?

    Which is exactly why I put English in quotation marks. :)

    Besides, if the language barrier is a problem...stay out of Starbucks and Coffee Bean. There are plenty of little locally owned independents that have either bi-lingual or uni-lingual Korean menus.

    Yes, I think that's what a lot of people are reduced to doing. But the problem is that the Starbucks are everywhere. They've pushed out the smaller chains and now they're everywhere. Game over, man. Game over! What the fu¢k are we supposed to now?

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  9. "but we formerly of Mexico and claimed by Spain for twice as long as we've been claimed by the United States should understand that Spanish speakers predated the Anglophones by centuries."

    Centuries? The first permanent Spanish settlement was in St. Augustine in 1565. The first permanent English settlement was in Jamestown in 1607. Do the math.

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  10. Sonagi wrote:
    Centuries? The first permanent Spanish settlement was in St. Augustine in 1565. The first permanent English settlement was in Jamestown in 1607. Do the math.

    I was referring to California (and the parts of los Estados Unidos taken from Mexico). With Cabrillo and Coronado claiming the land for Spain in the 1500s, parts of the US were (nominally at least) territory of Spain for almost twice as long as they've been part of the US.

    Jamestown was on the Atlantic coast, east of the Mississippi. California was never an English colony.

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