Monday, September 26, 2011

The Seoul Place Name Project

Call me crazy, but sometimes I think Seoul needs to be a bit more like Hong Kong, or even London. Bear with me a little while I explain.

I sometimes take my Korean skills* for granted living in Korea, until I meet someone like my ex who speaks little Korean and has a struggle getting beyond any basic task outside of Itaewon. While her lack of Korean skills are understandable up to a point (there is little pressure for anglophones in Seoul to learn Korean, and there are surprisingly few affordable and effective classroom resources in which to do so), it is sad that she and others like her are missing so much.

And I'm not just talking about ease and convenience in day-to-day tasks; it's also the discovery of pleasurable tidbits for the brain. To me with my modest knowledge** of hantcha (Chinese characters used in Korean), some of the place names sing with a kind of sweet poetry. That is, many of the places have names with a real meaning beyond something-something-ku, this-dong, or that-ri. For those who don't speak much Korean, maybe Seoul and other Korean locations could benefit with a colorfully evocative English name, akin to the colorful or descriptive place names common in Hong Kong, like Causeway Bay, Prince Edward, North Point, Diamond Hill, Little Whinging, etc. Its Londonesque names are definitely a whiff of Hong Kong's century and a half of British influence.

Some would be more obvious than others. Using literal or slightly altered versions of the meanings, nudged along with a little of each name's history, Yongsan-gu would be Dragon Hill, Chung-gu could be Central City, and Chongno (Jongno) can be Bell Street. Tongdaemun-gu (Dongdaemun) would be East Gate and Sŏdaemun-gu (Seodaemun) would be West Gate, even though the actual gate has long since disappeared.

(a real place, but not in Seoul)

Kangnam (Gangnam) could be a more literal "River South" or "South River," but perhaps also "South Bank" or "South Han." The problem with that is that while Kangdong (Gangdong) would be East Bank and Kangbuk would be North Bank, that makes Kangsŏ (Gangseo) "West Bank." Just that one, we'll call West River.

How about Nowon-gu (蘆原區)? A name that sounds in English like not a single soul is there actually is formed from the Chinese characters for reeds and rushes (蘆) and prairie, meadow, or plain (原). How pleasant it would be to reside on that rocky peak-abutting plain and pass a "Welcome to" sign that says Reed Meadow (just below "Nowon-gu," in English).

No, I'm not crazy. I think such things incline people to discover the roots of where they live and give them ownership over their locale. Much of Seoul was once little tiny rural villages, even just a hundred years ago, and they have a history. Hong•ŭn-dong (Hong-eun), for example gets its name (弘恩) from when the king told women who had been taken by the Mongols (and thus disgraced) that they could regain their honor by washing away their disgrace in the river there, or so I've been told. The name literally means Great Mercy or Great Charity, which could be a fitting name for the neighborhood in English as well. Sure, having names that sound like you're in some odd version of the English countryside might curb some anglophones' desire or need to learn Korean even further than now, but a name like "Great Mercy" might pique the interest of some just enough to try to learn about the period in question.

Of course, we'd have to take poetic license with some of them. The second character in Mapo (麻浦) means shore or beach (since it's along the river), but the first one can be flax, sesame, or even hemp. Though I grind up fresh flaxseed and mix it in with my oatmeal every day, flax just sounds too close to flatulent to be a pleasant-sounding place name. Though the appropriate name would depend on which kind of ma is meant by Mapo, for now I think Sesame Beach or Sesame Shores has a nice ring. Frankly, "Hemp Beach" might attract the wrong kind of people.

* I have virtually no formal training in Korean, as I obtained my Korean skills from early on, listening to friends and family speak and then by being immersed in the language while in Seoul. I am not "fluent" in Korean, and would instead label myself "highly functional." That is, I can adeptly handle, completely on my own if armed with a dictionary, virtually any task I need to in daily life, even complicated things like obtaining a bank loan, including reading a bank loan contract, though I would have to muddle through it by looking up an occasional word. In a complex work situation, I can follow most of what is being said and express what I mean to say as well. Do not get the impression I am bragging about my Korean skills, for it is the opposite: my lack of high-level fluency after having lived in Korea for a total of around fifteen years, on and off since I was a teenager, represents a failing on my part, a testament to my general laziness and lack of drive to go beyond what I need.

** As for Chinese characters, about ten years ago, I tested myself with a Japanese kanji book and I could at that time write 100 and read about 300. However, I have a knowledge of several more hundred characters' pronunciation as word blocks in Korean, even if I am unable to recognize them in their Sinicized form. Again, that I am so piss-poor at hantcha is a personal shortcoming on my part. 

... Sphere: Related Content

23 comments:

  1. That's not crazy! What an interesting and lovely thought. I always liked to refer to Daemosan as "Big Momma Mountain". I think getting a group together to climb to the top of Big Momma or go shopping in Eastgate sound like a great deal of fun. Cool post.

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  2. Had I gotten that far into it already, I might have suggested Matriarch Mountain, but if the locals like Big Momma, then so be it.

    I also like the idea of turning some of the names into one word rather than two. "Eastgate" instead of "East Gate," for example.

    Maybe I'll put my tentative list out there for people to comment on or even use, perhaps as future names of groups, blogs, publications, organizations, or other activities. The Eastgate Times or the Bell Street Pub has a nice ring to it.

    Thanks for the encouragement, Geoffwah!

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  3. It occurred to me after I wrote my reply that taemo (or daemo, 대모) actually means godmother, though I still think Matriarch Mountain has a more alliterative ring to it than Godmother Mountain.

    But you'd have to see the hantcha to know for sure. 대모 can also mean hawksbill or tortoiseshell, both of which would also be cool place names.

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  4. Korean names for Korean places. But what the Seoul government can do is provide a brief explanation of the hanja in the Korean name. I think they do that at some sites and maybe on their website. I don't think Korean names are a problem for tourists as many are Romanized. At some point, foreigners need to adapt to Korea and Korean culture. Changing names to English would not really address the difficulties they have in communicating in Korea for daily tasks.

    Koreans are too accommodating for foreigners in my opinion and this is part of the reason why there are so many whiny expats. At some point, the guest needs to recognize that he/she is still a guest and needs to respect that he is in another's home. Just because you are offered hospitality does not mean that you can take it for granted.

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  5. itissaid wrote:
    Korean names for Korean places.

    itissaid, I see your point (and agree) that the foreign residents themselves should be working harder to improve their own ability to communicate locally.

    But I am not suggesting replacement of Korean place names with English ones, but rather adding a new layer of meaning with the addition of an appropriate English appellation. Not supplanting the Korean name, but supplementing it with an English one that offers explanation.

    The idea is about making Korean culture more accessible, and thus piquing interest. To be fair, this is already done for anyone (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese) who understands Chinese characters, since they are ubiquitous.

    Foreign residents have no problem pronouncing Nowon-gu and many can even write it in Korean, but their world expands when it is given a poetic nom de plume like Reed Meadow. Rather than dragging Korean culture toward the English language (where much of it already is), it pulls speakers of the English language toward Korean culture.

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  6. I've made this joke a few times when I see translations overdoing it. Around Jongno, Gwanghwamun and Myeongdong, you can see signs for something called Mt. Nam. Good luck ever getting someone to help you find South Mountain or Mt. Nam or whathaveyou.

    English-language translations of some place names would be good, but probably better still would be learning Korean. I certainly wouldn't want English-language place names to be widespread here, it would look absurd considering that there's no history for it, and it would give the false impression of an American colonial period.

    Explanations would be great, absolutely, but I don't think we need to give English speakers, a group where many need interpreters for simple tasks, another reason to keep speaking English.

    One way to use it would be to name apartment complexes, shopping malls and other private places using this idea. So, you might have the River South Apartments in Gangnam or the East Gate Souvenir Shop in Dongdaemun. Some would sound good, others would sound awful.

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  7. Interesting post, and I agree with much of your reasoning. However, I must disagree with you that 'flax' sounds too much like 'flatulence'. My first encounter with the word 'flax' was when, as I child, I looked up the word 'flaxen' after listening for the first time to the lovely strains of Debussy's 'La fille aux cheveux de lin', or 'The Girl With Flaxen Hair'. I have loved and enjoyed this wonderful miniature piece for many years -- and have even come to be fond of the word 'flaxen' just because of it -- and never, not once, ever, thought of intestinal goings-on in connection with it.

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  8. Unless the English equivalent is attention-grabbing, I don't see many foreigners not so inclined wanting to learn the meaning behind the name. Having an English alternative to a Korean place name keeps foreigners who do not study Korean locked in their English world. I feel that foreigners who live in Korea should naturally be interested in wanting to learn more about their environment whether they learn the meaning behind names or not. When one makes a personal commitment to learn more about something, that is when one expands, that is when learning is meaningful. There comes a point when individuals need to take the initiative to learn more about the world around them, to understand and adapt.

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  9. itissaid, I'm beginning to realize I probably can't convince you of what I see as the merits of this idea. While I certainly share your view that many English-speaking foreign residents should be doing a lot more to learn Korean, particularly the kvetchpats, I think my idea would be more of a help than a hindrance in that it would add some charm and pique interest in learning more.

    While tidying up my paragraphs in the original post, I added a few words of clarification and explanation that I think better represent where I'm coming from, including that learning Korean in Seoul is not as easy as just having the desire to do so (more on that later). My view is also informed largely from having lived on Oahu for the past five years.

    Here in Hawaii, Hawaiian place names are ubiquitous. Though English-language place names (as well as some Japanese, like Yokohama Beach) can be found (Hickham, Pearl Harbor, Pearl Ridge, St Louis Heights, Dillingham Air Field, Nimitz Highway, etc.), Hawaiian place names are far and away the most dominant. I shop in Ala Moana or Kahala Shopping Centers, I go to McDonald's in Kaimuki on Palolo Street, I buy Korean groceries at Palama Market, and I go hiking at Makapuu or Kaena Point. To get to Sam's Club, I turn right on Keeamoku.

    I have my Garmin GPS on the Australian women's voice, because of the three countries (US, UK, and Australia), hers is definitely the closest to the Hawaiian pronunciation, and that's really, really, really necessary.

    But that's not my point. What I'm about to say is sacrilege in ostensibly Native-loving Hawaii, but all the Hawaiian names start to blend together. I know that Honolulu means something like "sheltered harbor" or "sheltered bay," but I don't know what Waimanalo, Waikele, or Waianae mean. After a while, the names start to blend together and just become something you have to memorize — and I do — but they are devoid of any further meaning because my English- and Korean-thinking brain is cut off from it.

    How different would things be if, for example, the signs for Ala Moana Boulevard said "pathway to the sea" in smaller but readable letters just below. If you pass by these frequently, it sinks in, and suddenly this inaccessible language becomes something accessible.

    That is what I have in mind. Of course, the analogy is not perfect: Hawaiian is by no means the dominant language in Hawaii and there is no real need for most newbies to learn it. However, I think my experience in Honolulu has a parallel with a new resident to Seoul or Korea, who hears oh-so-many dong and gu that it becomes, ahem, white noise. How different would that experience be if the white noise were shown, in an accessible way, to have a pattern.

    [continued...]

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  10. I don't think just telling people they should learn the language is really enough to get them to learn the language. The arrogance of the Engish-is-the-global-language-so-why-learn-Korean crowd is one factor in a lot of folks not learning Korean even though they should, but it is not the only factor.

    As I wrote in my updates above, there has been a profound lack of affordable and effective Korean-learning programs at the hours of people who are not full-time students. I know because I tried to set one up once. And the teachers themselves are often working grueling schedules (or have private classes on the weekends), and that makes it difficult.

    So, no, I do not wish to put all the onus on the foreign residents without making some reasonable attempts to make things accessible, and this is one small part of that. In the end, it's about allowing the anglophone residents a chance to experience the Korean place names in the same way that someone adept at Chinese characters can, even if none of them can speak much Korean.

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  11. Sam wrote:
    Interesting post, and I agree with much of your reasoning. However, I must disagree with you that 'flax' sounds too much like 'flatulence'.

    I've always got lactose intolerance on my mind.

    My first encounter with the word 'flax' was when, as I child, I looked up the word 'flaxen' after listening for the first time to the lovely strains of Debussy's 'La fille aux cheveux de lin', or 'The Girl With Flaxen Hair'. I have loved and enjoyed this wonderful miniature piece for many years -- and have even come to be fond of the word 'flaxen' just because of it -- and never, not once, ever, thought of intestinal goings-on in connection with it.

    I guess this is not a good time to say that flaxen sounds like flaccid. Indeed, there are a lot of unpleasant words that have FLA in them — flatulent/ce, flaccid, flack, Florida — that sound as if spoken by the Aflac duck.

    As for flaxen, the color-related meaning of that word is so dominant that it might cause confusing about the meaning of Flaxen Shores or Flaxen Beach. But if it really was flax that was there, I guess that's what we'd have to go with.

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  12. Adeel wrote:
    I've made this joke a few times when I see translations overdoing it. Around Jongno, Gwanghwamun and Myeongdong, you can see signs for something called Mt. Nam. Good luck ever getting someone to help you find South Mountain or Mt. Nam or whathaveyou.

    Well, I agree with you that it shouldn't be a replacement, and "Mount Nam" or "Nam Mountain" would not be a good Romanization anyway: That tall hill or short mountain is Mt Namsan, with the suffix -san an integral part of the name, like the Sierra Nevada Mountains (sierra meaning "mountains" in Spanish) or the Rio Grande River.

    English-language translations of some place names would be good, but probably better still would be learning Korean. I certainly wouldn't want English-language place names to be widespread here, it would look absurd considering that there's no history for it, and it would give the false impression of an American colonial period.

    To make clear, I don't see this as a replacement, and I envision this for place names of the administrative district type (gu, dong, ri, myŏn, ŭp), and only in secondary placement with the Korean place name. Imagine a sign that says, in English, "Welcome to Nowon-gu Ward" with "Reed Meadow" in smaller type below it.

    One way to use it would be to name apartment complexes, shopping malls and other private places using this idea. So, you might have the River South Apartments in Gangnam or the East Gate Souvenir Shop in Dongdaemun. Some would sound good, others would sound awful.

    That's actually something like what I have in mind.

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  13. Adeel's comments about "South Mountain" (for the record, the English name I would pick for any neighborhood named Namsan would be "South Hill") remind me of the whole issue of English names versus Korean names.

    I was a GRE instructor in Seoul for a few years and Korean given names were never a problem for me, and I sort of looked down on teachers who gave all their kids English names. That to me smacked of cultural imperialism unless it was something that the kids clearly wanted. If some teacher was doing it because Sanghyŏn, Chŏnghyŏn, etc., are too hard for them to remember, that's just an a$$hat in need of a good blocking.

    I think foreign visitors absolutely should learn Korean names, and I've been resistant to the use of English names when dealing with "foreigners" so common in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and increasingly China. I once was with my ex and we were dealing with someone in a company that we would have to contact again and, when we were writing his contact info, he told us his name was David. Okay, I asked, what's your Korean name? Oh, he said, just call me David. This went back and forth for a bit and in the end he never did say his Korean name. Sure enough, when I had to call his office and asked — in Korean — if I could speak with David Kim, nobody knew who I was talking about. Though "David" wanted us to call him "David," saying it would be easier for us, it was actually much harder and it took quite a while before we could finally get the right person on the phone again. If you're going to be "David" to "foreigners," then you need to let KoKos know you're David.

    That said, I've started to realize the merit of using English names in an increasingly international business world. Especially if the alternative is not using Korean names but initials of Korean names. 박상현 becomes Park S.H. or S.H. Park instead of Sanghyon or Sanghyun. To me, this bastardization of the Korean name (Korean names are not a first and middle name!!!) is as bad or worse than using an English name of the person's choosing. The latter represents that English is not just the language of the native English speakers.

    But that's another post for another time.

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  14. Well, I actually prefer English initials for a Korean name to an actual English name. They don't necessarily signify a first and middle, but just initials. There are lots of Americans with names like DJ, etc.

    Wouldn't an English alternative to a Korean place name give visitors the impression that they could use it interchangeably and that Koreans would understand? I could see this causing a lot of needless confusion.

    I don't think just telling people they should learn the language is really enough to get them to learn the language.

    Whether there are accessible resources or not, foreigners living in Korea should take the initiative on their own. I know that the Seoul government and other places offer weekend classes for English at low prices. Plus, English teachers do have their coworkers and other Koreans who they can do a language exchange with. There are many phrasebooks teaching Koreans how to learn English. The same books can be used for foreigners to learn Korean as well. There are just too many online/offline resources to make accessibility an excuse.

    Place names aren't that hard to learn once you get the hang of it. I have no problem with romanizing the names, which the Korean government already does. Or providing an explanation, which they also do on their website for some places.

    I guess we will just have to agree to disagree.

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  15. I like this idea. A lot. I would love to know the histories of some of the places around Seoul. The only one I've ever had explained to me (perhaps incorrectly, it was years ago) was that Shinchon meant "new town" because that's how it started-as opposed to the three university party/shopping zone that it is now.

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  16. Anonymous, that has always been what I'd heard as well. Shinchon (新村) literally means "New Village," which seems an appropriate moniker for this project. I don't know when the name was made, or by whom.

    Like Taehangno (大學路, or "College Street"), it generally refers to an unofficial district rather than an administrative neighborhood, I think. But it's got a subway station named after it, so it deserves a name. And contrary to what some people might think, it's not "Sin Village." :)

    Anyway, thanks for the support.

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  17. It just occurred to me that the Seoul Place Naming Project could upend or replace the tendency for administrative units (usually at the city and ward [구] level) to make slogans for their area. Some are clever, but there's only so much clever to go around when you feel compelled to use some variation of bright, future, and nature.

    In fact, a binomial coefficient calculation would suggest that there are only three: 3!/(2!*1!), assuming two must be chosen among the three in order to make a ward-level slogan. If we accept that there are actually two good synonyms for each of those three concepts, we can square that to nine, but that's still far less than the twenty-five wards in Seoul alone.

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  18. I agree with this post. I already do this. I jokingly call Chinese city names by their translations with my Chinese friends. For instance, I'd call Shanghai "above the sea", Nanjing "Southern capital", Hongkong "perfume harbor." With my Korean friends, I joke by calling American cities by my Hanja translation. So for instance, Chicago 風城/풍성 ("windy city"), Boston 酋洞/추동 ("Boss-town"), and wherever there is a river flowing through a town, I call the north side of it 江北/강북 and the south side 江南/강남.

    I'd like to see this in Korea actually.

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  19. kuiwon, I like the reverse Sinification. I sometimes refer to Orange County as 귤군 (yeah, yeah, kyul are not exactly the same as oranges, I know).

    As for Hong Kong, I think I've seen "Fragrant Harbor" used from time to time, and not just as an ironic joke. :)

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  20. thanks for this great post! i found your blog because i was trying to find out more about korean toponymym. i am effectively billingual in both english and chinese, and i've previously travelled around seoul and guri with a chinese version of the city & subway map as well (this happened because i accidentally lost my english map, but the chinese copy turned out to be a lot more interesting!).

    do you happen to know if most koreans would be able to read the original chinese characters? i would like to find out if the korean language retains the same meaning/imagery from the chinese characters in the process of transliterating it to korean alphabet....?

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  21. Debbie, a college-educated native Korean is supposed to be able to ready at least a thousand characters, but a well-educated person should read at least two thousand. People used to stick up wall charts of the "basic 1000," their pronunciation, and their meaning, in their bedrooms and bathrooms to memorize over time.

    Lately, Chinese characters has enjoyed a bit of a revival as increasing trade with China has made the characters a useful skill again. (It doesn't hurt that they can be used in Japan, as well.)

    Nevertheless, a lot of people are hard-pressed to be able to tell you the Chinese characters for this or that place name. This may be changing, though. From about ten years ago Chinese characters were added to standard road signs and subway signs, along with Korean and English, to help Chinese- and Japanese-speaking visitors.

    But Chinese characters have all but disappeared from newspapers, so there is little daily reinforcement in reading. Many people can write only their names and the basic hundred or so characters. Some in a certain group that was in school during an ultra-nationalist period of the Park Chunghee era didn't learn them at all.

    As for the meaning and the imagery, I would say it retains the same or similar. Even if the character behind a word is largely forgotten, the meaning is generally clear from the Korean vocabulary.

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  22. A caveat about my previous answer: I am not a native Korean-speaking KoKo. I was born and raised in California. But I have discussed these very things numerous times with a lot of people.

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  23. Just because the letters change does not mean the meaning disappears. Words are just a REPRESENTATION of meaning.

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