Can the Korean language survive the invasion of English loanwords?

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

SEOUL — When a North Korean defector fled north after jumping over the heavily fortified inter-Korean border fence in January, many headlines described the incident as a “jump defection.”

Although a similar incident has occurred in the past, usage of the term only became widespread in the media this month, according to Google Trends. ‘Gaslighting’, loosely defined as the act of making someone question their reality by manipulating facts, also skyrocketed early last year, the website showed. from Google, as the term began to gain media coverage in Korea, particularly in the context of dating. .

The English word “to wait” has been used in the service industry in South Korea for years, despite the existence of the Korean verb “gidarida” which means “to wait”. And in recent years, the use of “custody” has grown, referring to stores holding an item for customers.

The pandemic has accelerated the trend, bringing a cluster of new COVID-related borrowings, said researcher Park Joo-hwa of the National Institute of Korean Language, an institution affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

“COVID-related jargon is becoming more mainstream — terminologies that most people wouldn’t normally use are more commonly used in the context of social distancing and testing,” Park said.

The institute regularly publishes a list of Korean alternatives to replace foreign loanwords as part of its campaign to encourage the use of more Korean words. A recent list includes terms such as “pandemic”, “epidemic”, “drive-through”, “travel bubble” and “long COVID” as examples.

“‘Travel bubble’, for example, can be considered jargon and elderly people or children who don’t speak English well may not understand what travel bubbles are when they first hear them. times,” she said.

Statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun

A worker washes the statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun in April 2020. (The Korea Herald/Asia News Network)

So why do Koreans like to use foreign loanwords, especially in English?

“Some words make someone seem more ‘educated’ and some less so,” said Jeffrey Holliday, assistant professor of Korean linguistics at Korea University, who teaches an undergraduate course on Korean sociolinguistics.

“Speakers can manipulate this, often even unconsciously, to sound more intelligent in one context, but perhaps more accessible or down-to-earth in another.”

In the field of fitness, the “cheat day” has become more popular in recent years, as personal trainers and fitness YouTubers have adopted the term in reference to a day off from a strict diet or program. of exercise. President Moon Jae-in’s policy to expand national health insurance coverage has also been dubbed “Moon Jae-in Care” – a term used in official settings by the presidential office since the policy was unveiled in 2017. The name was inspired by Obamacare, a household name from the Affordable Care Act that was signed into law by US President Barack Obama in 2010.

“When we look at English loanwords in Korea, I think there are a few common motivations for adopting them – sometimes it’s because they sound exotic or high class. In other cases it could be due to the fact that the English word allows the speaker to avoid a negative connotation or feeling carried by the equivalent Korean word or phrase,” he added.

“In still other cases, it could be because, although an equivalent Korean word or phrase may exist, the English word could simply be shorter, and therefore perceived as more convenient by some. It could also be a combination of these factors.

However, the widespread use of loanwords from linguistic puritans, including the National Institute of Korean Language, was rebuffed. One of the main tasks of the institute is to encourage the use of Korean words rather than foreign loanwords.

But researcher Park said the institute’s focus has shifted from keeping the Korean language “pure” to tackling more practical issues such as breaking down language barriers between different generations and demographics.

“At the beginning, our project to refine the Korean language aimed to eliminate Japanese influence after the liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945.

“Given the historical context, many people were on board at the time,” Park said.

But attention has shifted lately because recent loanwords – many from Western languages, including English – were not introduced by coercion, the researcher explained.

“We are aware of the idea that these loanwords are just a sign of the times – so instead of ‘purifying’ the language, we focus more on ensuring smooth communication.”

Park said foreign borrowings can create communication problems between generations and social groups.

“When jargon or loanwords are used in official contexts or by the media, people unfamiliar with a particular field of work may not understand them.”

Cultural ties between the United States and South Korea are also behind the use of English loanwords, according to Holliday.

Although Korea and China also have strong cultural ties, he notes that these ties are more historical than contemporary, which helps explain why the majority of loanwords of Chinese origin in Korean are much older. The difference, he suspects, is that these words were introduced into Korean by scholars who were educated in Chinese classics or Buddhist texts, not by young people of the time trying to sound cool.

“When a new English loanword is adopted into Korean, the Korean speaker who adopted it had to get it from somewhere, which means they had to have consumed media or had contact with an English speaker. . So you will only get loanwords from a language when enough people are interested in it in one form or another.

While some are concerned about the influx of foreign borrowings, Prof Holliday said they do not “replace” Korean words.

“’Waiting’ does not replace ‘gidarida’ in general but only in a restaurant or service context. Many people don’t see it that way, but it can also be seen as language enrichment.

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