Belittling Hangeul: Indiscriminate use of borrowed words hurts cultural pride - Korea Times
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Belittling Hangeul: Indiscriminate use of borrowed words hurts cultural pride

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This is the last in a two-part Hangeul Day article series revisiting the meaning of the Korean alphabet in the age of artificial intelligence._ ED

Government draws criticism for inaccurate use of pandemic-related terms

By Kwak Yeon-soo

The indiscriminate use of inaccurate words ― some of which don't even make sense at all ― have drawn focus as a problem lately as the nation is set to celebrate the 575th anniversary of the invention of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, by King Sejong the Great on Oct. 9th.

The government, which is expected to right the wrongs in the misuse of Hangeul, has initiated the wrongful use of Korean, drawing criticism from concerned experts.

The government and public institutions started to move away from using Korean words and rather employing clumsily crafted hybrid terms or "Konglish" ― English inspired vocabulary instead.

The pandemic exacerbated the phenomenon. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, terms like "untact" (a combination of the prefix "un" and the word "contact" ― essentially "contactless") and "corona blue" (feeling depressed due to pandemic-related causes) have been widely used to describe the rules and realities of life in the time of COVID-19.

Like the term "quarantine" some words, particularly from English, are either improperly borrowed or incorrectly used adding to the linguistic mess.

While advocates assert that changing vocabulary reflects social and cultural shift, others argue it has gone far beyond the acceptable level. According to critics, the language that was created to promote social connections is in fact widening the generational rift.

Experts say that misusing foreign language rather than simply using loanwords correctly may cause serious harm to Koreans' proper use of their own language.

"Hangeul has been part of national pride and language is a tool that distinguishes one culture from another. If people use more English loanwords, they naturally result in the use of less Korean vocabulary. If such a trend continues, it can pose a grave threat to our cultural identity and Korean language may be relegated to an inferior status," said an official at the Korean Language Society, an academic organization that has been at the forefront of preserving, studying and developing Korean language.

Asking for anonymity, the official explained that Korean language has suffered the consequence of Korea's tragic modern history.

Until late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), hanja (Chinese characters) was widely used by the ruling class as some considered it a superior writing system to Hangeul, mainly due to China's influence in the region. Under Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule, the Japanese language was spoken by the ruling class while Korean was used by the lowest class of people. During and after the 1950-53 Korean War, the presence of U.S. military impacted the rise of English as Koreans' most prevalent second language.

The official pinpointed some construction companies' use of English terms, such as "castle," "palace" and "tower," in their apartments to exude an upscale, high-end image, as an example of foreign language preference.

Surprisingly, however, a recent survey conducted by the Federation of Korean Language & Culture Centers on the public perception of foreign language names for apartments noted that only five percent of 1,000 participants answered they would choose English or other foreign words for their apartment names. By contrast, 49.1 percent of the respondents said they prefer Korean words.

"Many English words such as 'computer' 'radio' and 'television' to describe some of new digital gadgets and gizmo are acceptable because there are no Korean terms to describe them, but we should refrain from using terms that can be expressed in Korean," the official said.

Among others, the Hangul Munwha Yeondae, a cultural association focused on recognition and preservation of the Korean language, said that the indiscriminate use of English terms or other foreign language to describe certain products or phenomenon is a serious problem that needs to be remedied.

Shin Su-ho, an member of the group, said a language divide is one of the problems that exacerbated a general rift between the younger and older generations.

"The younger generation learns fast and adopts and adapts well while the older generation would face obstacles. In the end, it creates the dynamics for inequality," he said.

Shin shared that the digital and social media era has fueled the widespread use of foreign language because more people tend to think they are "catchier" and "cooler."

"It's regrettable that the government is promoting the so-called 'with corona' plans. Why can't they just create a term in Korean? Is the word 'with' really necessary? I don't understand," he said.

Koo Jeong-woo, a professor of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University, admitted that the use of English loanwords has penetrated deep into Korean society.

"In modern language, it's unavoidable to bring words from foreign languages considering that there are increasing number of foreign residents and it became part of our lifestyle. However, the elderly may feel a sense of incompatibility and digital divide. It's a similar feeling having to use a kiosk and complete a 'self-order,'" he said.

However, he remained positive about the use of slang and Gen Z terms, calling it a natural process.


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr


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