Friday, December 11, 2009

Difficulties with the Korean Language

While studying Korean at the Maryknoll House many years ago we received a visit from a political figure. I remember the one word he used with his driver:
'가' (go) without any amenities. It was on the spot experience, hearing a verb form I hadn't heard in speech until then.

Not qualified to speak about the Korean language in any authoritative way I will simplistically express some thoughts on what I feel is going on when Koreans speak to me. Most will use the honorific ending of a verb when they speak . There is an informal or casual verb ending, which was used by women in Seoul, no longer the case. There is also the root of the verb which would be the informal, intimate or familiar, called in Korean pan mal.

Have heard from many quarters it is not polite to use the root of the verb when we address older people: we should use the honorific. In Korea we have the conflict in the eyes of many between your position in society and the respect we should have for others. Social class would allow one form while polite society would expect another: democratization of Korean Society is still in the making.

Our teacher told us to stay away from using the root of the verb, for the intonation that we give it as foreigners, may come across as being rude and arrogant. She recommended the middle form, which is formal (informal) polite in all cases. For a Korean to use the root of the verb with family , friends and children is taken for granted and is expected, very intimate and familiar. However, when someone addresses me with the root of a verb- pan mal, I cringe. Most of the time I suspect it is a sign that they want to be familiar but I am not Korean enough to accept it in that way.

There are many times when someone will tell me to lower by speech since I am using the honorific, I never do. For me the most difficult to relate to, are children, in a group less so than when I am dealing with one or two. In that case they would expect me to speak in pan mal but I can't manoeuvre with that form with any confidence. The politician mentioned in the beginning was using pan mal and the driver had no difficulty with it. Even today pan mal comes as an unpleasant sound to my ears, because I came to the language late in life.

Language is an important part of whom we are. Many of the problems that we have as missioners have to do with language: the intonation is not quite right, meanings not expressed properly, the non-verbal doesn't fit the words used. Koreans are quick to grasp the situation. This makes our life always interesting and gives us plenty of material to reflect on during our prayer life.


  1. I, too, have trouble using the lower forms with children that I run into at church or at my daughter's hospital. And I never use it with students, as most professors do.

    I once took my boss out to dinner, and he wanted to speak Korean, but he used the familiar forms. For me, it was an unpleasant and almost humiliating experience.

  2. A lie so universal that it becomes embedded in grammar often obscures a truth we generally acknowledge even when we may not live it. Our spiritual traditions tell us there are no degrees of personal worthiness, that we all share equally the same divine nature, however we name it and despite appearances. "Cringing" and "feelings of humiliation," as mentioned, are powerful reminders of how difficult it is, particularly in overwhelmingly secular societies, to speak and live the truth when it is not reflected in the language.

    If, sadly, there are levels of worthiness built into our language (true of many languages)what should be the response of those who recognize the lie? Should we settle on using one form only, in all cases, even, and especially, children (remembering the words of Christ here). If so, how do we deal with the discomfort this will cause, not only to others who will find this use of language "wrong" but in coming to terms with our own emotional reactions as we use the "new grammar of truth and love."

    It's not an easy question to answer. What better way, however, to teach a truth most of us pay lip service to but do not express in our lives, than to live this truth by refusing to be part of the lie.

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