The Korea Herald


[Hello Hangeul] 'Destruction' from within: Linguist calls for efforts to safeguard Korean language

Korean Language Society chairperson laments diminishing respect for Korean language from its native speakers, public organizations and media

By Kim So-hyun

Published : May 21, 2023 - 18:56

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Kwon Jae-il, chairperson of the Korean Language Society (Courtesy of Kwon Jae-il) Kwon Jae-il, chairperson of the Korean Language Society (Courtesy of Kwon Jae-il)

Among the key elements of a language -- its vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar -- grammar is the least affected by foreign influence, but Kwon Jae-il, chairperson of the 115-year-old Korean Language Society, says he has noticed the "destruction" of Korean grammar for some years now.

One example of such "destruction" prevalent on television shows and in other media, is the trend of adding the English suffix “-er,” as in “doer,” to all kinds of Korean words. Someone who is good at making up his mind (“gyeolshim”), for instance, is called a “pro gyeolshim-ler.”

“To think that this could spread further and get fixated (in the Korean language) is horrendous,” said Kwon, a professor emeritus of linguistics at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.

“It’s a much bigger destruction compared to incorrect pronunciations or misusing of words.”

Destruction of the Korean language in terms of pronunciation has long been underway, with news broadcasters mixing up rules on how to pronounce certain syllables with long or short vowels, according to Kwon.

Mispronunciation of final consonants before vowels is commonplace. “꽃이,” or the word “flower” (“kkot”) followed with a vowel, should be pronounced as “kkochi,” but is commonly mispronounced as “kkoshi.”

“Adopting broken English halfway is the worst case of destruction. And political parties and government agencies are at its forefront,” Kwon said.

In one example, Seoul city government named a project to retrain women whose careers have been interrupted, “Women Up.”

“Naming a public policy in a way no one would understand shows such destruction at its height,” Kwon said.

Koreans have long used abbreviations, or the shortening of phrases by using only the first syllable of each word, and their usage among peer groups isn’t a problem, but they can impede communication between different generations.

The older generation uses abbreviations like “yeta,” short for “preliminary feasibility study.” Homemakers use “cho pum ah,” short for “apartment complex that has an elementary school within it.” Younger Koreans use “ah ah,” short for “ice Americano.”

“What can be understood or excused within a peer group can hamper communication, which is the key function of any language, once it comes out of that group,” Kwon said.

“I witnessed a case at a Mongolian university where pupils who had been in Korea for a year as exchange students used Korean abbreviations and neologisms, which their professors in Mongolia didn’t understand, and the students wouldn’t trust them.”

If too many of these words get in the way of communication, it could lower the overall Korean language proficiency level of Koreans, Kwon said.

The media, educational institutions and public organizations need to make more effort to use standardized Korean in public spaces, and work together with groups like the Korean Language Society to raise public awareness of the matter, he stressed.