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Donna N. Murphy
June 6, 2013
I’m going to write about the Korean language, but before I do, let’s talk Kit Kats. Asians have taken this dilectable chocolate wafer candy bar to new heights. One can buy a gift pack of assorted Kit Kat flavors that include: edamame-soybean, pear, blueberry cheesecake, brown sugar syrup, strawberry cheesecake, wasabi, matcha green tea, hojicha roasted tea, citrus golden blend, shinsu apple, hot Japanese chili, red bean sandwich, cinnamon cookie, strawberry, and purple sweet potato. I liked the strawberry cheesecake flavor, but opted not to try hot Japanese chili.
한국어 (Korean Language)
Tom and I are studying the Korean language. We thought Japanese was insanely difficult, and it is, but Korean is also insanely difficult in its own special ways. We began studying in August, 2012, two hours a week, and the teachers didn’t start to talk about verbs until December. That’s a warning signal right there! The first thing they taught us was the writing system, called hangul. It was devised by the innovative King Sejong in the 15th century. Until then, only members of the highest class were literate, because literacy involved memorizing thousands of Chinese characters. With Sejong’s 28-letter hangul, peasants could learn to read and write.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. Various characters can make the same sounds, which means you can’t spell a word simply by hearing it, and some letters don’t make a sound even when they’re there, or have a different sound when placed in a certain position. Well, OK, English has “knife” and “pneumonia.” But in Korean, sounds can “revive.” Korean is a “glutenous” language, like sticky rice. Particles “stick” on to the ends of words in certain situations. So, for example, the word for clothing is “ot” or 옷. That’s the vowel “o” on top of the consonant “s, ” which has a “t” sound when it’s in that “underneath” position. But when you stick the particle “ul” onto it, 옷을, the “s” sound revives, and the word is pronounced “osul” instead of “otul.” So you thought you learned the word for clothing, but often you won’t hear it pronounced that way. Another example is flower, “kkot” or 꽃. Stick on the particle “i” and the “t” sound becomes “ch,” so꽃이 is prounounced “kkotchi.”
Next we learned numbers. Korean has two counting systems, the native Korean system (which only goes up to 100) and the Sino-Korean system. “Sino-Korean” numbers have their roots in Chinese. In fact, it becomes depressingly clear that there are usually two ways to say the exact same thing in Korean, one being the Chinese-influenced way. Whether you use native Korean or Sino-Korean numbers depends. Native Korean numbers (the ones our daughter learned in her taikwando class) are used in “counting words.” Just like in Japanese, the end of the word you use depends on what you are counting. So two people are dumyong, two honorable people are dubun, two cups are duchan, two books are dugwon, etc. The point is that the beginning part comes from the native Korean word for two, “dul” (don’t forget to drop the “l”) rather than the Sino-Korean word for two, which is “i” (pronounced “ee,” the same as that sticky particle). You also use native Korean numbers for hours when you’re telling time. Sino-Korean numbers are used for most other things, including minutes. So when you say the time, for example 8:30, that’s “yodol samship pun,” where hour 8, “yodol,” is from one system, and minutes, “samship,” is from the other.
Korean names pose their own set of challenges. They are all exactly three syllables long, with the last name coming first (by the way, Korean women don’t change their last name when they get married). Twenty percent of all Koreans have the last name “Kim.” When you add in the last names Park and Lee, that accounts for about half the population. Except that in Korea, these names are pronounced “Pak” and “Yi.” It’s really difficult to remember names when they’re always three syllables, and contain sounds that we seldom use in English, so that we can’t use similar sounds as a memory hook. The first names of some people who work in my office are: Geon Hyeong, Byung Kwen, Kyung Hee, Eun Sook, Eun Jyong, Yoo Jun, Ji Yoon, Ji Soo, Seong Wan and Sang Woo. When Koreans go to study in the U.S., they often take English first names because Americans have so much trouble remembering their Korean ones.
OK, our Korean language teachers finally got to verbs. As with Japanese, Korean is a hierarchical language. The verb form you use depends on who you’re talking to and how polite you want to be. Everything is based on the verb stem or the present tense stem, depending. The verb “to come” is “oda.” The verb stem is therefore “o.” If you wish to say “I want to come,” you use the verb stem o + koshipoyo=ogoshipoyo (“k” is pronounced “g” inside a word). The present tense of “to come” is “hwyayo” (that means I come, you come, we come in a polite sense, but it can be said more politely and less formally than that). If you wish to say “I will try to come,” use the present tense stem hwa + polgeyo=hwapolgeyo. You can see that you don’t have much to go on in terms of sound: in this case one measily little “o,” because the rest of the verb sounds like the rest of other verbs. This is why the Japanese still use Chinese characters, because each character has meaning in and of itself. Since Koreans did away with Chinese characters, all you have left to go on is sound.
Well, then we got to adjectives. Unlike in English or Japanese, adjectives are conjugated just like verbs are. The adjective “to be big” is “kuda.” You conjugate it, so “the book is big” is “chek i koyo” (of course, all this should actually be written in hangul, but then you wouldn’t know what it sounded like). But you can also put the adjective in front of the noun, and when you do, a whole different set of rules apply. “The book is big” is “kun chek,” where “ku” comes from the stem “kuda.”
The further along you get in Korean, the harder it becomes. I don’t know why I’m still taking it, because after two years of language lessons, I’ll still understand very little…There are lots of Korean churches near our home in northern Virginia, so my goal is to be able to read some of what their signs say!

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