Korea, Corea, and Linguistic/Nationalist Pride

Earlier today, I was looking at some websites (not just one) and noticed some people using (and in some cases insisting on others using) a spelling of Korea that begins with a “C”.

The common reasoning, which I’ve encountered a few times since arriving, is that the country was, until the arrival of the Japanese, known as “Corea.” The anti-Japanese urban legend is that during the colonial era, the Japanese shifted the spelling to “Corea” in order to ensure that all of their subjugated colonies appeared after them in alphabetical order.

One wonders, mind you, what they would have done to the English spelling of China if their colonial ambitions had gone farther than they did. But I’ve never thought to ask a Korean conspiracy theorist that, mind you. There may be a stock response to that question too.

Yes, there are Koreans who actually believe this.

After all, I’m told that in school there is a significant amount of anti-Japanese rhetoric, even now. It hasn’t been uncommon for me to hear people saying things of their parents of siblings like, “She hates Americans as much as she hates the Japanese,” or, in one case, even something as insane as, “The Japanese brought hot peppers to Korea to try make us all sick. They didn’t know we would like spicy food, or that it would make us stronger.”

(As an aside: it sometimes takes the wind out of some of my students’ sails when I tell them that the hottest Indian food I’ve eaten is much spicier than the hottest Korean food, and that at this point I barely find Korean food spicy at all. Then again, some people are very reasonable about this… when I mentioned it to a group of older men in a restaurant who were marveling at my ability to eat kimchi, they seemed quite intrigued and asked me many questions about it. Sure, they seemed a little incredulous that some foreign food could be hotter than theirs, and that some white guy was claiming he could eat that hotter stuff, but I think in the end they believed me. After all, I was eating a kimchi stew right before their very eyes.)

In any case, this morning I decided that I’d seen this enough and needed to find out the truth of the matter. I mean, sometimes the crazy stories you hear are true. But it seemed to me like just more Japan-bashing and so I decided to see for myself whether the claim was unfounded.

And it seems that it was.

A lot of the story can be found here [link dead, see cached version]. Mind you, the link to the Korean postal service isn’t working, so the main bit of evidence, the Korean-issued pre-colonial stamps, cannot be viewed right now. But that’s a problem with the site itself: none of the archives seem to be viewable at the moment.

Still, if it is documentable, I’d say that the date argument pretty much proves it. If, by chance, the nation does by majority decide to change the country’s name, cool, but to make a silly claim about the Japanese is just ridiculous. And a K spelling seems more conventional in English, and is the world standard now. And since it’s not the Japanese, but simply world convention, why change it? It’s just cheap, fake politics. And an effective distraction from the real politics that matter in Korea, which are domestic and mainly economic/environmental, in my opinion.

The discussion here is illuminating in that it shows just how emotional (read: unreasonable) people can become over the issue, by the way. Either this is historical fact or not, and if someone really wants to know, the truth can be known. It’s also a fact that the Japanese colonization of Korea was absolutely devastating and a terrible period in their history. But this doesn’t make false claims true, and doesn’t make every bad thing you hear about the Japanese into a fact.

Another example I found interesting, and backed off from very quickly, was the question of translated sayings. In one of my classes when we were talking about pet peeves and bad roommates, a student asked me, “How do you say a fenced-area where a pig lives?” I laughed and told her, “pig pen” and, then, before she asked me, confirmed that yes, this was a way to describe a dirty room in English as well. She was shocked, and I suggested the saying in Korean may have come from English, or from an earlier shared source. (it’s possible that the saying dates back as far as the domestication of pigs, but you can be sure whoever did that was speaking neither English nor Korean).

She looked at me with dismay written large on her face, and asked, “Why couldn’t it have become an English saying from the original Korean?”

Think about this question for a moment. Since many years before English and Korean languages entered the same contiugous linguistic space — in other words, before there was a time when someone spoke both English and Korean — English had become a widely spoken, diverse language that was completely out of touch with Asian languages in general. Even today, the relative speaking populations of English and Korean languages are respectively massive and miniscule.

Does it look likely that a widely used word in English came originally from an idiom in Korean? Does that seem reasonably possible?

Well, of course it’s reasonably possible. The racial slur “gook” to mean “Asian” comes from Korean, doesn’t it? I’ve heard that Koreans approached American soldiers during the Korean War, saying, “Miguk! Miguk!” (America! America!) and the American soldiers thought they were saying, in broken English, “Me gook! Me gook!”

“Yeah, yeah, buddy, okay. You’re a gook. Fine,” one of my friends imagined a soldier saying. Strange. (UPDATE: Yeah, not so much. The word seems to have come from soldiers back in the late 1800s, who were on contact with the Philippines, and it’s apparently tied to native prostitutes.)

There’s the word “amok”, a Malaysian word that’s in wide usage in English (though in a different way than Malasyians use it, I learned when I discovered the word’s origins at a film called The Big Durian, which I saw at the Jeonju International Film Festival this year). Words do pass from peripheral languages into lingua franca.

But, as I told my students, I am hearkened back to the day one of my students asked me if I knew the Korean story of the turtle and the rabbit who had a race.

me: That’s not a Korean story.

student: Yes it is!

me: You’re joking.

student: No. There’s a really fast rabbit and a…

me: … really slow turtle and they have a race one day and the rabbit runs very fast until he’s sure he will win. Then he takes a nap under a tree.

student: Yes, and… (incredulous look)

me: … and the turtle keeps going, slowly, and passes the rabbit, and wins the race. That’s where we get the saying in English, ‘Slow and steady wins the race.’

student: Wow! I didn’t know this Korean story is so well known.

me: It’s not Korean. It’s a fable by Aesop. It was written in Greek. Something like two thousand five hundred years ago.

student: Wow! That’s amazing! How did he come to Korea that long ago?

me: Well, you see, he didn’t. It’s not a Korean story!

student: Hmmm. Are you sure?

Sometimes, it seems to me, natonalism and pride in one’s country is a good thing. But sometimes it seems to me it can be so absolutely blinding. The people who’ve said these things to me are not, regardless of what you may imagine, stupid. Some of them are quite intelligent people… when it comes to all kinds of other subjects. But bring up Japan, or the significance of the Korean language in the world context, and some people suddenly can’t seem to think straight.

Makes me think of the student who once said she fondly awaited the day when Korea is reunited and the Korean army conquers enough of the world that, instead of Koreans studying English, foreigners would study Korean.

Two things occurred to me then:

  1. It’s not impossible, but don’t hold your breath. England was a backwater about 2000 years ago too, but it was a long and chancey climb to being a world power, and
  2. Maybe then they’ll develop some decent textbooks, hey?

But this same person figured that Korea was going to be economically stronger immediately after reunification. I guess she’d never thought about it, or compared the situation with somewhere like Germany. (Which, I think, at the time when Germany reunited, wasn’t anywhere near as badly off as North Korea seems to be now.)

I was glad I didn’t have to try talk sense into her; her classmates decided to attempt that. It was an amusing scene, to say the least.

2 thoughts on “Korea, Corea, and Linguistic/Nationalist Pride

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *