Surprises Galore!

I asked some students to compare the Korean and English languages. Stupid me, I should have know that this would provoke all kinds of weird knee-jerk claims that Korean is somehow “superior” to English.

Weird because, if you know anything about language (and I’d imagine someone who majors in foreign language study would bother to learn about language too), you know that there aren’t more and less “primitive” languages, or that “better” and “worse” aren’t really objective qualities of languages. (A language might be better for some purposes, but this does not make it a better language in essence.)

It’s saddening when a mentality focused on hierarchical competition has been so instilled in people, and a sense of inferiority so spread around by, I think it’s fair to say, the media, that people grasp at straws to make claims about superiority with regard to just about anything, even things about which claims of superiority make no logical sense. Ask people to compare, and claims of superiority pop out. That’s a kind of scary mechanism, isn’t it? It reminds me of scary mechanisms, anyway.

Now, on with the gags:

  • There’s only one word for the color “yellow” in English. (I wonder what amber, bisque, blond, buff, chrome, cream, gold, ivory, lemon, ochre, saffron, sandy, and tawny mean, then? Courtesy of, except for “ochre” which is my own addition, and that’s not even mentioning the ones that have to do with specific things like hair color, or which communicate more information, like how “jaundiced” can mean yellowy and ill.)
  • English is less expressive than Korean. (Well, maybe for you it is.)
  • English is less precise than Korean. (Is that why the working vocabulary necessary for fluency is so much bigger?)
  • There is no way to express politeness in English, but Korean speakers are very polite. (Except of course that there’s a difference between courtesy and politeness, and that basic courteous speech is just easier to master in Korean, since it’s mostly — not all, but a lot — about tagging bits of your sentence with the right honorifics. Unlike in English, where one expresses politeness in a more general shift in tone that encompasses sentence structure and diction.)
  • There are two different words in Korean to describe the movement of water — one to mean slowly-moving, and the other to mean quickly-moving. Such sensual expressions and precisions of sensual stimuli do not exist in English, unfortunately. (Wow, and I thought he had words like gurgling, babbling, flowing, rushing, raging, and crashing — to name just a few examples — actually are pretty indicative, and varied, descriptor words for the action of moving water. Silly me.)

I really will have to write something up and post it on the blog, so that these students can read my response to these essays. Of course, I should respond to the sensible ideas I’ve run across, that the drastic differences in grammar make it difficult to learn English, that cultural differences come into play… there are a few essays that have wholly sensible ideas throughout. But there’s also a lot of nonsense floating around in some of my students’ heads, it seems. And the bit tha worries meis that some of these claims are rooted in things that — they claim — other professors at the Uni have told them. I could come down hard and call this nonsense, but whose name will I be besmirching by doing so? Who will lose face? And why would anyone even hint to students that English is an inferior, inexpressive, color-words poor, vocabulary-poor language? It doesn’t make sense, especially to people who are supposed to be studying and learning the language. I don’t get it, is all.

Anyway, next time, I’m going to go with something less likely to annoy me. Compare/contrast bbongjjak and techno, or E Pak Sa to Hyori, or compare/contrast watching TV at home to watching movies in the cinema.

13 thoughts on “Surprises Galore!

  1. I kid you not–today in class my prof invoked the chopstick theory (this is in a doctorate level class, mind you). I got a headache simply from restraining myself from rolling my eyes.

    So yeah, I can totally believe that they heard this crap from some of their profs.

    Say, speaking of 뽕?… how’d you make out with that info my 선배 passed along? Any luck?

  2. Charles,

    What chopstick theory? The one where being good at chopsticks makes one more likely to perpetrate biotech research fraud?

    I haven’t even begun chasing down her leads, since I wouldn’t be able to read the book, but I will try to get a copy sometime.

  3. Yup, that chopstick theory. I especially loved how he prefaced it: “Well, Dr. Hwang has had some problems, but…”

    In an effort to prevent my eyes from rolling, I stared straight across the room. Another classmate happened to be directly in my line of sight, and when I caught his eye his look indicated that he knew what I was thinking. That was comforting.

    But I’d like to offer an intelligent and measured addition to last night’s reactionary reply. As I’m sure you are aware, there is a seed of truth in each of the statements your students made (well, except for the one about English being less expressive than Korea, which has been so distorted that there is no truth left). Take the one about there only being one word for “yellow” in English. Actually, it’s true. There is only one word for “yellow” in English, and it happens to be “yellow.” Of course, the same is true in Korean, where there is only one word for 노랗다 (surprise! That word happens to be 노랗다). What they are trying to say is that there are different variations on this word, like 노르스름하다, 노르무레하다, 노르께다, etc.–and then of course you have 누렇다 and its similar variants. All of these will be defined in an English dictionary as “yellowish,” but the nuances are slightly different. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t tell you how they are different, but I can feel the difference.

    Of course, this still means nothing, because Korean is a highly inflected language while English is almost uninflected (but not entirely). It is simply a function of the language. Your original thesis stands, of course–these are simply differences in language systems, and do not necessarily make one better than the other.

    When it comes to colors, I find it much more interesting to compare how the two languages divvy up the spectrum. I’ve always been particularly intrigued by the concept of 파란색 in Korean (and Japanese). For example, you can say something like 푸른 바다, 푸른 산 in Korean, which we would translate into English as “blue sea, green mountains.” And when the traffic signal turns green, it is 파란색. I also like how Koreans make a distinction between 핑? and 분?색, which doesn’t really have as much to do with color as it does with the mindset concerning things Western vs. things traditional, but it’s still interesting.

    But I ramble. Apologies for the bloated comment.

  4. Charles,

    I cannot imagine having a professor say that and not responding to it with, “How fucking stupid you must be to believe that shit!” or something like that. I suppose I’d better not go to University in Korea. While my profs in Canada took that kind of response — well, more measured, but then, their stupidities were more measured than that, too — I can’t see it going down well here.

    As for the colors thing — all those variations are off of one root, “노르…” or “노랑”, right? So yeah, we might define those Korean words as “yellowish”, but what are the Korean definitions of English color words like “buff” and “ochre” and “sandy” and “tawny” and “jaundiced” and “canary yellow” and “banana yellow” and all the other expressions we use? Canary yellow and banana yellow don’t even necessarily seem like different shades of yellowish, but they must denote some difference in meaning, I think softness versus, I don’t know, smoothness, or richness of color, maybe? An example based on an odd point is that, in my sidebar, I can see the cover of Rudy Rucker’s SEEK!, and it’s banana yellow, but on my shelf above my PC, I can see the the real book cover is canary yellow. It’s a lighter, paler, and less-rich yellow. While my “Korea and Her Neighbours” is a light ochre, and the box of Tylenol PM is a slightly paler shade of canary yellow than the Rudy Rucker book.

    All of that said, I’m sure there are all kinds of color words in all kinds of languages that don’t have exact translations in English. And it’s true that most native speakers of English probably do have a smaller active vocabulary of available terms for precisely describing color than native speakers of Korean have… though we seem to make do with a lot of qualifiers like “fire engine red” or “blood red” or fiery red” or “sorghum red” to communicate all kinds of things from context or association, to character, to shades of color. This sounds to me like the politeness claim. Indicating politeness in English involves all kinds of cues that, at least as far as I can tell, are also used in Korean: tone of voice, physical posture, diction, pace of speech, use of formulaic expressions of politeness, and so on. While these differ in both languages, Korean seems to have one or maybe two more elements, and a superficial one at that: tag suffixes for verbs, and honorific terms of address (which, by the way, I’d argue we have in a very much more limited form — that goodness — in English).

    Your Korean’s better than mine, of course, so you may correct me at will on any of this. But I agree with you — all of these points standing or not, it’s an idiocy to argue that one language is in any absolute or fundamental sense “better” than another.

    By the way, I have a question: it seems to me that the use of 파란색 to denote both blue and green would have to be formulaic in some sense. When used with traffic lights and mountains, we can interpret it as green; when used with oceans and rivers, we know it’s blue. But when there’s no context at all — “작? 푸른 세를 봤어요” where the species of bird is not specifically mentioned — what connotation is assumed? I’d guess it would have to be either green or blue, and that most people would tend to assume one over the other, if all other context were removed. Or do people just balance the uncertainty in their minds? (This would be easily testable with visualization tests involving drawing what one imagined after hearing the story. It’d be cool to test on a few friends, actually, without telling them *what* you’re testing. Damn, now you’ve got me curious.

    For the record, the kid who taught me colors, a long time ago — a little girl whose grandma’s traditional tea shop I was visiting, who sat down beside me with markers and wrote the color names using the appropriately-colored marker — wrote 파란색 (actually, I think she wrote “파랑색”) in blue, which is why I always associate the word with blue or actually, azure, to be precise (ha, no color words my ass!).

    No apologies necessary, I bloat my own comments too!

  5. On the different color words: the way I see it, it is purely a function of how each language operates. Korean, being highly inflected, relies more on different word endings to the same roots to create distinct concepts. English, being generally uninflected, relies on attaching modifiers (in this case “canary” or “banana”) to words to make distinct concepts.

    You’re right–it is the same thing with the politeness claim. It is purely a matter of the mechanics of language, nothing more.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t cultural differences in our conceptions of color/politeness/etc. Take the elusive 파란색 for example (파란색 is the “official” spelling, I believe, but it’s also spelled 파랑색). You’re still thinking in terms of English when you ask what the word means without an indentifiable context. The only way I can explain it is to say that the word has a wider semantic range than “blue” has in English. But it doesn’t extend through the entire range of green, of course–Korean still has 초?색. So what does it mean when there is no specific context? It means 파란색. There’s really no other way of explaining it. If I were translating and I came across such a case, I would use whatever color I saw in my mind’s eye, although I would most likely tend toward blue. Think of it as covering everything from blue to blue-green. I wouldn’t call it azure, though–that color is generally associated with the sky, and sometimes with a slightly purplish blue.

    I have always wanted to do an experiment with colors–taking a whole bunch of color cards and showing them to Korean-speakers and English-speakers and seeing what they come up with. It would definitely be interesting (although I’m sure it’s probably been done before).

  6. Charles,

    Right, so whether by inflection or by modifiers (or, of course, the other words available in English and Korea, like “scarlet” and “?” — that’s “red” isn’t it?), various gradations of color are expressible in both languages. I will admit, though, that most native speakers of English probably use color language less precisely than native speakers of Korean, or so it seems from how my students could rattle off words that mean different shades of “red”. I think most native speakers of English who aren’t either fashion designers, interior designers, artists, or writers — ie. non-specialists with color or language — would probably also claim that there is only one word for “red”.

    As for my question about 파란색 (maybe 파랑색 is a 시골 expression? It was a kid in Jeonbuk who taught me it…): I think it presupposes visualization. For whatever reason, I am not a highly visual imaginer. I can’t see things in my head when I read or hear about them, for example. I can read about people being drawn and quartered and not be horrified because, after all, it’s words on a page and just concepts in my head; I see no actual pictures in my head. But from conversations, I’ve been led to believe that most people in fact do visualize things that they hear or read.

    Given that, I think that across a group of people, yes, we’d find a range of responses for what a “푸른” bird looks like. However, I would also think that there’s be a strong tendency towards a particular specific color within the range. It’s all well and good to note that a specific word denotes anything within a range, but when it comes to visualization, that cannot be the case on an indvidual basis. The reason that people can understand “푸른 바다, 푸른 산” must be because of a familiarity of the intended meaning. I mean, surely people don’t visualize the mountains and sea as being exactly the same color, do they? (They don’t paint them the same color, for example, do they?) This means there is a contextual modification of the meaning of the word, right? So if you remove the context, and give people a definite object to visualize, like a bird or a toy, what color will the come up with?

    Not that this will define the color, and I understand it refers to a range, but… I wonder what they’ll come up with independently if the color is decontextualized?

    This is a little akin to the question of whether people who speak languages with only three color words see only three colors. The answer is that of course they don’t, and that when they learn languages with more color words, they master them relatively easily and use them fluently. Surely, in a language where people have only three words for color — red, black, and white, say, like some Native American language I read about once — they don’t imagine that the sky is white. The can see it’s blue, they visualize it as blue, even if they use the word white for it.

    So what I’m interested in is the connotation of “푸른” if you give it an ambiguous context — which interpretation of the color people basically tend toward. Maybe it’s still an inanity, perhaps there are special words for animal colors of blue and green, for example, but would be curious to see what shade of blue or green people would choose if asked to get the 푸른 one, how much context would change that — if there are more shades of blue and green, would there be more hesitation? Would people statistically tend toward a specific shade? Would it vary whether 초?색 had been mentioned earlier? If there was no blue, would people take green? Would they take green if they’re drawn the same green as a response to 초?색 earlier?

    Damn, sounds like a fun study. Maybe we should organize something like that.

  7. Interesting.

    Yes, there is most certainly contextual modification of meaning, but I don’t think it’s that important a distinction.

    Let’s step away from colors for a bit and look at this idea from another angle. Take the noun “table,” for example. Now, you said that you don’t visualize things when reading words on paper, so this is going to be a bit difficult, but let’s say that two people are thinking of a table. Chances are that they are thinking of different tables. In this way, the word “table” (and pretty much all common nouns, in fact) has a fairly broad semantic range.

    I think the reason that 파란색 (by the way, I’m not sure if 파랑색 is 사투리, because I’ve seen it written both ways here in Seoul) sticks in your maw is because there is no word with an equivalent (or nearly equivalent) semantic range in English.

    So what does “table” actually mean? What does 파란색 actually mean? We can look in a dictionary to find definitions, but these are just approximations. It is a fascinating exercise, though. I decided to look 파란색 up in a Korean dictionary, and it defines it as “맑? 가? 하늘과 같? ?고 선명하게 푸른색.” So is that a Korean autumn sky or, say, an African autumn sky? And it makes no mention of “greenness,” which is most certainly part of the semantic range. Interestingly enough, the OED defines blue as “the colour of the sky and the deep sea.” Wait a minute–isn’t the deep sea green?

    Does there exist somewhere an ideal blue or an ideal 파란색 (the more I think about this, the more Platonic ideals start to come to mind)? If you were to give people a color wheel and tell them to pinpoint the exact location of 파란색 (or 푸른), I suspect you wouldn’t get two identical answers.

    I’m rambling here. The deeper we delve, the more confusing it gets. But back to the experiment–in the case of 파란색, with no modifying context, I suspect people would tend toward what we consider blue.

    I’ll tell you what I think we should do, though. I don’t know about you, but at the moment I’m kind of busy with the end of the semester and everything. But when that’s over, I think a website that displays various shades of various colors would make an interesting experiment. How the questions are asked would determine what is being tested. If we were just to present color swatches and ask people, fill-in-the-blank style, what color it is, we would be testing color vocabulary as well as color conceptions. Providing a list of possible choices might make things more interesting, but that would have its own pitfalls. Conversely, we could show color words and then have users click on the closest color swatch or a continuous color spectrum where they think this color is (although the latter would require a bit of programming trickery). Or we could combine a bunch of different methods. Then we give the URL out to willing Koreans and see what happens.

    Of course, this will require more thought in terms of methodology before actually attempting anything. Just a thought.

  8. Charles,

    I understand this idea of range of referentiality, and that visualizations compared between people probably have only typological features in common, with details varying from individual to individual — ie. tables will commonly be flat surfaces with four supporting legs, but the sizes, styles, and materials will vary (probably largely on the grounds of the visualizers’ experiences of tables). I’d wager that for colors, or shades of colors, there’d be a statistical tendency towards a specific range on the color wheel when the shade is decontextualized, and that specific referential contexts could shift the precise location of the bellcurve but that it would remain statistical.

    To be honest, I’ve never been out on the deep ocean, so I don’t know if it is green or blue. But I’ll confide that I think that whole Platonic ideals thing is a load of hogwash. Not Plato’s fault, mind: how could he know that what was going on was the triggers of cognitive filters in the brain being utilized during the sorting of stimuli to sift out basic geometric shapes, and sometimes the brain using learned shorthands for objects after cognitionnhas occurred, and so on?

    I agree, I think a website that tracks responses to users’ associations with colors would be a great way to test things. Little sentences with context-muddling and context-offering clues, that have users select a color from a continuous spectrum, things like that. I could get my students to do the quiz (sign in for credit, etc). Hell, if we discovered anything interesting, we could publish! Hahaha. Anyway, I’ll be too busy till the end of semester, and then traveling a bit, but I will probably have some time in January and some in February, so we could meet and talk about methodology then… I am not so hot on the programming, but I might be able to get some help there. This sounds like a cool idea. And I think we could get lots of responses, by asking people to get their friends to visit and try it. (Lime could ask the “International Couples Cafe” at Daum, and I could get my students to do it, and ask other profs to have their students try it, and so on…)

  9. I agree that there will probably be a statistical tendency toward a certain range on the color wheel, and it will be interesting to see what that range is.

    Coding is not really a problem. I’m something of a code geek myself, especially when it comes to web technologies (I did build Liminality from the ground up), so I’m up for it. I think we can pull this off with a PHP base and probably some JavaScript thrown in (to track mouse location). I’ll look into the coding aspect after the semester is over, and then we can meet when you’re done traipsing around the world.

  10. Well, there’s be a few weeks between the end of semester (close to Xmas) and the beginning of my traipsing, so we could meet beforehand, as well, if you like. That way we could talk about specific methodology, and so on…

    And I don’t mean to throw the coding work at you… though I think it’d take a while for me to learn enough php to do what you can do, so I’m guessing it’ll probably fall upon you just the same.

  11. Well, my semester is going to be ending a little on the late side–my last class (and last presentation) is on the 13th, and then I have to polish up the presentations and turn them, so we’ll have to see.

    I don’t mind doing the coding, really. Like I said, I’m a code geek. I throw together websites and web experiments for fun (well, I used to… when I had free time). We code geeks get off on this stuff.

    I’m thinking we should probably also research the literature that’s out there on color perception/color vocabulary, etc. That’s something we might want to discuss via email (in fact, I’m wondering if maybe we should just move this discussion to email…).

  12. Sounds like a good idea (the moving to email thing, I mean). I’ll try set aside some time before the holiday to do some research on what’s already been done and discovered. :)

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