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Loanwords in twentieth century Korean literature

The chosen specialist subject of Antonetta Bruno, from La Sapienza in Rome, is Korean shamanism. But she has an interesting sideline in linguistics. Her theme at SOAS’s Centre for Korean Studies last Friday evening (23 Feb) was the extent to which Korean has borrowed words from foreign languages, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century.

Before the twentieth century, Korea’s first stock of loanwords (외래어) came from Chinese, or via China, reflecting Korea’s diplomatic status relative to China. The words in general related to topics such as geography or science which were outside of Korea’s range of experience.

In the colonial period, clearly it is difficult to disentangle the study of Japanese loanwords from the compulsory Japanisation of Korea. However, it was mainly via Japan that foreign loanwords came to be introduced. While English loanwords predominated in respect of western languages, German, French and Italian words were also used, particularly in respect of scientific, artistic or musical topics respectively.

Bruno gave some statistics in respect of the use of foreign loanwords in the newspapers, taking two snapshots from the Donga and Chosun Ilbos in 1933 and 1981. The statistics represented a dramatic increase in usage (despite a post-war attempt by the governments to Koreanise the language): in 1933 the papers had each used around 500 loanwords, and by 1981 this had tripled to around 1,500.

The most interesting part of the talk came when Bruno started examining the use of loanwords in Chae Man-sik’s (채만식) 1938 novel A Ready-Made Life. An obvious book to choose, as the title itself, 레디메이드 인생, contains a loanword (ready-made).

The loanwords used in the novel, in part, reflect Marxist thought. Thus ‘intelligentsia’ (인테리) and ‘bourgeoisie’ (부르죠아지) are frequently used. It was pointed out that, at the time, these words had little widespread currency, certainly in English (though this in part reflects the fact that, for example, bourgeoisie is itself a loanword when it comes to English): the use of these words reflects the fact that at the time the natural place for a socialist to look for inspiration was the Soviet Union — so these particular loanwords should probably be thought of as “Russian”.

Other loanwords are used for particular effect. “Pocket” (포켓) is used instead of the usual Korean word when it’s a fold of cloth meant to contain money, as opposed to any other useful article; while comparing a woman’s leg to a “chicken cutlet” is designed to have a particularly jarring effect; and words such as “necktie” (넥타이) and “apartment” (아파트) have connotations of foreign sophistication.

What the talk made clear to me, more than anything else, was the impossibility of conveying the complexities of the original novel?s language into an English translation. Another reason to learn Korean.

Come to SOAS tomorrow, 2 March, 5pm, Room G52, for a talk on Choson dynasty geomancy.


2 thoughts on “Loanwords in twentieth century Korean literature

  1. Another word to offend women which is a mixed word I guess, part Korean part loan word: 계란후라이.

    I also like the word 오바이트. I’m not sure where this originates from….I’ve asked a few people but they just don’t know and I’ve never been inspired to look it up.

  2. Loan words are common in so many things. The number of times i am practising my reading and find i am pronouncing a loan word hehe i feel silly for not spotting it until the word is all read – good thing no-one can hear me !

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