Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Spelling in Korean

A major challenge of living in a country that doesn't (for the most part) speak English, is trying to learn the language (obvi). Korean has the added dimension of having an entirely different alphabet. I am slowly learning it ('slowly' being the operative word here) but I have most of it down and can read most signs.

In Korean, there is no such thing as two consonants together (and in this case, W and Y don't count as consonants, they are considered vowels). So when Koreans translate words from English into Korean, they often add a bunch of vowels. Words like 'apartment' would be "apatuh-mentuh". Most Koreans, whether they have studied English or not, know at least 500 English words from advertising and daily use. Words like "super", "delicious" and "spicy" appear in ads for all ranges of things and for the most part they are used correctly. Then there are the words that have been picked up from English for everyday use, like 'apartment' since there is no Korean equivalent. Words like 'cookie', 'ice cream', 'oatmeal', 'card', 'hand phone', 'computer' and 'tomato' are the same in English and Korean, except with more vowels and different pronunciation.

They also have only one letter for many sounds. For example, ch/z/j are only one letter, b/p/v are one, t/d are one, r/l are one, and s/sh and g/k are both together. But that doesn't mean that they don't differentiate. I haven't been able to get a straight answer on this from anyone, but it appears that their placement in the word affects how you pronounce them.

When translating Korean words into Roman letters, its hard to get it exactly right. There are two official ways to romanize Korean and there are a billion ways that actually are applied on sales brochures and signs. For example, the word 떡찜 (a popular Korean snack consisting of spongy rice cakes in spicy sauce) is pronounced "duk-boh-gee" with a hard 'g'. But I have seen it spelled a thousand different ways: Tokkboki, Dduggpoki, Ttugpogi, etc.

Even the name 'Park', which is famously a Korean last name, is spelled which is pronounced 'Bahk' or 'Pahg', no 'r'. Kim, spelled 김, which is also the word for a type of seaweed, is often pronounced 'Kim' when referring to people and 'Gim' when referring to food. This is just something I've noticed so it may be that I just imagined it. But on the other hand, I never wonder, when someone says the two in the same sentence, what they are talking about.

There is also one letter, the one that is represented by a circle and pronounced 'ng', that is often silent in words. The rule, as I have come to understand it, is that if its in the front of a syllable, then it is silent. But if its after the vowel, then if speaks. This is a way or spelling things that separates the vowels so we can understand the pronunciation better. Korean has some vowels that, when you combine them, they have a different sound. To avoid confusion, when the vowels are not combined, there is a 'ng' between them. Also, if a word starts with a vowel, then the 'ng' goes before and is silent. Just because.

While we're on the subject of all things Korean, I have to mention how cheering for people is really important in their culture. Even in PE class, when the little kids are jumping rope, Christina teacher, more often than not, get the kids to chant for their classmates as they jump. This is magnified exponentially at national sporting events like soccer games, the World Cup, the Olympics, etc. They train for months to be able to do these human LCD screens that are just amazing. Watch this video and you will understand the awesomeness if not the purpose.

Finally, this may only be funny if you are a teacher in Korea but I couldn't stop laughing. Basically, a lot of public school teachers are led to believe they have a month or two off in the summer because the kids are off. Not true. Most public schools either have their teachers do summer camps or they make them 'desk warm' which is basically sitting at a desk all day in case a kid comes in with a question. This is often revealed at the last second to teachers who have already made plans to travel abroad. Someone made a video of what would happen if Hitler was in this situation. Very funny. Watch.

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