S. Korea’s public sphere plagued by English and confusing wording

Posted on : 2020-10-18 12:55 KST Modified on : 2020-10-18 12:55 KST
True democratization will come when elites stop trying to isolate the people with linguistic barriers
Image provided by Getty Images
Image provided by Getty Images

A debate about Korean language and culture was held at the Hoam Faculty House at Seoul National University at 11 am on Oct. 10, jointly organized by the Hankyoreh Written and Spoken Language Research Center and Hangul Cultural Solidarity, to mark this year’s Hangul Day, on Oct. 9.

The day’s debate focused on the topic of establishing a social philosophy on the improvement of public language, with presenters including Lee Geon-beom, president of Hangul Cultural Solidarity; Kang Mi-a, professor at Utah Valley University; Bang Min-hui, professor at Sangmyung University; Park Sung-yul, professor at the National University of Singapore; Jung Tae-seok, professor at Jeonbuk National University; and Jang Eun-ju, professor at Yeongsan University.

The presenters focused on the fact that public language that is polluted with foreign words and tricky Sino-Korean terminology damages the idea of a democratic republic and reinforces the control of the elite. They will also discuss what efforts need to be made by the Korean state and society if public language is to be improved so as to contribute to the common good.

"Heart saver” and "Trauma saver” awards for Korean rescue workers

In the keynote address about public language and human rights, Lee Geon-beom launched the discussion by highlighting examples in which public institutions have been responsible for damaging public language. One striking example is an award named “heart saver” in English that is given by the Jeju Island fire department in the name of the Jeju governor. Hearing the name, few Koreans would understand that the award is given to rescue workers who have saved the lives of heart attack victims. That’s hardly the only example, though. The Jeju Island fire department has also created awards for “brain savers” and “trauma savers.” For a public institution to create awards whose names don’t make sense to ordinary Korean speakers can be seen as a typical example of subservience to the English language.

A few years ago, the English words “kiss and ride” were painted on the street in front of Dongcheon Station, in the city of Yongin. The phrase indicates an area where vehicles can briefly stop to pick up or drop off someone taking a train or bus. But even Koreans with a good knowledge of English had a hard time making sense of the message. While the message at Dongcheon Station was eventually changed, following complaints from citizens, the same words soon appeared in front of Gwanggyo Central Station in Suwon, and later at sites in Goyang, Icheon, and Yeoju. Once such expressions are used by public institutions, they tend to be copied by various people and eventually go viral. There are even worse examples to be found. Signs carrying the English words “green food zone,” along with the Korean explanation “children’s food safety protection zone,” were put up in front of some 10,000 schools around the country, in accordance with the government’s instructions in an enforcement decree for a related law. People complained about the English message, but the government didn’t even try to replace the signs because of the huge cost that would entail.

Language is an intangible form of power

These are some of the examples that Lee uses to describe the reality of public language in Korea today. Government officials propound messages incomprehensible to ordinary people even in places that have a major impact on public lives and safety. “This is an intangible form of power that is uncontrolled; this language was uttered by the people but only serves to gag them,” Lee writes. While some people may criticize the movement to correct this kind of public language as representing nationalism or chauvinism, citizens’ criticism of public language and demands for its improvement are an essential activity for building a democratic society.

“Those who say that it’s inappropriate to intervene in public language are the very ones who are attempting to monopolize public language for themselves,” Lee writes. Lee argues that the overuse of difficult foreign words has begun to threaten the public “right to know” and emphasized that using simple public language is a way to preserve and advance human rights.

Language and the republican idea of the freedom not to be ruled by others

Jang Eun-ju, professor at Yeongsan University, will be speaking about how public language should sound in a democratic republic. The central goal of the republicanism developed in ancient Greece and Rome was “the freedom to not be ruled” by other people. The key to achieving the ideal of “the freedom not to be ruled” is establishing the rule of law rather than the rule of people. To prevent the rule of law from feeling coercive, everyone must take part in the enactment of law. When one is obeying laws that one has helped create, the rule of law becomes a sort of self-rule or autonomy. A country that has achieved those republican ideals is a republic, and a republic that is led by sovereign citizens is a democratic republic.

Jang argues that, even under Korea’s traditional Confucian politics, those republican ideals were expressed in the assumptions that the people form the basis of the kingdom and that the monarch and retainers should rule together. Those republican currents in Confucianism, after passing through the crucible of the Mar. 1 Movement, led to the democratic republic found in Korea today. Jang notes that Confucian republicanism was based on the meritocratic principle that anyone who was skilled enough to pass the civil service examination could join the aristocracy and participate in ruling the country. But the meritocratic principle has both positive and negative sides, and the negative sides are growing darker in the present day, Jang writes. Though Korea is formally a democracy, a closer look shows that the lines between social classes are being hardened by education and credentialism and that power is being monopolized by a small group of elites.

This is where Jang makes the point that these elites are using language as a powerful tool for controlling politics and society. In a system that could be described as the rule of a new aristocracy, those who are capable of speaking certain languages dominate the public sphere and wield exclusive authority. That leads to a situation in which English or other foreign languages become the standard and Korean is reduced to an inferior dialect. If such tendencies accelerate, they could turn Korea’s democratic republic into a shadow of itself. Jang says that the overuse of foreign words and difficult Sino-Korean terms in the public sphere is the product of power-hungry elite who seek to monopolize decision-making for themselves while excluding ordinary citizens.

State intervention is necessary for freedom, not infringement on freedom

Therefore, state intervention in the public sphere to put public language back in the hands of ordinary people is not an infringement upon freedom but rather a necessary condition for realizing the republican ideal of “the freedom not to be ruled.” Unless the elite is prevented from monopolizing language, Jang warns, these trends will provoke a reaction that could enable the spread of “vulgar politics” by populists on the far right.

A similar argument is made by professor Jung Tae-seok, who borrows sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” to argue that language is a form of capital that can exacerbate the gap between classes. Park Seong-yeol focuses on the fact that language is the domain of political struggle as he argues that public language is not neutral in terms of class and emphasizes the need for public language to side with vulnerable members of society. Kang Mi-a draws attention to the diverse patterns found in Korean users, arguing that the global popularity of Korean culture and the large influx of foreign immigrants is leading to the “globalization of Korean.” Bang Min-hui discusses the history of the “plain English movement,” which was championed by nonprofits in the US and the UK, while explaining how this movement has made a difference in improving civil rights.

By Ko Myoung-sub, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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